Garden Therapy

A garden can help restore hope, reduce stress and promote a feeling of wellbeing, even for those whose eyesight if failing. Garden therapy can be powerful.

By Joan Wright

Research has shown that when people are in close contact with nature, it helps to meet physical, psychological and spiritual needs. Medieval monastic gardens, where monks grew herbs and medicinal plants in cloistered courtyards to restore the sick in mind and body to health, were among the first healing gardens offering garden therapy.

Patients’ beds were placed where they could look out onto these courtyards, as it was believed that being able to view and recuperate in these gardens helped with the healing process. This holistic approach, connecting plants and the environment with healing, can be incorporated into a garden so that it becomes a place of peace and a refuge for the weary; a place where people can go to heal their sadness, to refresh and replenish their inner self, and to distance themselves from everyday worries by working with plants or simply sitting in the shelter of a tree and observing nature.

Designing the Garden

This should be an easily accessible garden, where plants are grown organically so they can be safely touched and tasted. Smooth and level surfaces are important for safe walking and paths should avoid taking sharp turns.

A sturdy handrail or tapping rail will serve to guide people with limited vision. Raised rounded bricks can mark the edges of paths and seating areas. Although lawns can cushion falls, they are not suitable where canes or walkers are used, as these can become tangled in the grass. Surfaces covered in gravel may be uncomfortable and difficult to negotiate for frail people if garden therapy is the aim.

Canes, walkers and wheelchairs need non-slip, hard surface paths and ramps, and they must be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. There should be level areas and sturdy benches with backrests, where people can rest and enjoy the garden. Raised beds make plants easier to reach and touch. The beds should have rounded edges, be a comfortable height, and allow easy access to the centre without the need for undue stretching. For wheelchair users flower boxes on legs are an alternative to solid raised beds.

Planting the Garden

As well as accommodating those with special needs, therapeutic gardens obviously also need to be visually pleasing. They should be designed to reflect the changing seasons and to stimulate the senses by focusing on sensory plants. For people with Alzheimer’s disease, a garden of herbs, vegetables and scented old fashioned flowers may help to evoke memories from the past, give pleasure and reduce agitation. Paths should be continuous, as dead-ends can cause frustration.


Colour provides visual stimulus, with bright colours especially being regarded as joyful and happy. For those with limited vision, large blocks of brightly coloured flowers can act as markers and beacons in the garden; Canna cultivars, Marigolds, Petunias, Cape Honeysuckle (TECOMA Capensis) and Salvia are just some of the plants one can use for these blocks of colour. Cool colours, such as blue, have a calming and restful effect while shades of green bring with them suggestions of woodlands, pastures and gentle rolling hills.


Raised beds make plants easier to reach and touch. Only non-poisonous plants should be grown and all thorny and sharp-pointed plants should be avoided, as well those that may cause skin irritations, such as rue and some Primula species. Plants can be identified with weatherproof labels
printed in large letters and in Braille. Using a variety of plant shapes (upright, rounded, weeping) and textures (soft, rough, smooth, papery, silky, leathery) enhances tactile interest.


Scent can capture our attention, summoning up memories and stirring our emotions. They may be scents we associate with our childhood, of herbs that flavoured the Sunday roast, or lavender-scented sheets. They may recall summer days and the smell of freshly cut grass, of autumn bonfires, or the damp, earthy smell after rain. A scented garden is particularly important for those whose enjoyment of a garden comes from touch and smell because they have sight or hearing disabilities.

Seating areas are a wonderful opportunity to use fragrant plants such as Buddleja, Choisya, Dianthus, Frangipani, Freesia, Gardenia, Honeysuckle, Jasmine, Lavender, Lilies, Rosemary, scented Geraniums, Sweet Pea, Thyme and Violet. It is better to separate different scents with neutral plants, as too many scents can be confusing.


Plants must not have been sprayed with chemicals. Vegetables that are brightly coloured, such as tomatoes and Swiss chard ‘Bright Lights’, make harvesting easier for people with limited vision. Herbs such as Basil, Thyme, Marjoram, Parsley and Chives offer great variation in flavour. Nasturtium flowers and leaves have a peppery taste, while Fennel tastes of aniseed. If space allows, include an apple or citrus tree.

Moisture-loving mints that come in many flavours including peppermint, spearmint, apple and pineapple mint provide both taste and smell. Grow mint in containers to restrict roots. Strawberries are always popular and do well in pots, as do salad tomatoes.


If you listen, there are many sounds and movements to be heard in a garden – wind in trees and rustling leaves, whispering grasses and creaking bamboo, insects and frogs, birdsong and the gentle splash of water. A fountain, rather than a pond, is the safest choice for visually handicapped
people, as is a birdbath on a sturdy pedestal. Wind chimes, providing they are not too intrusive, add another sound and help people with restricted vision orientate themselves.

Garden hazards

Avoid the following garden hazards:
• Protruding and low overhanging branches over and near paths and seating areas
• Chipped or uneven paths
• Pointed ends of stakes and canes (protect with a cork)
• Thorny, spiky and poisonous plants
• Washing lines, children’s swings and hanging baskets at head height
• Ponds
• Benches, containers or ornaments placed ‘in the way’
• Loose stones and exposed tree roots
• Slippery wet wood, moss, loose leaves and dry pine needles
• Gardening tools left lying in the garden

This article is brought to you by the ‘Life is a Garden’ Campaign on behalf of the SA Nursery Association, in the interests of promoting gardening as a leisure time activity. For more information go to www.lifeisagarden.co.za.

The Gardener