Healing Gardens: The Power of Plants

The Healing Power of Plants

A wise old gardening friend used to tell me that there’s hardly any problem a walk through the garden won’t make more manageable. She inherently knew the healing power of plants because she’d spent decades growing flowers and weeding vegetable beds, in part as a means of free therapy that helped her deal with life’s challenges.

power of plants

Sweet peas offer strong fragrance, and the aroma has a calming effect which is just one of the healing power of plants.

The Power of Plants to Help Us Grieve

When her mother died, she created a memorial plot where her tears watered the soil and she could grieve openly yet privately. When she battled cancer (and won!) she potted up plants for her patio, the most she had energy for. The simple act reminded her that cancer would not take away all the things that she loved and loved to do.

Perhaps my friend didn’t realize there’s true science behind why we humans feel better in the presence of plants, and yet that didn’t stop her from passing along the wisdom. For that I’m grateful. We hear so much about the curative powers of practicing breathing meditations, but the act of gardening, which requires the full engagement of our senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch (and sometimes) taste, qualifies as a meditative act in my mind.

WHAT IS A HEALING GARDEN?

While any garden plot has the power to bring about a sense of well-being, there is a definition of a healing garden. This description, from the Therapeutic Landscapes Network, says: “A healing garden is a garden or landscape designed for a specific population, place and intended positive health outcome. The garden’s design (physical aspects) and programming (activities that take place there) are informed by research. The majority of healing gardens, also referred to as restorative gardens and healthcare gardens, are in healthcare facilities including general acute care hospitals, outpatient clinics, assisted living and skilled nursing facilities, mental and behavioral health facilities, hospices and specialty facilities such as rehabilitation, pediatric and cancer hospitals and clinics.”

Naomi Sachs, PhD, ASLA, EDAC, is the founder and director of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network. She explains, “Garden users include patients or residents, visitors and staff. Positive outcomes, including stress reduction, are derived through both passive and active nature connection and can take place indoors (via indoor plants, or from viewing nature through a window) and outdoors. A rehabilitation garden, therapeutic garden or enabling garden is a garden where physical, occupational, horticultural and other therapies take place. A ‘restorative landscape’ or ‘landscape for health’ is any landscape—wild or designed, large or small—that facilitates human health and well-being.”

With a little thought, you can boost the restorative nature of your own garden. Start by planting for the five senses (see plant list below*). Designers should avoid using poisonous plants in therapeutic landscapes, especially if the spaces will be used by children or people who are developmentally disabled.

Since their bodies are smaller, children are more susceptible than adults to toxins in plants, and they are also more likely (especially when very young) to explore their environment with all of their senses, including taste. Many children’s gardens encourage this type of exploration with carefully selected plants.

Of course, plants don’t have to be poisonous to be harmful. Those with thorns, sharp edges (some grasses are particularly injurious) or substances that irritate the skin (like most euphorbias) should be avoided when designing for clients who would be apt to come into direct contact with a garden’s plants.

PLANT SELECTIONS FOR FIVE SENSES

power of plants

The vibrant colors of swiss chard growing in the garden add visual appeal.

Sight—think bright, eye-catching colors and forms:

• Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), a bright, bold-looking flower
• Swiss chard ‘Bright Lights’, with brightly colored stems and foliage
• Heuchera ‘Chocolate Ruffles’, whose purple leaves have brown undersides

Sound—think buzzing bees, birdsong and plant stems rustling in the wind:

• Greater quaking grass (Briza maxima), an annual grass whose nodding flowers rustle in the wind
• Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), whose bright blue flowers form puffy seed-heads that rattle when shaken
Miscanthus oligostachyus ‘Nanus Variegatus’, with pretty bamboo-like stripes foliage that creates a rustling noise

Smell—think of the fragrance of flowers and leaves:

• Curry plant (Helichrysum italicum), with leaves that give off a spicy aroma
• Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’), providing the classic scent of a summer garden
• Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus), a pretty flowering climber that gives off a strong sweet scent

Touch—think of furry leaves or spiky stems:

• Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina), with felt-like leaves
• Silver sage (Salvia argentea), in which a down covers the large, silvery white leaves
• Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa), with soft, downy leaves and yellow flowers

Taste—think fruits, vegetables and herbs:

• Basil (Ocimum basilicum), each leaf gives a burst of flavor
• Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), orange, red or yellow flowers give a peppery flavor
• Chives (Allium schoenoprasum), used in salads, this plant also has pink, mauve or purple flowers

Patty Craft is Horticulture’s content director.

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