Backyard Sanctuary

“Gardening is one of the most healing, beautiful things…”

Allison Vallin June chive bee

Photo courtesy of Allison Vallin at

That’s how this comment from Stacy on the My Garden Saved My Life post started, and as she put it so well, I’m sharing it here as another guest blog post:

“Gardening is one of the most healing, beautiful things I know of.  I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia and am only able to do a fraction of what I used to do.  But gardening is only partly about doing.  A lot of it is about being–being outside, watching the seasons unfold, smelling honeysuckle on the breeze, observing the lives of bumblebees and toads and birds.  (And flowers, of course.)  In addition to a small townhouse garden that has perennial beds, I have a 2′ x 4′ “micro-garden” that my Dad has built a frame for.  It stands at waist height so that I don’t even have to bend down to work in it, and I grow vegetables in it almost all year long.  I’ve never gotten over the awe of watching seedlings sprout–that sense of “Oh, my gosh, it worked again!”  To be given that gift of wonder and joy–it’s just priceless when you’re ill. (Or even when you’re well.) Isolation is one of the most difficult facets of chronic illness, and being in a garden reminds you that you really are a part of the world around you.”

Thank you, Stacy! Stacy has her own blog, which is here:

Watching the Birds – Connecting with Nature in Winter, Part III

Photo courtesy of Kelly Riccetti at Red and the Peanut

Continuing our series on “Surviving the Winter by Staying Connected to Nature,” today’s post is about enjoying nature from inside, and in particular, feeding and watching the birds.

It’s true that one of the keys to making it through the winter is getting outside (more on that in the next post). But let’s face it: Even if we do venture forth, we’re probably not going to be out very long. So what is a “healing garden” in winter? One that we can gaze upon and enjoy from indoors. And what better way to hold our attention than watching the birds? It’s certainly been keeping me going this winter. This is the first year that I’ve noticed white-breasted nuthatches flitting back and forth from the bird feeder to the white oak. And in addition to the usual sparrows, crows, dark-eyed juncos, starlings, and cardinals, we seem to have more chickadees and tufted titmice (titmouses?) this year as well. Such a delight!

I want to especially encourage nurses, administrators, volunteers and family members who care for seniors to do more to attract birds. Place bird feeders and baths (you can even buy heated ones) outside of private and community windows. Watching, identifying, and counting birds can bring a great deal of meaning (and social interaction) into people’s lives. Bird-watching is an excellent antidote to the common problems of boredom, loneliness, and isolation.

No matter what your age, here are some resources to get you started. There are two primary ways to attract birds to the garden. First, plant things that birds are attracted to for food and habitat. The following books and websites will help you choose what to plant and how to keep a garden that’s bird-friendly throughout the year:

Second to providing natural food and habitat in your garden, supplement with birdfeeders and bird baths. The National Bird-Feeding Society is a great place to start. Learn about bird feed and feeder preference; how to prevent disease at bird feeders; best backyard bird-feeding practices, and more. And many of the websites listed above also provide information about this aspect of backyard bird-care as well.

All of these resources, plus a few more, are on the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s Sensory & Wildlife Plants page. Stop on by, and if you have other recommendations, let us know.

Photo by Henry Domke,

Photo courtesy of Henry Domke

Resolve to Make Your Yard/Garden/Park a Restorative Space

Manitoga, Russel Wright’s garden. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Okay, I give in. Lots of websites are posting suggestions for resolutions; I might as well jump on the New Year’s Resolutions Bandwagon with my own recommendations. Not surprisingly, these have to do with creating landscapes that facilitate health and well-being. So, my 2010 resolution suggestion: 

Resolve to create restorative outdoor space for yourself, your family, and even your community. 

Maybe it’s a space on your property – your deck, your yard, your garden – that could be better utilized to be a healing space. Allow yourself to dream about what would make that space more special, more conducive to you connecting with nature rather than just storing the grill and fretting about the unmowed lawn.

And perhaps you can take that inspiration out into the community as well: Maybe there’s an underused park, or an empty lot in in your neighborhood that could be transformed into a green space that everyone could enjoy and benefit from. Or perhaps a local school, or a nursing home, or community center has a bit of open space that could be transformed into a green haven.

