The therapeutic benefits of a garden environment have been documented since ancient times, according to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, but it’s something many of us know instinctively: Exposure to nature makes us feel good and contributes to our well-being.
In the world of landscape architecture, however, it’s a fairly recent concept.
In his 1984 study, “View Through a Window,” Roger Ulrich, a professor of agriculture at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, advanced the connection between the environment and human behavior by examining the recovery of hospital patients whose windows looked out on a natural scene.
“Ulrich’s 1984 study … encouraged landscape architects to understand the benefits of therapeutic landscape design through environmental psychology,” says Joe Lutz, a landscape architect with RGS Associates in Lancaster.
Originally found in hospital settings, the concept of therapeutic landscape design is gaining popularity at retirement communities, churches and even backyards.
“A therapeutic landscape, or healing garden is a natural space designed to address specific physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs,” Lutz says.
Each garden design centers on those who use the space and their environment.
Lutz explains how the smell of a flower, movement of grasses, sound of flowing water, colors of flowers and plants and walkways evoke positive emotional responses. These responses hold the power to heal, comfort and boost our happiness.
The Courtyard Garden at Garden Spot Village’s Meadow View Memory Support in New Holland embraces all those attributes of a healing garden.
Lutz designed the Meadow View Garden with ideas from staff. The result is a 9,000-square-foot peaceful, picturesque, gated garden with ornamental grasses and trees, deciduous and evergreen shrubs and perennial plants.
“The biophilic design, which connects residents to nature, is especially important for people living with dementia,” says Steve Lindsey, Garden Spot Communities CEO.
Lindsey agrees with Ulrich that physical environments can have a positive effect on well-being. Residents thrive sitting, walking or enjoying social activities like teas, cookouts and musical concerts in the garden, he says.
The Meadow View Garden includes Ulrich’s four must-have features: a sense of control and access to privacy; social support spaces; physical movement (places to walk with interconnected spaces); and natural distractions.
Two shaded porches from the Amber and Pearl households open onto the courtyard. Concrete walkways tinted to reduce glare are in a figure-eight design to provide a secure freedom. A small sand beach, artificial grass lawn, splash pad, small pavilion, wind sculptures and comfortable seating all add to a resort-type setting.
With scenic views of Lancaster County farmland and mountains, Lindsey says residents at Meadow View have multiple opportunities to interact with nature, from bird-watching to seeing bees and butterflies as they pollinate the plants and flowers.
“It’s wonderful to see the joy residents have in taking ownership of the garden — watering and weeding, picking fruits and vegetables,” says Melody Karick, director of Meadow View.
Another significant benefit, she says, is how the garden can be appreciated year-round, day or night, both from outside and from inside through the numerous windows.
Willow Valley Communities in Willow Street added the Garden Room at Cedar Brook at The Glen at its Willow Valley Manor Campus.
Designed by Willow Street-based CCS Building Group, the 1,400-square-foot room in the memory support facility features a 375-square-foot indoor garden. Careful planning was done to create a natural outdoor feel to the space and provide a safe, structured environment that allows freedom of movement.
“With its high ceiling, natural lighting and a balance of live vegetation including herbs, flowers, shrubs and trees, the indoor garden offers colorful seasonal beauty,” says Travis Adams, Cedar Brook manager. Lifelike birds can be found among the plants and trees.
An overhead sound system plays sounds of birds singing and whistling along with other sounds of nature, such as water burbling over rocks in a stream.
Research supports the auditory and sensory stimulation therapeutic gardens provide for any level of dementia, says Whitney Hackman, recreation therapy coordinator.
Bird identification books, magazines and flora coloring pages are available for residents and guests. Tables, chairs and benches make the room a perfect place for family visits, special occasions and programs.
“Our Green Thumb Club at Willow Valley along with some Cedar Brook residents maintain the garden, watering, deadheading, replacing and planting fresh plants, Hackman says.
Adams says residents enjoy walking into the room, which actually gives the impression of being outdoors. Large windows showcase the outside landscape. Access to the garden is available 24/7.
Therapeutic landscapes aren’t just for hospitals and retirement communities.
Christa Shoreman, Master Gardener coordinator for the Penn State Extension in Lancaster County, gives two reasons backyard gardening can add to anyone’s overall well-being. First, a garden can produce fresh, high-quality food for a healthy diet. Second, being able to design your own garden environment can lift your spirit.
Maintaining a garden can provide people with rare solitary time, she says.
“This time can be valuable to focus on the task at hand or allow thoughts to wander and help process issues on your mind,” she says.
Shoreman has studied therapeutic horticulture through the American Horticultural Therapy Association at Temple University. But her focus is on science-based information to help home gardeners succeed.
“Your space needs to be tailored to your needs and goals,” she says.
For her, planting is an act of home and gives something to look forward to, whether it’s a flower never grown before or a delicious tomato to eat in season.
Shoreman says she believes a garden can mirror our own life stories. From setbacks such as caterpillars eating the kale seedlings to triumphs like the raspberries surviving the onslaught of Japanese beetles. Harvesting what you’ve planted, says Shoreman, creates a sense of pride and brings satisfaction.
Home gardeners can reap the benefits of garden therapy by starting small, collecting photos and ideas. Penn State Extension has lots of resources on their website extension.psu.edu plus a garden hotline at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If your garden doesn’t reap the benefits you hoped for, Shoreman says, “Don’t give up, ask questions and keep trying. A garden is good therapy.”
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