The Healing Power of Gardens


Nature can have a soothing, restorative effect, and some gardens are designed to heighten this feeling. Sensory and healing gardens, traditionally part of children’s or botanical gardens as well as health care facilities, are now becoming more widespread. They are even becoming popular in private residences.

“These gardens have been in use for thousands of years,” says Sharon Coates, landscape designer and vice president at Zaretsky and Associates, Macedon, New York, a landscape firm focused on residential and health care design and installation. “Both Asia and Europe have pioneered the use of gardens as healing devices long before we had any empirical evidence of their impact. In the U.S. today, the Chicago area and Portland, Oregon, in particular, have a proliferation of beautiful sensory gardens, partly because of forward-thinking people spearheading the concept.”

Photo: Dekker/Perich/Sabatini

Arcadia Studio in Santa Barbara, California, has been increasingly involved in designing sensory and healing gardens for its Southwestern U.S. clients. Bob Cunningham, a principal landscape architect at Arcadia Studio, explains the difference between a healing garden and a sensory garden. “A healing garden is any garden designed to promote healing through use of calming elements and exposure to peace, quiet, privacy and relaxation,” he explains. “A sensory garden addresses the senses, including touch, sound, smell and visual stimuli. A sensory garden can be a healing garden, but it must be designed with the user in mind. For example, a healing garden for cancer patients should not include plants or other elements that might be harmful to patients with compromised immunity. It should include only plants that are very low pollen generators or plants whose pollen is not harmful or irritating.”

Sensory gardens can be enjoyed by the wheelchair-confined, paralysis and stroke victims, Alzheimer’s patients and even the blind, says Bruce Zaretsky, president of Zaretsky and Associates, who is certified by the Chicago Botanic Garden in health care garden design. “Since they are designed to be interacted with, you can, for example, touch the leaves, smell the flowers and listen to the wind chimes without using your sight. While we strive to design our healing gardens for physical interaction, this does not in itself make a sensory garden. In our view, all gardens are healing gardens if they make the user slow down, remain calm, spend more time outdoors and ‘stop to smell the roses.'”

Photo: Dekker/Perich/Sabatini

Zaretsky has designed sensory gardens not only for hospitals and clinics, but also for equine therapy facilities and animal shelters. He has even created private outdoor residential spaces for families of children receiving outpatient care.

“It has been scientifically documented that garden views and the gardens themselves shorten the length of hospital stays, reduce the amount of pain medication needed and improve the mental well-being of patients,” Zaretsky says. “Natural habitats act as therapeutic, healing tools, lowering blood pressure and reducing stress. But these environments are not just beneficial for patients, they are also there to allow staff and patients’ families to decompress. Nature heals all• it’s just that simple.”

Sensory gardens also are popping up at food and drink establishments, including wineries throughout California and other regions, showcasing plants commonly smelled and tasted in wine. Visitors to the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate in Sonoma County, California, for example, can stroll through its 2-acre red and white wine gardens. The red wine garden features black currant, black cherry, oregano and bell pepper, which are also notable in other red wine “scratch and sniff” gardens. The idea is to provide the fruit, vegetables and herbs that inspire the food and wine pairings created by the estate’s culinary team.

Installation examples

One of the nation’s best-known and most unique healing gardens is the $2 million Olson Family Garden at the St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Completing its 16th growing season, this 8,000-square-foot garden was the first of its kind installed on an existing rooftop on the seventh-floor roof over the Newborn Intensive Care Unit.

“We realized there was a need for children and families to relax and relieve the stress of a hospital stay,” says Gary Wangler, horticulture supervisor for St Louis Children’s Hospital. “What better way to experience this than with a healing garden roof setting with an incredible view overlooking the 3,000 acres of Forest Park across the street.”

Photo: Dekker/Perich/Sabatini

The plants were carefully chosen with assistance from the Missouri Botanical Garden to be extremely hardy for a roof setting, colorful, seasonal and shade-producing.

“One big challenge was to build this space without penetrating the roof, which could have resulted in a leak or moisture getting within the facility structure,” Wangler explains. “We used a ‘floating’ design that included no penetrations into the roof to anchor planter walls, shade structures and non-load-bearing walls. The support structures directly below the roof were reinforced to uphold the additional weight of stone planter walls, soil, trees, water and water features.”