Sometimes the idea of creating a restorative space is daunting, because we imagine that we don’t have the funds, or the design skills, or the knowledge to make it happen. I can assure you that the most important ingredient is resolve – a commitment to making things better. Once you’ve got that, then the rest will fall into place. And the Therapeutic Landscapes Network can help with the rest. Happy New Year!

Oh, and if you’re wondering why the spacing is so weird on this post, the answer is: I don’t know. That’s why my resolution is to finally switch to WordPress in 2010.

Aging in Nature – It’s Never Too Late to Play Outdoors!

“Mac” in his garden in Santa Fe, NM

In my next few posts, I’m going to focus on the over 60 set, as there’s a lot of great research and design about therapeutic landscapes for seniors. This is such an important area of our field. Having access to and being active in the outdoors is good for everyone, but I would venture to say (backed up by research) that it’s especially critical for the youngest and oldest generations.

Young kids need fresh air, sunlight (remember rickets? It’s coming back because kids aren’t getting enough Vitamin D!), exercise, and the sense of discovery that only the natural world can provide; it’s essential for physical, mental, and emotional development.

And much later in life, as getting out and about becomes more difficult, interaction with nature becomes all the more important – perhaps even more so than in between youth and old age. Exercise maintains health by stimulating blood flow, keeping muscles strong and ligaments flexible, and by maintaining bone density and strength. Staying interested in the outdoors provides continued sensory stimulation, which keeps the mind as well as the body active and strong. Getting outside also facilitates social interaction, a critical factor in maintaining well-being. More specifics on all of this, and mentions of good resources, in the next few posts.

In the meantime, a personal story: Above is a picture of Mac. He was my neighbor in Santa Fe, before I moved to the Hudson Valley, and he hired me to design a garden for him and his wife. They both had loved to garden in their younger years, but due to her very limited mobility and his near-blindness (that’s black tape over his glasses lens, before he got an eye patch), they had stopped. Their back yard was a wasteland of weeds and gravel that was impossible to navigate. We worked on a plan that would provide a smooth walking surface (colored concrete) with several places to stop along the way, as well as destinations to move toward; plants that provided shade, seasonal interest, sensory stimulation, and that attracted wildlife; and a design that they could also see and enjoy from inside the house, and that would entice them outside (in sight = in mind).

And we were pretty successful. The week that the garden was finished, Kay – who had not been in her back yard for years, and who hardly went outside period – ventured out with her walker, with Mac by her side. After that, they walked through the garden every day, several times a day. In good weather (which in Santa Fe is most of the time) they walked to “their” apple tree (they had planted it as a sapling decades ago), the farthest place from the door, and sat side by side in its shade, gazing out, commenting on the darting hummingbirds, or what was blooming, or how much water the mossrock boulders had collected in the afternoon’s rainstorm. After a few months, I started to see them walking up and down the sidewalk on the street as well – Kay had gotten strong enough to venture out of their small back yard garden and take on the more challenging slope of our street. This was especially encouraging because it meant that she had the opportunity to interact with neighbors, thereby broadening a social circle that had gotten pretty darn narrow.

So, this is but one of many, many examples of the power of one healing garden to change and improve someone’s quality of life. It’s never too late to play outdoors, and it’s up to us to help make that happen. Do you have a good example that you’d like to share? Please leave a comment! I would love to start gathering more of these stories, because as convincing as the quantitative research is and as much as we need it, I think it’s the personal stories that resonate and motive individuals. If you can share images, too, all the better.

Photograph by Lee Anne White

Green Walls for Healing Gardens


Patrick Blanc's 'Mur Vegetal' in Paris -Quai Branly

Patrick Blanc's 'Mur Vegetal' in Paris -Quai Branly

One of the key elements of a healing garden – a garden designed to facilitate and even improve people’s health and well-being – is a high ration of plant material (“softscape”) to paving, walls, stairs, etc. (“hardscape”). More plants, less paving.

And especially if we’re talking about hospitals and other healthcare facilities, which is where healing gardens are needed most, people like a lot of softness and greenery to balance out the hard, sterile surfaces indoors. People also prefer a feeling of enclosure – it makes them feel safe and secure, and can delineate spaces for private reflection and conversation.

