Gardens beguile with their scents, colors, textures and blooms, creating a sense of calm and nurturing. But even more than that, many therapists believe that gardens can heal us.
“Garden therapy is the use of garden-related activities as an aid to the recovery and rehabilitation of the disabled or challenged—physical, emotional and mental health,” said James Pavelka, Garden Therapy/Healing Chairman for The Garden Club of Indiana and member of the Hobart Garden Club.
Pavelka said therapeutic gardening can mean many things.
“It can be building raised garden beds so the elderly or disabled such as from a stroke don’t have to lean down to be able to garden,” he said. “Hospitals use them particularly for cancer patients.”
The idea of finding comfort and restoration dates back millenniums. The soft splashing sounds of a fountain centered in the middle of a Roman atrium during the reign of the Caesars, the 600 BC hanging gardens of Babylon known for their spectacular botanicals, the cloister gardens found in Medieval England, the 12-century Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth and the elaborate tombstone art and picnicking areas of Victorian cemeteries all show the important role gardens have and continue to play.
Dr. Larry Brewerton, a professor of psychology at Indiana University Northwest who also has a private practice specializing in rehabilitation, said the bond between people and other living systems is instinctual and necessary for both physical and emotional well-being.
Shinrin-yoku, Japanese for forest bathing, is simply taking a walk in the woods. The benefits for Shinrin-yoku are said to lower blood pressure, pulse rate and cortisol levels, increase vigor, reduce anger and depression; there’s also an increase in psychological benefits—deeper and clearer intuition, increased flow of energy, increased capacity to communicate with the land and its species and an overall increase in sense of happiness.
“Nature and gardening take place in a non-therapeutic setting but are therapeutic,” said Brewerton. “I have watched patients react positively—it’s really amazing, they seem to come alive. It helps build self-advocacy which is knowing who we are and being able to convey that to others, to be able to take care of ourselves. It also it imparts a sense of well-being and meaningfulness.”
It’s not difficult to build a healing garden said Pavelka, who lives in Hobart.
It doesn’t take much to turn a landscape into a healing garden. Soft plants create a soothing touch sensation as do smooth stones and polished glass, botanicals like lavender and chamomile are both fragrant and can be made into tisanes or teas for calming. Fountains provide the comforting sounds of flowing water and the colors of flowers and grasses can pack a powerful affect. Cool colors, like shades of blue, purple and green, calm and promote a sense of tranquility while soft reds, oranges and yellows evoke feelings of warmth, enliven the emotions and give us energy.
“The healing garden should be peaceful and tranquil,” said Pavelka. “You can plant flowers that attract butterflies and add a pond or fountain. There’s something about the serenity of running water and butterflies. Flowers with fragrant blooms add another sense sensation.”
The mission of the garden club is to work with groups to create soothing spots for places such as hospitals, homeless shelters, retirement centers and schools by providing—free of charge—consultation, information and ideas for garden therapy. And the list of those who can benefit is long—the physically disabled, veterans with injuries or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, abused children, the homeless, victims of violence and, of course, even ourselves—stressed, troubled and seeking to cope with life demands.
“Anyone can make a healing garden," said Pavelka, noting the job of helping people of all ages through healing gardens is priceless.