The Therapeutic Garden and Gardening for Good Health
How helping your garden can actually help you.
In a fast-paced world dictated by technology we have a tendency to turn to the natural world for solace. The calming character of nature has been known to humans for centuries and has recently developed into a new area of study – the therapeutic garden. Although horticulture was used as far back as 2000BC to promote calmness, official studies into the mental benefits of gardening began in the 19th century.
Since then, greater research has begun to suggest gardens are not just good-looking, they can be beneficial to our physical and mental wellbeing. What is a therapeutic garden? The Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association (CHTA) defines Horticultural Therapy as ‘a formal practice that uses plants, horticultural activities and the garden landscape to promote well-being for its participants.’
Some studies – such as one by Ingrid Soderback, Marianne Soderstrom and Elisabeth Schalander published in Paediatric Rehabilitation – suggest that mental health and well-being can be greatly improved through the use of horticultural therapy as ‘views of nature have positive, psychological responses, physiological impacts (lower blood pressure, reduced muscle tension), and a reduced need for medical treatment occurs.’ Even garden soil alone has been shown to be beneficial to well-being just by breathing in, playing in or digging in dirt.
A study by Christopher Lowry suggested that a bacterium found in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, had the potential to improve the immune system, lower stress and improve brain activity. While therapeutic horticulture largely aims to assist those with cognitive or physical challenges through a connection to nature, the skills and benefits gained from the practices of horticultural therapy apply to all ages and abilities. Physically, gardening is a great way to stay fit and active.
Whether you have a large lawn to mow or a small herb garden to tend, every activity can improve fine motor skills, balance and endurance. Along with physical benefits, studies have demonstrated countless mental benefits that stem from the peaceful nature of gardening and the purpose of facilitating the growth of plants. These include improved memory, increased attention, a sense of responsibility, stress relief and improved self-esteem. However, the act of gardening is only one aspect of therapeutic horticulture – gardens themselves can also have healing effects.
What makes a therapeutic garden? Therapeutic gardens are designed with the visitor in mind. Each area is created to facilitate interaction and engage the senses to allow for a more complete immersion into nature. Accessibility is therefore a priority, encouraging easy gardening or physical interaction with the plants. A visitor or the gardener themselves should be able to see or study, touch, smell and even taste the plants while hearing the sounds of nature around them. It’s important to consider universal accessibility for all ages and simplicity in design, providing a comfortable environment for convenience and enjoyment. This includes the avoidance of hazardous chemicals (especially in cases where taste is included in the sensory experience), as well as providing shade and protective structures for both people and plants. The purpose is as much focussed on the plants and their positions as how one can experience them.
How can your therapeutic garden help you?
Creating your own therapeutic garden has incredible benefits for you and can bring your family closer to nature. By designing, building and maintaining a therapeutic garden in your outdoor space, your garden can transform from an artwork to an experience for visitors of all ages.
Design: The first step towards a therapeutic garden is the design. Consider each of the five senses and how you can combine plants and features to include sensory stimulation. Bright colours and a variety of shapes and heights in plants, as well as unique shapes and objects in focal points, can make the garden visually stimulating. For touch, textures are important (soft leaves, crunchy bark, running water), as are pathways and raised beds so that all the plants and features are easy to reach. Smell and taste can often go hand in hand by using fragrant herbs and fruits or edible flowers. Sound is slightly more difficult to incorporate through plants, so objects can be used to bring sound into your garden. A water feature as a focal point can include the soothing sounds of running water, a bird feeder can attract beautiful chirping birds, and a variety of flowers invites the buzz of bees. It is important to combine various senses with each design choice and aim to make the garden an activity in itself.
Plant: When building your garden, it is important to remember its purpose and your participation in the process. The physical and mental benefits largely stem from the act of gardening, so it is vital to take your time and enjoy every moment. Once your design has been executed, the countless benefits can continue with maintenance of the garden, creating new experiences with each season and replanting cuttings to continue growth.
