As many gardeners know, gardens shelter, protect, soothe and nourish us, and in doing so, they offer restorative properties that heal. It was with this sentiment in mind that I began work on one of my most cherished projects – designing a healing garden for a local hospital. I was delighted and honored to create an outdoor space where patients, caregivers, employees and members of the community would be welcomed to find peace and some comfort to help restore their spirits.
The biggest challenge I faced with this project was the site itself. The area selected for the healing garden was located in one of the busiest spots on the hospital grounds. It was right at the entrance to the hospital with lots of foot traffic and buses rumbling by every 30 minutes.
To minimize the distractions I first asked the hospital to reroute the buses away from this area. Next, I created a sense of enclosure with a hedge of needlepoint holly to give the space a sense of privacy. An existing allee of mature oak trees further enhanced the enclosure and created an arched ceiling with its canopy. The result was a long rectangular garden room very reminiscent of a cathedral.
In designing this healing garden, I relied on several universal symbols to offer visitors a sense of wholeness and reassurance. Two basic shapes are repeated through the design, rectangles and circles. Rectangular areas lend a feeling of enclosure and security while circles represent the idea of fullness and unity – a oneness with all. As visitors walk through the garden, they pass by a fountain, a large bronze sculpture and a cross. The flowing waters of a fountain imply life, movement and cleansing; the sculpture symbolizes benevolence and compassion; and the cross represents the promise of everlasting life. Verses from the Bible inscribed in the native stone floor provide words of hope and healing while the benches welcome the weary with a place to rest and contemplate.
It was truly gratifying to be a part of the creation of this healing garden and now that it is done, I receive great joy from seeing it in use. I consider it one of my greatest accomplishments.
If an institution in your community is considering establishing a healing garden here are some basic principles to consider.
- Visitors may come to the garden at all hours. Be sure to visit the space at several different times of the day and even at night.
- Consider the typical person who will use the space. Is the garden for children, the elderly or a wide range of people? If it will be used by a specific group choose iconography and features that they will connect with. Be sure to address special needs such as wheel chair accessibility and areas to escape the sun or inclement weather.
- Provide group spaces where people can gather as well as smaller nooks for privacy.
- Allow plant materials to dominate with a minimal amount of hardscaping.
- Pay special attention to plant selection. Avoid anything thorny or toxic. Choose plants that are fragrant, colorful, or soft to the touch. Plants that attract wildlife are also nice additions. Simple, bold mass plantings are more comforting than a wild mix of many varieties.
- Include paths and walkways to encourage exercise. Be sure the paths are easy to navigate and safe for people who might be distracted or infirm.
- Enclose the space to reduce noise and shield visitors from distractions.
- Keep it simple. Use comforting, literal artwork and a clear sense of space to avoid confusion.
- Make sure the garden will be easy to maintain and keep healthy.
- University of Minnesota Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series
- American Horticultural Therapy Association
- Therapeutic Landscapes Database (Includes a great list of healing gardens to visit.)
- Meristem: Restorative Gardens
Good to Know: Biblical Gardens
A concept similar to the healing garden is the biblical garden, which in addition to offering a quiet place for meditation also incorporates plants that are mentioned in the Old and/or New Testaments of the Bible.