University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Anytime News Article
GARDEN DESIGN TO REDUCE STRESS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
Gardens designed for serenity, to help reduce stress just by
viewing and experiencing them, may incorporate one or more of the
University of Vermont
Gardens to reduce stress may include zen principles such as
simplicity (Kanso), austerity (koko), or naturalness (Shizen).
While zen gardens have come to refer to raked gardens of sand,
these stress-reducing gardens are much different. They often are
similar to any other woodland or flower garden, only emphasizing
certain design principles or colors.
Primary colors can be divided into warm (red, orange, yellow)
and cool (green, blue , violet). Cool colors are more soothing.
You may use a warm color for accent or focal point, but use only
one plant, or less than five percent of the overall design.
Use tints (lighter) or shades (darker) of the above primary
cool colors, or pastels (light combinations of colors).
Avoid white, as it is a powerful color attracting your
attention and creating divisions among other colors. Grays or
silvers are more calming.
When combining colors, use adjacent ones on the color wheel
such as green and blue, or blue and violet. These create
interest, yet are more serene than contrasting opposite colors
such as blue and yellow.
Similar to color, avoid large contrasts in other design
principles such as heights and textures. Plants of a more uniform
height are more soothing than big ones next to little ones.
Texture is the visual appearance plants create, such as a fine
texture from tiny leaves or ferns, or coarse texture from large
leaves such as castor bean.
Just as a horizon on the ocean is more soothing than the
upright pillars in a cathedral, so are horizontal lines in a
design. These could be from uniform heights of plants, a trimmed
hedge, the top of a wall, or even a view of the horizon in the
Curves and rounded lines are more soothing than sharp,
straight edges and geometric shapes. Keep these in mind when
making edges to beds and borders, or paths. Beds that are rounded
or versions of ellipses, such as a kidney-shaped island bed for
perennials or daffodils, are more soothing than square or
rectangular beds such as for roses or tulips. Some plants lend
themselves more to one bed type than another.
We often return to nature for peacefulness. How is this
created? Nature uses large numbers or masses of plants, totally
informal or placed at random, in large swaths. This may seem
peaceful to some, but not to others. To others who like the
appearance of control, discrete plants with space and mulch
between may seem more pleasing and calming. This control can be
seen in Japanese gardens, with their trees and shrubs clipped into
precise shapes. Whether control or natural abandon is pleasing
and calming depends on one's personality type. What personality
The sound of gentle water is soothing, so incorporate a small
stream or bubbling water feature in your garden. Avoid gushing
fountains or waterfalls if you want relaxation.
Scent is the most powerful sense, so incorporate pleasing
scents in your garden. Which scents are pleasing may vary as well
with personality. Some scents such as lavender actually can
physically help you relax from breathing their essential oils.
Don't forget the sense of touch. Use plants with soft,
velvety leaves, or at least not ones with thorns!
Following zen principles, a simple garden is often a peaceful
one. Less is indeed more in this case. Use few plants, or at
least few types of plants. In a woodland, this might be a few
wildflowers, with the rest leaf litter. In a shade garden you may
simply have moss on the ground (the simplicity, horizontal effect,
soft touch, and green color all soothe).
Using fewer plants also means less maintenance. Or choose
plants that require the least maintenance, such as pruning or
staking. This often means choosing the right plant for the right
place. You want to be able to stroll through and enjoy your
garden, not constantly be reminded about what is out of control.
This is not relaxing!
Similarly, only plant what you can maintain. Too large a
space or too many beds that easily get out of control and weedy
wont be relaxing to look at.
If you are in a busy or noisy area, such as a city, surround
the garden with a hedge of plants, wooden fence, or even an
earthen berm if space allows. These will provide both a visual
and sound barrier to the outside world, a principle often found in
Japanese gardens. This means of escape, of shutting out the chaos
and distractions, is crucial.
To get more ideas, or to see these applied, Japanese gardens are
great places to visit. One of my favorites, that I find very
relaxing, is at the Montreal Botanical Garden. If you can't visit
such gardens in person, visit them online or through books
featuring Japanese gardens.
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