Recent years have seen gardens popping up in some of the most unexpected places – retirement homes, hospitals, after-school programs, and even prisons – where, it turns out, they have proven to be a beneficial form of therapy and rehabilitation on multiple levels. Yet gardens in health care institutions go back to the 12th century.
Horticultural therapy (HT) is a centuries-old practice that began as a treatment for mental illness. Over the last 75 years it has become part of physical rehabilitative care, memory care, and even social and work-related rehabilitation. Occupational and recreational/play therapists engage patients directly.
The potential benefits of HT include improvement in memory, cognitive abilities, language and social skills, as well as coordination, balance, endurance and muscle strengthening. Gardening with purpose also can help teach people to work independently, problem solve and follow directions: it is nature that nurtures.
One of many branches of nature-as-medicine (I group HT, ecotherapy, care farms, green care, blue care, wilderness camp, healing gardens, medicinal gardens and forest bathing under the umbrella), HT is the only field in the group to have gained even a smidgen of notice or study from the medical profession.
Yet individual clinicians often site time in their own gardens, on their own hikes, on their own beach walks as time of awe, respite, solace, restoration, renewal. And those are just the affective results; studies of the effect of nature on depression, anxiety, PTSD, dementia and other psychological and psychiatric conditions are some of the strongest data to date. But there is more.
An hour of outdoor play in myopic kids, for example, slows myopia progression. Gardens designed with culinary medical principles in mind appear ideally suited for improving productivity and executive decision making, increasing presenteeism, and for enhancing recovery from both surgical and medical therapy. National Park Rx Day is upcoming on April 24: get your own park prescription here.
Therapeutic gardens are often designed by landscape architects collaborating with a clinician to promote a specific set of therapeutic benefits: see for example the terrific Therapeutic Gardens: Design for Therapeutic Spaces, whether for working and playing in directly, or as a demonstration garden (I’m working on two now, with NBBJ for a major university medical center and teaching hospital, and for a smaller Native American clinic) you too can create your own “Whole life garden” oasis for at-home therapeutic use.
One way to approach this is by identifying your well-being needs. Specific plants and hardscape belong in each, tailored to your culinary, spiritual, psychological and physical needs. Here are four different types of gardens you could create:
If you have mobility limitations, a garden with gently graded accessible entrances and paths and raised planting beds may be right for you. Utilizing an ergonomically designed gardening stool will also be important.
If you want to promote learning and memory care, consider incorporating a sensory-oriented plant selection focused on color, texture, and fragrance. Preliminary research has shown that the scent of rosemary in particular can help with longterm memory and mental arithmetic.
If you have kids, you may want to consider making your garden a fun place for them to learn and play as well. Give your child a kid-friendly planter (a recycled wheelbarrow works great, too) and encourage them to plant and maintain their own assortment of flowers and herbs: this is a fun kids’ garden tool set. Hang a tire swing from a tree in your yard for your child to play on. Design should encourage kid play in gardens.
If you want to encourage physical health and nutrition consider producing a little of your own natural food supply, using organic farming principles, including those of permaculture, or “permanent agriculture”. A great introductory book on this topic is Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway. You might also enjoy Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, which offers a delightful and in-depth glimpse into one family’s efforts to “live off the land” for a year.
Or maybe you simply want a calm, restorative place to recuperate after a long day, in which case you may want to consider incorporating plants with calming scents and easy upkeep. Studies show that hospital gardens are often used in just this way.
Of course, your garden might be a combination of any of the above. If your garden is still just a seedling of an idea, I encourage you reach out to neighbors or friends who have a garden which you’ve long admired and ask for tips on getting started. If you’re in an urban area with limited space, look for a nearby community garden or try a vertical farming tower.
Gardening should be enjoyable and beneficial. While it will take work, it shouldn’t elicit feelings of stress or resentment. Knowledge of the natural world, how to care for, observe and benefit from it (with both food and health) are essential life skills: ones that can be learned at any age.