Enjoy: While the gardening part of the process is important, it is also beneficial to take the time to enjoy the fruits of your labour. A therapeutic garden is the perfect place to de-stress after a long day, or to spend time with family. It can keep you physically active, and including fruits or vegetables can encourage healthy food choices. There is also the option of sharing your garden with others, as an important part of therapeutic horticulture is social interaction. Being present and attentive in the space allows you to reap the extensive and complete benefits of nature in your own backyard. Planting a therapeutic garden is not a one-day project, it is a continuous commitment. It is also a commitment that can help you, your family, and others you welcome to it.
Prevent bright colours from becoming overwhelming by choosing one or two that stand out and repeating them, creating a non-threatening environment.
RHS Chelsea shows you how…
From the Chelsea Flower Show the RHS Feel Good Garden, designed by two-time People’s Choice Award winner Matt Keightley, focused on how gardening and gardens themselves help health and well-being. The design aimed to draw visitors into the garden and interact with the wide range of colours and textures. Tall Judas trees (Cercis siliquastrum) and honey locust trees (Gleditsia triacanthos) create a sense of security by surrounding the garden, and spots of Trollius × cultorum ‘Alabaster’ provide exciting splashes of colour against the variety of green textures.
The Morgan Stanley Garden for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) at the Chelsea Flower Show won the prestigious title of Best in Show in 2018. Mirroring the intent of the children’s charity, the NSPCC, it created a space of safety and security. The main purpose of the design was to take visitors on a similar journey of growth to that of a child that has been supported by the charity, with a modest entrance that becomes increasingly lusher and more vibrant. Inspired by the methods used by the NSPCC, designer Chris Beardshaw used repetition in features and plants to create a safe and non-threatening environment.
Plants for a Therapeutic Garden
- Sweet peas: Perfect for their bright colours and irresistible fragrance, sweet peas are a great choice as they are easy to manage. Grow in a good depth of soil in a sunny area and water generously every few days.
- Lavender: Besides the stunning colour and beautiful smell, lavender is known as an anti-stress herb and can be used in food or tea. Plant in a sunny position and ensure the soil drains well.
- Rosemary: Rosemary is a wonderful herb with many healing properties and is also said to boost memory. It grows in full sun, is easy to propagate, and the flowers attract buzzing bees for an added sound element.
- Lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina): Lamb’s ear is essential for any sensory garden as it compels any bystander to immediately touch its leaves. Plant it in a position with semi-shade to full sun in well-drained soil.
- Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima ‘Pony Tails’): Mexican feather grass is a great tall grass for sound as well as touch.
- Gardenias (Gardenia augusta): The sweetly scented white flowers from the gardenia shrub make it a very popular flowering plant perfect for a therapeutic garden. Gardenias can adapt to most climates and grow in acidic soil conditions in partial sunlight.
- Cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis): The wide variety of colours is not the only thing that makes any honeysuckle plant ideal – they also attract a veritable concert of garden wildlife to create a lively buzz in your garden.
Elements for a Therapeutic Garden
Bird feeder: Plants aren’t the only thing that can attract feathered friends. Hanging a bird feeder in the garden can ensure a bright, cheerful noise and diversify the garden visuals with movement and colour.
Wind chimes: With a soft breeze, the sounds from wind chimes can transport the visitor to a relaxed environment. They are also great elements for interaction and work best hung at a level where they can be touched.
Pebbles: The variety of shapes and colours available make pebbles a great addition for added sensory experience. They can be used in pathways to walk along barefoot or placed amongst plants to pick up and touch. Sand: Why restrict the soft, warm feeling of beach sand to the beaches? Adding a beach sand path is great for going barefoot, or can be used to create a play area for children.
Water features: Water checks many of the sensory boxes. A running water feature creates a calming noise that works well to mask the sounds of neighbours or nearby traffic, along with adding a sense of movement. A shallow pond is also a way to introduces water that allows for touch and interaction with both hands and feet. Fish like koi add another element.
Stone: Another path option is stone, providing a sensory contrast to pebble or sand paths. Exciting visual designs and shapes can be experimented with using this versatile element.