The link between nature and healing has resulted in healing gardens becoming commonplace in hospitals and healthcare facilities.

Patients with access to nature through healing gardens have quicker recovery times, a reduction in stress, and an overall improvement in well-being.

“Just about every new or newly renovated health care facility now includes some type of garden or natural element,” says Jean Larson, a horticultural therapist and head of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s Therapeutic Horticulture and Recreation Services.

Susan Weiler, a partner at the OLIN landscape architecture firm agrees, noting that plants and gardens can be a key component of the healing process.

“More and more hospitals are beginning to understand that people heal faster when they have visual access to plants and gardens,” she says.

This understanding comes from the realisation that healthcare facilities focusing primarily on physical care are not completely effective and that a focus on the mental well-being of patients is just as important.

“Modern advances in technology towards healing largely diminished the importance of nature in the healing process and this has been one unfortunate results of the ‘cure over care’ phenomena found within many aspects of healthcare,” says landscape architect Betsy Severtsen.

Just as the ocean and forests have undeniable restorative functions for humans, purpose-built healing gardens can have the same effect on hospital patients. Luckily, healthcare workers and architects are now reverting back to the mental health and well-being end of the care spectrum.

healing gardens Ellerbe Becket

Healing Gardens by architectural firm Ellerbe Becket

Healing Gardens and Patient Recovery

Healing gardens give a sense of peace and relief from the stress patients feel when coping with an illness. Having a distraction from thoughts about ill health allows the body to focus on healing. Whereas the hospital room is needed for clinical care, a healing garden is needed for emotional and spiritual health.

Roger Ulrich has provided several papers on the restorative nature of landscapes. A reduction in negative emotions, the blocking of stressful thoughts and a reduction in hospital stays have all been shown to occur from access to natural landscapes. His findings have been echoed throughout the landscape and design industry.

“Healing gardens must provide for some level of physical activity which can vary from patient to patient depending on the degree of physical limitation associated with the illness,” says Canadian horticulturist, garden designer and builder Todd Major.

Healing Gardens and Aged Care

Ian Forbes of Woodhead International agrees there have been some big changes in the attitudes of the architectural profession and the world of health when it comes to incorporating nature into design.

Describing the geriatric ward at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woodville west of Adelaide, Forbes says the healing garden was integral to the design.

“The idea was for people to be able to wander, and sit under trees and shade, and it was intended to look like the average South Australian backyard, so it had lemon trees and plants that one would normally see,” he says. “The people here are either severely demented or becoming demented to we try to invoke a subconscious sense of comfort and familiarity through the natural surroundings.”

healing garden with water feature

Healing Garden with water feature

Healing Garden Design

There are several design rules that govern the building of a healing garden but most importantly, the garden should allow patients to move safely without restriction while experiencing the biophilic benefits of nature.

Severtsen says the following elements of healing gardens make the area effective:

  • Social support – the garden must allow for privacy but must also permit socialisation if preferred by users
  • Sense of control – patients must know that the garden exists and be able to access and use the space actively or passively. Privacy should be paramount and a variety of spaces allows the user choices
  • Physical movement and exercise – design can encourage exercise through walking loops or physical structures. Stress-reducing physical activity areas should be included for children
  • Access to nature and positive distractions – medicinal plants and plant species that engage the senses should be used or those that encourage wildlife. Thorny and highly allergenic plants should be avoided

When implemented into a healthcare setting correctly, healing gardens are a monumental force in patient recovery that will likely increase in popularity in the coming years.

Forbes says the  trend toward healthcare design that includes nature will only continue to move forward.

“The only problem is we have urban hospitals which are surrounded by concrete and rocks, it’s hard to do much with those spaces,” he says. “But hopefully we can get people to accept landscape as an important part of therapy, as a part of community, part of those things which make the place work well, and not just an add on.”