Gardens are wonderful places to calm the spirit and to relieve tension and throughout history gardens have been used to aid in the healing process – from the Japanese Zen Garden to the Monastic Cloister garden. Restorative gardens have existed since the middle Ages, seeing ‘healthcare’ centres located in medieval monasteries. Exposure to the gardens was an essential element of the recovery, the prescribed treatment being herbal remedies from the garden and prayer.
With increasing interest in complementary and alternative therapies, emphasising the healing of the whole person (mind, body, and spirit), rather than simply alleviating symptoms, interest in healing gardens has been revived. It is thought that simply viewing natural scenes or elements can foster stress recovery by evoking positive feelings, reducing negative emotions, effectively holding attention and interest, and blocking or reducing stressful thoughts. Activities that cause involuntary attention, or capture ones imagination spontaneously, for example watching birds’ splash in a birdbath, quietly playing an outdoor musical instrument or even watching leaves falls from a tree captures ones attention and takes ones mind off any worries or anxieties, thus allowing for mental restoration.
A stressful setting such as a hospice is ideal for a restorative garden. A Hospice is for those people who are said to need palliative care, or end of life care. A Hospice allows people to achieve their best quality of life, and also supports families and carers. Hospice care is based upon the simple idea that a person has unique, physical, emotional and spiritual needs and the belief that every patient should be treated as a whole person. A successful hospice garden creates a safe and welcoming environment, full of vegetation for the patients, family and staff to enjoy, a place to clear ones mind and allow a restorative experience to take place, thus reducing anxiety and tension.
Designing a healing garden requires many of same considerations as designing any other garden. However, to create a truly restorative healing environment there are some essential factors to consider and design pitfalls to avoid.
Functionality is imperative because the garden needs to accommodate the limitations of the users of the space. It is also important that the garden is easily maintainable both for physical safety and therapeutic benefits. Paths should be wide enough to accommodate the turning of a wheelchair with surfaces that are firm, smooth, and provide traction to allow for easy movement of wheelchairs, and other essential mobile medical equipment. Musical instruments or water features must be accessible for all to be fully interactive.
Choose plants that engage all the senses. Use a variety of textures, scents, colours, as well as plants that make pleasant sounds as wind rustles their leaves. Providing seasonal interest allows people to connect with the cycle of nature. Choosing plants that attract select wildlife, such as birds or butterflies, can add value and interest to the garden. Thoughtful plant selection will keep the flora intriguing in all four seasons. The use of some evergreens plants will aid in sustained winter interest.
Provide a comfortable social environment with plenty of places for families and staff to sit and share the space. Ideally the garden will provide a variety of spaces to accommodate different activities and levels of privacy to allow group activities as well as spaces that allow solitary contemplation. Where ever possible ensure the garden offers both sunny and shady areas for people with varying tolerances to light. Frail patients may be particularly sensitive to cold, heat and wind and a sheltered outdoor area will extend the use of the garden.
Most importantly, healing gardens are meant to provide pleasant surroundings to produce restorative effects for its users. In addition to plants, secondary elements such as water features, outdoor musical instruments and bird feeders can help animate the garden with life and bring sound to the patients, family members and staff both inside and outdoors. Outdoor Musical Instruments in a healing garden can provide an outlet for creative and emotional expression, are perfect for music therapy session that encourages patients to use music to deal with emotional issues, especially when they are unable to express them through speech. Where words fail, music may be a medium through which to explore one’s inner world and experiences.
Finally, a wonderful example of how effective a musical healing garden can be was seen in Jo Thompson’s Courtyard Garden ‘Demelza’ at the 2009 RHS Chelsea Flower Show. This healing garden was designed for the children’s hospice charity Demelza, a hospice for life threatened children and their families, who come to stay for palliative and respite care. The ‘Demelza’ garden perfectly demonstrated how a garden space is able to provide for the different needs and moods that families require, a garden brimming with plants and colour for families to interact with their children and spend time together in a peaceful place. Sight, smell, even taste are the normal senses associated with gardens, but it was hearing that was accentuated in this garden. Besides the beautiful sounds of nature, gentle, musical sounds infiltrated the garden, reflecting the importance of music in bringing happiness into the lives of terminally ill children. A water harp played quietly in one corner; a metal structure set in a low pool strung with stainless steel wires, which created soothing sounds as water played down them. A Japanese sui-kin-kutsu, an underground water chamber, introduced an invisible, mysterious, echoing sound whilst aluminium chimes from Freenotes gave children the opportunity to make their own music, combining two things all children seem to love – music and the outdoors.
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