Gardens are more than just a patch of flowers and veggies. Research shows that spending time in a garden can nourish our souls and boost our physical health, particularly for those undergoing medical treatment. Find out how to create your own treasured space for tranquillity and healing—either on your own or with your community.
It’s no secret to gardeners that a garden can be a magical, healing space. Some gardens are being created specifically to promote healing. The positive health effects and curative gains associated with spending time in these gardens include enhanced well-being—physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Connect with nature
Gardens link us with nature. Exposure to the natural world is connected with a reduction in stress and a promotion of feelings of relaxation.
“Connecting with the natural world through gardening brings about positive psychological and physical changes that improve quality of life,” says Patricia Fleming, the executive director of Earthwise Society, a BC-based environmental group.
“Research points to the value of connecting to the natural world for healing and mental health,” she adds. “Gardening is ultimately a hopeful activity. A planted seed leads to the expectation and hope that one day it will provide beauty or food. This relates to a key concept of recovery, the phenomenon of hope.”
Grow, heal, smile
Research reveals the therapeutic benefits of gardens. Studies show associations between experiencing nature and better healing, a reduction in the use of medication, shorter hospital stays—and even diminished mental strain among family members and health care staff. Gardens also provide opportunities for exercise and movement outdoors.
Healing gardens are being integrated into health care facilities such as hospitals, hospices, seniors’ care homes, and rehabilitation centres. These green settings can produce results for people of good health and for those struggling with illness. Healthy individuals may experience states of restful meditation and tranquility, while those who are unwell may undergo restfulness and an easing of symptoms. Restorative horticultural spaces offer a deeply calming or even rousing encounter.
Designed to heal
Halifax landscape designer Rosmarie Lohnes, owner of Helping Nature Heal, describes healing gardens as “restorative spaces which engage us in a more subtle way. They may be beautiful perennial and shrub gardens, or a peaceful setting for contemplation. Nature observance gives many folks a sense of place, hope, and aspiration for a future yet to come.”
She explains that healing gardens can easily be designed to accommodate any number of considerations, “so that passive exposure to nature can have its healing effects without the scope of physical activity, which is especially great for those with limited mobility or health issues such as knee and hip replacements.”
“Soft floor coverings, moss, or wood chips reduce compaction on aging joints and allow for softer landings for toddlers venturing into these spaces. A sense of restoration to one’s senses is often regarded as the most meaningful component to gardens and landscapes.”
Canadian healing gardens
Healing gardens are sprouting up across Canada, all with the same goal—to promote a relaxing and healing environment for Canadians to enjoy.
Port Moody, BC
“The Labyrinth Healing Garden in Pioneer Memorial Park, across the street from the Crossroads Inlet Centre Hospice in Port Moody, BC, was designed as a peaceful haven to exercise the mind, body, and soul,” says Janice Hansen, manager of hospice programs and administration.
“Created in partnership with the City of Port Moody, it’s a way to enhance the hospice bereavement services and create a place for the community to experience nature’s healing. This labyrinth is a place for the mind, body, and spirit to relax and rejuvenate. It’s a natural stress buster.”
Opened January 2010, this special labyrinth design is an age-old method employing a single non-branching path leading to a centre—symbolizing life’s journey. The impressive arbour entry features a dragonfly sign engraved with the name and logo of the hospice.
In addition, seven garden benches encourage people to walk, sit, and appreciate the view. Wheelchair accessible, the site’s paving stones have inspirational messages with words inscribed, such as dignity, choice, and compassion. A unique community program emerged here—full-moon walks.
Some of the plants that form this garden include
- red Japanese maple
- black-eyed Susan
- pink kinnikinnick
- dwarf bamboo
In 2013, an outdoor healing garden launched at the Cross Cancer Institute. Bernard Tong, project manager of Alberta Health Services, describes it as a “unique sanctuary of peace, strength, and healing.”
The garden showcases a pergola, trees, shrubs, seasonal flower beds, and circular bench seating for patients, staff, and visitors. Conceived by the Institute’s Volunteer Association commemorating 50 years of service, the site includes a stunning monument engraved with 50 hands. Pavers with words of inspiration are part of the design. Of extra interest is a wall to display artwork created by cancer patients.
Organizers proudly overcame design challenges by transforming a nondescript lawn near uninspiring driveways and parking lots into a place of beauty and comfort.
The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) is a pediatric health and research centre. “Our Healing Earth Garden was designed to meet the physical, psychological, and social needs of patients, their families, and staff who care for them,” reports Sophie Laflèche, stewardship and recognition coordinator of the CHEO Foundation.
Started in spring 2014, this garden is evolving through the concept stage with phased construction, which is both donor funded and volunteer driven.
Because the centre’s patients are children, the garden features an activity area and space for quiet renewal, as well as sensory exploration regions, which feature plants appealing to sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. For example, brightly coloured flowers including sunflowers and black-eyed Susans were planted to attract a child’s eye. Aromatic plants such as lavender were added to arouse the sense of smell.
Garden organizers also emphasize healthy nutrition by incorporating edible plants and herbs. “We planted lettuces, peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, beans, herbs like mint, and thyme, and others,” says Laflèche.
Some other plants that form this garden include
- bee balm
- black currants
- pear trees
Create your own healing garden
According to Kristin Crouch, an experienced gardener with a diploma in horticulture from the University of Guelph, “it’s easy to create a small space in the garden to enjoy a quiet moment away from everything. By adding a few simple features to your garden, you can make it your oasis.”
She offers the following ideas to create your own healing garden:
- Add a sitting area to your garden.
- Surround the sitting area with clusters of brightly coloured flowers and herbs in pots.
- Consider installing an arbour to watch birds perch.
- Plant climbing vines to grow over your arbour.
- For year-round interest, plant hardy shrubs, such as Harry Lauder’s walking sticks or hydrangeas, in large containers or in the ground. Use plants that give more than one season of interest.
- In fall, plant perennials such as Tulipa tarda, a species of tulip known for its bright yellow and white blooms, under shrubs.
- Follow up with summer plantings of annuals such as petunias, heliotropes, and dusty millers for a colourful display.
- Consider adding a water feature such as a bird bath or fountain. The sound of water is soothing and beneficial to wildlife.
Healing gardens bring many community members together. Contact your local garden club or health care facility to help in the creation, fundraising, or maintenance of a healing garden in your neighbourhood.