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Healing gardens

Molly Furgeson


Throughout history gardens have been used to aid in the healing process — from the Japanese Zen Garden to the Monastic Cloister garden. However, with the advances in medical technology in the 20th century, the use of gardens as healing elements began to diminish. Fortunately with the recent interest in complementary and alternative therapies, which emphasizes healing the whole person — mind, body, and spirit — rather than simply alleviating symptoms, the interest in garden as healer has been revived.

Meditation Garden

© Meryl Meisler 2001

Ryoanji Meditation Gardens.

Cloister Garden

Photo courtesy of Mary's Gardens

Cloister Garden of Lincoln Cathedral.

Research has shown the therapeutic benefits of gardens. Roger Ulrich, a professor and director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A & M University, found that viewing natural scenes or elements fosters stress recovery by evoking positive feelings, reducing negative emotions, effectively holding attention / interest, and blocking or reducing stressful thoughts. When viewing vegetation as opposed to urban scenes, test subjects exhibited lower alpha rates, which are associated with being wakefully relaxed. Further research by Ulrich showed surgical patients with views of nature had shorter post-operative stays, fewer negative comments from nurses, took less pain medication and experienced fewer minor post-operative complications than those with a view of a brick wall. Although more research is necessary, results based on research thus far indicate the healing effects of natural elements such as gardens.

What is a healing garden?

Based on research by Ulrich and others, it could be argued that any garden is a healing garden. However, for the purposes of this article, we refer to Eckerling's definition of a healing garden: "a garden in a healing setting designed to make people feel better" (Eckerling, 1996). The goal of a healing garden is to make people feel safe, less stressed, more comfortable and even invigorated.

Designing healing gardens

When designing healing gardens, the same considerations are used as in designing any other garden. However, these considerations take on special meaning in healing environments.


Photo courtesy of the UMN Landscape Arboretum

Paved walkways of the Sensory Garden located at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

It is important to use the principles of design to create unity within the healing garden design.

In addition to the design principals, the following is a list of design suggestions for creating healing gardens. These are simply guidelines. Each site and application is unique and some of the suggestions may not be appropriate.

Paths and Surfaces

Spatial Layout

Plant Selection

Designing healing gardens for specific uses

The following is a list of design suggestions for incorporating a healing garden into a landscape for specific applications. Some suggestions may be repeated from the earlier section. Again, these are simply guidelines. Each site and application is unique and some of the suggestions may not be appropriate.

Psychiatric hospital gardens

For an example of the process that South West Yorkshire Mental Health NHS Trust went through to develop a healing garden space, visit Developing a Therapeutic Garden: Ward 17 Courtyard Improvement Team and click through the PowerPoint presentation.

Children's Gardens

The following are examples of children's gardens:

Nursing Home Gardens

The following is an example of a nursing home garden:

For more information on gardening for older adults, visit Gardening for Good.

Alzheimer's Treatment Gardens

The following is an example of an Alzheimer's / memory garden:

Hospice Gardens

The following is an example of a hospice garden:

Gardens for the Visually Impaired

The following are some examples of gardens designed for the visually impaired:

Meditation Gardens

The aim of these gardens is to aid relaxation and provide a focus for concentration, which will enhance the healing experience.

An example of a garden for meditation is the Cleveland Botanical Garden

The following are some other types of meditative gardens:

Enabling Gardens

These are gardens designed especially for people of all ages and abilities. For more information on enabling gardens, see the University of Illinois Extension. The following are examples of enabling gardens:

Sensory Gardens

These are designed to appeal to all five of the senses. The following are examples of sensory gardens:

Gardens for Horticultural Therapy

For information on designing gardens for horticulture therapy, visit Accessible Gardening for Therapeutic Horticulture. The following are more Horticulture Therapy links:

More helpful links on Healing Gardens:

Recommended reading

Gerlach-Spriggs, Nancy, Richard Enoch Kaufman and Sam Bass Warner, Jr. (1998). Restorative Gardens: The Healing Landscape. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

McDowell, Christopher Forrest and McDowell, Tricia Clark. (1998). The Sanctuary Garden: Creating a Place of Refuge in Your Yard or Garden. Fireside.

Murray, Elizabeth. (1997). Cultivating Sacred Space: Gardening for the Soul. San Francisco: Pomegranate.

Rawlings, Romy. (1998). Healing Gardens. Minocqua, WI: Willow Creek Press.


