Finding your medicine in the landscape

As we move into the peak summer months, many a "yardener" also moves into peak landscape maintenance mode. For some it is welcome, for others a chore at best. Yet the garden has gained a lot of professional respect in the past 20 years as a place that can help the mind, body and spirit feel better. The terms "healing garden" or "therapeutic garden" appear more and more in landscape and garden literature, especially in relation to health care facilities.

Indeed, two such gardens are underway in our immediate area and will open over the next year. The new Lawrence & Memorial Hospital Cancer Center in Waterford has recently begun work on a one-acre healing garden. And on Aug. 16, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Center for Hospice Care of Southeast Connecticut at 227 Dunham St., Norwich, will officially open its new healing garden.

But what are these spaces? As a friend recently commented, "Isn't every garden a healing garden?"

The concept was first defined for me when I strolled a backyard with an acquaintance to see her "memories" garden. The space measured perhaps 10' x 20'. In it, she grew calendula, sweet peas and zinnias because her mother had. The rose bush had been a gift from her husband. She had a small bronze bell suspended from an iron hook, a gift from children she taught years before. It clanged gently in the wind. A dear departed dog's favorite toy rested on a rock. There were stones and sea glass from beaches she'd visited. As we sat on a large flat rock and sipped iced tea, a bird visited the bird bath where my friend placed fresh water every day.

This small space left a big impression on me. Now, I've come to understand that she had designed a healing garden worthy of the most learned designers.

Indeed, there are designers today who specialize in these spaces. The field took off after a 1984 study by Roger S. Ulrich showed the beneficial recovery effects of windows and greenery on patients post-surgery. A set of practices called "evidence-based landscape design" evolved and has brought new gravitas to the concept. A recent book by Clare Cooper Marcus and Naomi Sachs, "Therapeutic Landscapes" (Wiley, 2014), lists well over a hundred studies that show how landscapes affect a person's mental and physical health, as well as the social health of communities. For more on their work, see healinglandscapes.org.

The new healing garden at the Norwich hospice center is an example of how research has influenced health care garden design.

"Our research acquainted us with the basic components of a therapeutic garden," says Christie Williams, director of philanthropy. "We needed a place that would appeal to all the senses, a profusion of colors to appeal to the eye, a variety of scents, and a centerpiece waterfall sculpture to appeal to the ear and eye. The garden also incorporates many plants traditionally associated with healing, comfort, peace, memory, and fondness."

Waterford landscape designer and Reiki practitioner Kelly Sisk worked with Hospice, guiding the process as well as implementation. She incorporated the concept of the "chakras," which according to several eastern traditions are key centers on the body's energy highway.

"Each and every detail was carefully chosen to facilitate contemplation, rest and relief," says Sisk, who is very well versed in the history, folklore and medicinal qualities of plants. She says there will be a detailed descriptive guide available to visitors.

It's a pleasure to see gardens acknowledged for the material effects they have on our welfare in these handsome and visible spaces. But as my friend's memories garden showed, anyone can create a healing place.

Author Clare Cooper Marcus, who has studied and designed healing gardens all over the world, offers these basic suggestions: Include plants you remember fondly from childhood, add a water feature, however small, so you can see and hear running water, and create a place to sit with plantings at your back and sides, allowing you to look out at your garden or water feature.

In the most basic sense, all you need is the intention. Can't you see yourself there now? Maybe you already are.

KATHY CONNOLLY OF OLD SAYBROOK IS A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER, GARDEN WRITER AND SPEAKER. SHE CAN BE REACHED AT KATHY@SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM.

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