MOST OF US know intuitively that our gardens are healing us as we are making them. Planting, watering, harvesting, digging in the dirt are centuries-old human rituals and deeply comforting. Simply tuning in to temperature, wind and rain, as we gardeners seem to do, connects us to nature and enhances our well-being.
There’s lots of current research on therapeutic landscapes, mostly for health-care facilities, as well as a long tradition of healing gardens. At the Getty Villa Museum in Malibu, the gardens are modeled on ancient herbal apothecary gardens. Tidily hedged, with pathways for walking, benches in sunny areas for resting and contemplation, these monastery gardens are as soothing and healing as the herbs the monks grew for medicine and cooking.
Certain garden elements hold healing potential, and those elements are very individual. But I think there are two baseline principles for any healing garden.
First, cut down on maintenance and reduce your expectations. Forget perfection . . . gardens are outdoors, after all. A landscape that stresses you out, that constantly nags at you, is the opposite of healing.
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And a healing garden must be an organic one, a place of safety for humans, pets and wild creatures. It wasn’t all that long ago many gardeners sprayed poisons on plants to keep them “healthy.” Get rid of all pesticides and herbicides, and you never need worry about picking flowers to put on the breakfast table, letting your puppy play on the lawn, snacking on berries fresh from the garden, killing off bees. What’s more therapeutic than peace of mind?
Here are more healing elements to consider adding to the mix:
• Shelter makes us feel comfortable and at home in the garden, whether it’s a colorful umbrella for shade, a vine-laced arbor or a terrace beneath a pergola.
• Creating privacy, whether through fencing, screening or hedging, lends the feeling of a personal sanctuary, a place of repose.
• Auditory elements block out city noise, calm our nerves and bring us into the moment. Whether you encounter fountains or streams, rustling grasses or bamboo, your ear picks up first what it most enjoys hearing.
• Leave part of your garden wild for kids, for yourself, for birds, bees, frogs and butterflies. Hedgerows and pollinator pathways winding through our cities are two movements toward integrating our gardens with nature.
• Art in gardens serves as the still point, the focal point, in the midst of a garden’s ebb and flow. Whether precious glass, beloved objects or pieces that are recycled or upcycled, art makes the garden our own.
• Color and scent: Lilies, roses and sweet peas evoke memory and emotion. Garden designer David Culp said, “I do think a garden should be seductive . . . the strength of any garden is its ability to take you away.”
Perhaps most healing of all is how the garden draws us into its seasonal rhythms, from the first crocus in earliest spring to the revelation of its very bones in winter. This measured unfolding slows us down to nature’s pace. As we tend our gardens, we’re intensely aware of one season slipping into another, of time passing, of decline, death, renewal and growth. The garden works its healing magic by reminding us that the very nature of life is constant, cyclical change.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.