The American Horticultural Therapy Association. (2003.)

Bennett, Paul. (March 1998). Golden Opportunities. Landscape Architecture. 50-55.

Brattleboro Area Hospice. (2003)."Brattleboro Hospice Memorial Garden Page."

Brooklyn Botanic Garden. "Garden Stroll: Children's Garden."

Brooklyn Botanic Garden. "Garden Stroll: Fragrance Garden."

Brown, Dan. (2003). "Cornell University Poisonous Plants Informational Database."

Champaign County Forest Preserve District. (2001). "Nomination for IPRA's Outstanding Facility Award: The Miriam H. Davies Enabling Garden."

Chicago Botanic Garden: Garden for Life. (2000). Paving Alternatives fir the Accessible Garden [Brochure].

Chicago Botanic Garden. (September 2002). "Explore the Gardens: Children's Garden."

Chicago Botanic Gardens. (September 2002). "Explore the Gardens: Enabling Garden."

Chicago Botanic Gardens. (September 2002). "Horticultural Therapy."

Children's Hospital and Health Center San Diego. "Special Family Places."

Cleveland Botanical Garden. "Living Exhibit Gardens: A Quiet Retreat."

Cleveland Botanical Garden. "Living Exhibit Gardens: Zen and the Art of the Ancient Tea Garden."

Cooper Marcus, Clare, and Barnes, Marni. (1999). Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Denver Botanic Gardens. "Sensory Gardens."

Eckerling, Mara. (1996). Guidelines for Designing Healing Gardens. Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, 8, 21-25.

"Gardening for Good." (2003). "Garden Design for Visually Impaired Gardeners."

High Iron Illustrations. (2003). "Children's Hospital."

The Holden Arboretum. "The Holden Arboretum Horticulture Therapy Program."

Inchmarlo House Nursing Home and Retirement Community. "Inchmarlo: Garden Paradise."

Larson, Jean, Anne Hanchek and Paula Vollmar. (2003). "Accessible Gardening for Therapeutic Horticulture." University of Minnesota Extension.

Mary's Gardens. (1995). "Flowers of Our Lady and Mary Gardens in the U.K.

Martin, Frank Edgerton. (September 1985). Home Truths. Landscape Architecture, 60-61.

Meisler, Meryl and Francine LaPorte. "Buddhist Temple Architecture and Zen Gardens." Enter Through the Form: Explore Japan.

Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. (1998). "Therapeutic Horticulture Services."

M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. (April 2003). "Touch and Smell Garden (for the Visually Impaired)."

Portland Memory Garden. "About Us: What is a Memory Garden?"

Quigley, Martin. (2000). "Myth and History of Garden Labyrinths." Chadwick Arboretum and Learning Garden.

Rawlings, Romy. (2003). "Meditation in the Garden."

Relf, Diane. "Human Issues in Horticulture." Virginia Tech Department of Horticulture.

Rothert, Gene. (1994). The Enabling Garden: Creating Barrier-Free Gardens. Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing Company.

Royal Schools for the Deaf Manchester. (2003.) "School Facilities: Sensory Garden."

Sachs, Naomi. (2002). "Therapeutic Landscapes Database."

Scarfone, Scott C. (1996). Design of Outdoor Environments for Wellness and the Role of Landscape Architecture. Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, 8, 68-71.

South West Yorkshire Mental Health NHS Trust. (2003). "Developing a Therapeutic Garden: Ward 17 Courtyard Improvement Team."

Southern Cross University. (December 2001). "Natural and Complementary Medicine: Medicinal Plant Garden." Southern Cross University: Schools and Colleges.

Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. "Dunedin Garden for the Visually Impaired."

Ulrich, Roger S. (1991). Effects of interior design on wellness: Theory and recent scientific research. Journal of Healthcare Interior Design: Proceedings from the third symposium on healthcare interior design (pp. 97-110). California: National Symposium on Healthcare Design, Inc.

Ulrich, Roger S. (1981). Natural Versus Urban Scenes: Some Psychophysiological Effects. Environment and Behavior, 13 (5), 523-553.

Ulrich, Roger S. (2000). Evidence-Based Garden Design for Improving Health Outcomes. Investigating the Relationship between Health and the Landscape: Therapeutic Conference Report. University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

University of Illinois Extension. "Between Gardeners: Enabling Gardens."

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