Gardens as Medicine: 5 Things You Need to Know

How healing gardens help patients and familiesWant to feel better? Think nature. Healing gardens are a growing trend. Many major medical centers, including the 6,300-square-foot rooftop garden at the Yawkey Center for Outpatient Care, part of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the NIH Clinical Center, and long-term care facilities, are adding them. And so are homeowners.

The basic elements of a healing or therapeutic garden include:

  • Plants and wildlife
  • Walkways
  • Private sitting areas
  • Shade
  • A water feature

Most are outdoors. Some have raised planters so patients and family members can plant, weed, and work the garden. Sometimes they have medicinal herbs, such as primrose or foxglove.

Scientists say natural settings can lower stress, blood pressure and heart rate, and muscle tension and negative thoughts. The idea is that lowering stress can boost the immune system and speed healing.

Physicians at Jupiter Medical Center in Florida realized that some patients who could see-they didn’t even have to be in-the hospital garden had less pain, needed fewer medications and had shorter stays than patients without a garden view. I don’t know how they figured that out, but what an endorsement!

The gardens’ restorative and medicinal benefits have many converts: substance abuse, pediatric, burn, HIV/AIDS, hospice, cancer, stroke, brain injury, psychiatric, and dementia patients.

But they’re really intended for a wider audience: not just patients, but visitors, family members waiting for surgery to be over, exhausted caregivers, and staff looking for a breather. Some support groups meet in healing gardens.

How come it took so long for us to catch on? They’ve been around forever from the Middle Ages to ancient Egypt and Greece to Japan (as in Zen gardens). In 1879, Friends Hospital in Philadelphia started a program for psychiatric patients who staff noticed were acting calmer after being in the ground gardens.

Don’t have a healing garden? Relax! Here’s what you can do:

  1. Create your own mini-garden. Even on a city balcony, you can have an area of plants. You don’t need all of the features (water, pathways, private sitting areas) to have a lovely oasis.
  2. Have land and want a more professional therapeutic garden? Use a landscape architect.
  3. Call medical centers and ask if they have gardens. Go visit. If you’re considering a home mini-version, see what you like and what you don’t like. Or just enjoy.
  4. The next time you’re visiting a relative or friend in long-term care, take them outside. If there are gardens and pathways on the grounds, hang out there awhile. Walking around the grounds is good exercise for both of you.
  5. If there’s no formal healing garden that you know of, don’t sweat it. Head to your local park or arboretum.

For a better picture of healing gardens:

Photo by Naomi Sachs

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