University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Anytime News ArticleHEALING GARDENS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
Whether tending to a houseplant, growing some flowers, or turning an
outdoor garden space into a serene and relaxing retreat, plants have
the power to heal our body and our soul. The National Garden Bureau
has provided some examples on how we might use plants for healing,
as well as their past and present use. This is not a new practice,
going back millennia.
Chinese were using medicinal herbs for healing as early as 3000 BCE
(before the Christian era). Later, the Greeks built a temple for
their god of healing, Aesclepius, surrounded by healing gardens. In
America, the Quakers were among the first to grow plants for
relaxation, restoration of the soul, and to stimulate creativity.
They established one of the first therapeutic programs in this
country in 1879 at the Philadelphia Friends Hospital. Stimulating
this was the observation by a physician that psychiatric patients
tending fields and flower gardens at the hospital were calmer. The
gardens had a "curative" effect on them.
After a few recent decades of relying primarily on drugs, medical
institutions have begun incorporating more views of green spaces,
flowerbeds, and garden views around their facilities. Some
rehabilitative institutions utilize gardens and horticulture therapy
programs as part of their patient treatment.
An excellent example of a healing garden I had the fortune to tour
is the Rosecrance Healing Garden at their Rockford, Illinois campus
for adolescents, which has a several acre world-class Japanese
garden. The ordered and relaxing principles of the garden are
incorporated into life analogies, exercise, group therapy, and a
place for contemplation. Its value is seen in quotes of its
clients. "Whenever I feel weak in recovery, I look out at the
garden and I realize that I couldn't enjoy all the beauty of the
world under the influence. It reminds me of how much I want
recovery." Another quote from a client could apply to most any
peaceful garden setting. "The Serenity Garden helps me relax when
under stress because it helps me reflect on the simple things in
Healing gardens can be found at many other institutions, such as in
Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Portland. Doctors at the Jupiter
Medical Center in Florida found that cardiology patients in rehab,
who had a view of their healing garden from their rooms, took less
pain medication and had shorter hospitals stays than those without
such a view.
Whether a serious illness such as a stroke or cancer, gardens can be
an important part of healing by providing hope and inspiration.
Hope in Bloom (hopeinbloom.org) is a non-profit organization in
Massachusetts that installs free gardens at the homes of women
undergoing treatment for breast cancer, as well as for other cancer
patients. Each garden is specifically designed for the home and
lifestyle of the recipient. It gives them a tranquil oasis from the
world of doctors, hospitals, sickness and despair.
Gardens and gardening activity can improve mental outlook and our
emotional mood by reducing stress, anxiety and depression. Studies
have shown that gardening, even garden visits, can lower blood
pressure and cholesterol which in turn lowers the risk of heart
disease. Researchers at the Cleveland Botanical Garden found that
blood pressure of many visitors dropped the longer they stayed in
Just as the healing process takes time, so does the design and
development of a healing garden. Here are some ideas to get your
--Healing gardens can, and should, fulfill individual needs and
desires, but they always provide interaction with nature. This
natural appeal to our senses may take the form of the touch of a
velvety leaf, the color of a flower, the scent of herbs, the sounds
of water or leaves in the wind, or the taste of vegetables.
--Consider water for relaxation, or the attraction of wildlife (such
as birds and butterflies).
--A healing garden can begin with, or be as simple as, a container
of colorful flowers, a potted flowering plant, an outdoors container
in summer with a vegetable such as lettuce or dwarf tomato, or a pot
of herbs on a sunny windowsill. Simple gardens with just a few
different plants and hardscape elements, repeated or used in mass,
often are more calming than complex gardens.
--Healing can be more than just observing, incorporating the
experience of the gardening process. Maintenance such as watering
and repotting, to watching the growth process from seed to flowering
plant, provide a sense of accomplishment and well-being.
--Whether indoors or out, make sure when choosing plants to find
ones suited for their new environment to ensure success. Light need
is perhaps the key factor indoors and out.
--Outdoors, include a gentle path, a place to sit, and shrubs or
fencing to provide enclosure. A special plant, sculpture, water
fountain, even interesting rocks can provide a focal point for
meditation and relaxation.
More resources, and healing gardens to visit, can be found at the
Therapeutic Landscapes Database (www.healinglandscapes.org).
Return to Perry's Perennial