Green spaces of tranquility Gardens often provide settings for peace and healing

Posted: September 21, 2013

The Winchester Star

Lavender’s smell is “pleasant and calming” in a garden and the vibrant color is a beautiful addition to a landscape.
For Alzheimer’s patients, enclosed green spaces where they can still see the sun but are surrounded by green give them a sense of security and helps center them.
Roses can add a sense of beauty to a garden as well as a pleasant smell for people to focus on while they relax and unwind.
Herbs (left) such as basil, mint, and sage are good additions for the look and smell of the garden as well as having practical applications.

Winchester — A garden can be many things — a source of beauty, delight, frustration, exercise, stimulation and dirty fingernails.

It can also be a place of calm, bringing peace to someone in an otherwise troubling time, said Helen Lake, a certified horticultural therapist.

Lake spoke on therapeutic horticulture as part of the Lunch Box Lessons series at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. She explored the role plants play in physical and emotional health and ways to implement it.

“Some of us find joy not necessarily diddling in the dirt but reveling in it or walking in it,” said Lake, a member of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Master Gardeners.

Gardening is not just about planting a flower and having it look pretty, said Amanda Cansler, MSV’s youth and family programs coordinator.

“I never thought about gardening, whether it is pulling weeds or planting flowers, as therapy,” she said. “It is good to see a different point of view.”

Finding what works

The American Horticultural Therapy Association classifies a therapeutic garden as a “plant-dominated environment purposefully designed to facilitate interaction with the healing elements of nature,” according to its website,

Those interactions can be passive (sit and look) or active (actually gardening) depending on the garden design and users’ needs.

Therapeutic gardens come in many subtypes, including healing gardens, enabling gardens, rehabilitation gardens and restorative gardens, the site said.

Everyone has a different sense of what provides them a therapeutic outlet, so people shouldn’t think there is only one way to approach it, Lake said.

For some, the hands-on approach brings the most rewards by providing a sense of accomplishment, she said. “When you bring a plant back from the brink of death, it is those tiny little kernels of encouragement.”

For others, the simple act of enjoying plants is enough to have an effect on their health, she said. Many studies have found that plants in a hospital room have “a great healing effect,” something she has found in her own work with veterans.

“They were awed by the blast to the senses,” she said. “There was a sense of discovery, which fueled them to attend more sessions.”

Choosing the content

Often, a person’s backyard will be the most indicative of a gardener’s personality, Lake said. While a front yard tends to be manicured and represent a “facade of the perfect front yard,” in the backyard, they “experiment more and play.”

A garden packed with flowers, shrubs and grasses can be dazzling, but it is not for everyone, she said. Whether having that many plants is overwhelming to the senses or simply too hard to care for, attention needs to be paid to a garden’s content.

First ask, what are the most important elements — the ones that make you smile or pause every time just to enjoy that sight, smell, or sound, she said. “When you step out in your garden, what hits you first? What sense brings you the most joy?”

Keep in mind that a garden can bring together a variety of plant types — flowers, bushes, herbs, shrubs and trees.

Some plants she recommends for a therapeutic garden are chrysanthemums, roses, lilacs, lilies of the valley, marigolds, geraniums, Confederate jasmine and junipers.

Lavender’s smell is “pleasant and calming” whether it is fresh or dried.

Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, chives, lavender and witch hazel are good additions for the look and smell of the garden as well as having practical applications, she said. Basil is “highly stimulating,” and she likes “brushing against mint because the aroma is everywhere.”

She likes sage because hummingbirds love it, and watching them hover in the garden is a joy.

She also recommends ornamental grasses, bamboo, and apple blossom, linden, eucalyptus and sweet viburnum trees.

Don’t forget to enjoy it

Underproducing buds, deer, insects and fungus are realities gardeners have to deal with every day, and it is important to address them, Lake said.

However, in the quest for the “perfect garden,” people need to make time to look beyond the buds and see the wonders a garden can hold. “If you see a praying mantis on a leaf, allow yourself the joy of watching it go about its business.”

Appeal to the different senses

Bright colorful flowers are a wonderful addition to the garden, but sight is not the only sense that should be engaged, Lake said. A garden can appeal to a person’s sense of smell, touch, sound and even taste.

“Just having tall grasses moving quietly and the leaves rustling and allowing yourself to sit and listen is very centering,” she said.

Lake worked with a client at a veteran’s hospital who was closed off and didn’t like to share. She brought in corn stalks as part of the therapy session, and when he heard them slapping against each other, he started talking about his family. “That was something he had never done before.”

Water features appeal to a person’s sense of hearing and offer stress relief, whether it is the low trickle of a fountain or the steady flow of a waterfall, she said.

Even a pond with a bench beside it can offer a quiet respite for people. “It is incredibly calming and really de-stresses and focuses you.”

If it is possible, chose a water feature with an on and off switch, she said. It’s good to “test” the sound out first, especially with a small fountain, before purchasing it. Some sounds may grate on the nerves instead of soothing them.

Sit back and relax

A well-placed bench in a garden can become a safe haven for people, Lake said. Put a bench in an area that provides the view you want but is not in direct sunlight all the time.

“Having a bench or wicker chair at the right spot could be just as important as any plant,” she said.

Good for what ails you

Studies have found that some gardens can be good for certain medical conditions, especially those with Alzheimer’s disease, Lake said.

For those patients, she recommends gardens with high curved bushes and quiet corners or other enclosed green areas where patients can still see the sun but are surrounded by green. This gives them a “sense of security” and helps calm and center them.

The choice of plants is important, because with Alzheimer’s patients, “their sense of judgment and understanding what is safe goes out the window,” she said.

Some of the plants safe for an Alzheimer’s garden are Rose of Sharon, tuberous begonia, coleus, daylily, echinacea, hibiscus, hollyhocks, impatiens, portulaca, thornless roses and sunflowers.

Cansler said she was diagnosed a few months ago with acute traumatic stress disorder, which is caused by an individual’s experience of a traumatic event leading to stress that inhibits a person’s ability to cope.

Because of that, she started bringing lavender and peppermint into her home and has been surprised how much the scent of it relaxes her. “It really is therapy for me.”

Indoor plants

During the winter, indoor plants can give peace to gardeners who are missing the green outdoors, Lake said.

Besides their effect on a person’s emotional health, they have the added benefit of filtering out air pollution, especially ferns and peace lilies, she said.

Something she has noticed in her own plants is that when ferns are put together, they grow better. “It is almost like a family.”

These plants also provide someone with a sense of purpose (keeping the plant alive), a sense of nurturing while watering the plant and deadheading it, and good mental stimulation in following directions for caring for them.

Good plants to cluster together indoors are a spider plant, kalanchoe Christmas cactus, English ivy, weeping fig, rubber tree, philodendron, African violet, and jade plant.

— Contact Laura McFarland at