During installation, a construction elevator was affixed to the building, and a crane lifted bed materials and landscape trees and shrubs to the site. “Today, we deliver materials such as summer annuals, replacement trees and shrubs and bagged soil for containers in service elevators,” Wangler says. “When we remove materials such as tree limbs and yard waste, we take it down to the dumpster via service elevators again.”

Photo: Bob Boston, Washington University

One of Wangler’s staff horticulturists begins each day in the garden inspecting the plants for any irregularities or problems. The garden is cleaned, fish are fed, and treated water pools are checked for chlorine levels to ensure the water is safe for children to touch. “We design and install plantings with in-house staff, including weeding and pruning,” he says. “The garden has automatic irrigation, which helps on weekends and during the summer.”

In Rochester, New York, another healing garden was years in the making. In 2009, Zaretsky and Associates and Broccolo Tree and Lawn Care finally installed the Woodward Healing Garden at Rochester General Hospital. “We fought for six years to get this garden approved for installation, working with so many people and around so many concerns. But it was all worth it,” Zaretsky says. “Phone calls and emails have poured in, with many even teary-eyed thanking us for installing this garden.”

The garden’s design incorporates a patio, pergola, faux waterfall display, custom-made roof planters and raised planters featuring plants with texture and fragrance. Specific criteria were developed for the garden design in conjunction with hospital administrators. Smooth, paved surfaces offer easy accessibility for wheelchairs, walkers and hospital beds; touchable plants are within reach; private spaces provide areas for contemplation and conversation; and moveable furniture allows visitors to arrange their own customized quiet corner. Lighting creates a warm, inviting mood and ensures safety when darkness moves in, and heated shelter areas extend usability into the cooler months.

Of course, hospitals are not the only settings where therapeutic landscapes are appropriate. The Albuquerque, New Mexico, firm Dekker/Perich/Sabatini (D/P/S) designed a successful sensory garden for the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired’s Early Childhood Programs.

“Designed in collaboration with the school’s educators and incorporated into the playground, the garden has become an integral part of the school’s curriculum, offering children space to explore their outdoor environment,” says D/P/S principal designer Mimi Burns. “We created a hands-on environment where the children can immerse themselves in a learning landscape of sounds, scents, materials and textures.”

Photo: Bob Boston, Washington University

The playground incorporates accessible equipment for sand, water and music play, she describes. Textured pathways and a bike track teach orientation skills and create a safe and imaginative place for both active and passive play.

Major considerations

Although plants offer an endless variety of textures and fragrances, landscape designers tend to gravitate toward certain choices for these gardens that appeal to each of the senses. Some of Coates’ favorites include lamb’s ear, fragrant geranium, wintergreen, lavender, ornamental grasses, summersweet, lilac and Daphne.

Cunningham uses plants with interesting or unusual odors, whether generated on their own or released when stimulated by touch. He also incorporates plants that move sensuously or generate sound when touched or moved by a breeze. “Any plant that has an unusual appearance in terms of color, texture, size or form is fair game,” he says. “You have to avoid any plants that may be ornamental but harmful if touched.” These can include nettles, roses and spurges such as poinsettias.

For these gardens, Zaretsky stresses soil preparation as well as accessibility. “We’ll do raised gardens, railings to hold onto and barriers to keep wheelchairs from rolling off the pavement,” he says. Zaretsky also seeks ways to encourage these users to interact with the gardens.

Ongoing challenges

Zaretsky says the design, installation and maintenance of sensory and healing gardens offer a fair share of challenges for any landscape designer. “If it’s in a health care facility, working with the hospital administration is the most challenging,” he says. “Things move at a snail’s pace, and there will be pushback from the ‘bean counters’ who think that ‘for this price, we can buy a dialysis unit.'”A9433_6_full


Other challenges for Zaretsky include the ongoing care of the gardens. “Most hospitals want to use in-house maintenance crews who are already overworked and not knowledgeable on the proper care of gardens,” he says.

Burns has learned that landscape designers have to commit to teaching administrators, who often face frequent staff turnover, how to train their maintenance staff on how to replant with appropriate materials.

Photo: Bob Boston, Washington University

She also finds herself having to educate new clients with health care-related facilities on the merits of adding healing or sensory gardens. “Many of our clients don’t even think about this, but when we explain this concept, they realize how much value it can bring to their projects,” she says. “From reducing hospital stays to improving human behavior and physical health, the research results are convincing. More and more owners and developers are realizing the value and therapeutic qualities of well-designed sensory garden spaces.”