So, what better design element than a green, living wall? Patrick Blanc made a big splash with his (absolutely gorgeous) vertical gardens a few years ago, and since then, the market for green walls has exploded. I’ve been surprised at how slowly it’s catching on in the healthcare environment. Seriously, wouldn’t it be great if all of the hospitals and clinics and hospices and nursing homes had soft, green, living vertical surfaces instead of concrete walls and vinyl fences and strange partitions that don’t really work in delineating space?

Image courtesy Annabel Harrold from Echo Studio's post on Blanc

Image courtesy Annabel Harrold from Echo Studio's post on Blanc

Another plus about vertical gardens: They are easily accessible to just about everyone. Whether you’re standing on two feet or wheeling in a wheelchair or a stroller, the plants are at your height where you can reach out to touch and smell, or even to garden in. What a fantastic tool for horticultural therapists!

Here’s an example of a custom-designed wall by Hitchcock Design Group for a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Hyde Park, Chicago:

Hitchcock Design Group green wall. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Hitchcock Design Group green wall. Photo by Naomi Sachs

If you’re interested in the confluence of plants and architecture, definitely check out Jason King’s blog Veg.itecture (their tagline is “investigating green architecture.”).

And if you know of any healthcare facilities with vertical green walls – fixed or freestanding – please leave a comment. We’re trying to build a list for the Therapeutic Landscapes Network.

Here’s one last image, from a new company called Woolly Pocket Garden Company. Check out their blog. I especially like the posts about the Edible Staircase and the Edible Schoolyard, two programs with kids in Los Angeles schools.

Green wall image courtesy of Woolly Pockets

Image courtesy of Woolly Pockets

Edible Gardens are Healing Gardens

Image courtesy of Anne Dailey

I can’t believe summer’s almost over. It flew by this year. Depending on where you are in this country, or in the world, your growing season is coming to a close (or just beginning, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere – lucky you!). Here in the Hudson Valley, we’ve got a couple of months left before a hard frost hits, with end-of-the-summer treats like corn, tomatoes (though many fewer this year due to the
blight), peppers, and melons. In my own tiny raised bed garden, I’ve got tomatoes, chard, arugula, and lots of herbs.

I’ve been thinking a lot about edible gardens as healing landscapes. After all, food is life. What could be more nurturing than good, healthy food? And not just nutritionally, though most of us know by now that the closer our food source is, the more nutrients (and flavor) it has to offer. On top of all that, there is something nurturing to the spirit about growing and eating your own food. Whether you have a few pots of herbs and tomatoes on the deck or fire escape, or an acre of land to tend, or a plot in a community garden or CSA (community-supported agriculture), an edible garden is a healing garden for body and soul.

Alice Waters, Deborah Madison, Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and even Martha Stewart, to name just a few, are some of the more well-known advocates of eating locally, slowly, and sustainably. The locavore/backyard (and front yard!) farmer/victory garden movement has exploded, and lots of individuals, families, schools, communities, the New York Botanical Garden – heck, even the first family – are getting in on the grow-and-eat-your-own action. And there’s a plethora of information out there. On twitter alone, I’m following over two dozen people and organizations devoted to small-scale/local farming and agriculture and edible gardens. Not sure when to plant radishes? Debating about sowing a cover crop? Thinking of saving seeds from your heirloom squash? Just google it. A great example low-tech analog and high-tech digital living happily ever after.

And what a great learning experience for children, to know not only what real zucchini or blueberries or carrots taste like, but how they grow (vine, bush, in the ground below those frilly green tops).

Image courtesy of Allison Vallin and A Tasteful Garden

This New York TimesOne in 8 Million” piece on Buster English in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood really touched me, and hits on several of the ideas in this post.

To really get the most out of your edible garden as healing garden, here are some suggestions:

1. Grow organic: Avoid pesticides and herbicides. After all, a big part of growing your own food is creating a healthier alternative for you, your family and friends, and your neighbors. The people and the soil and the creatures who live in and around it will thank you.

2. Start small: If you’ve never “farmed” before, don’t take on too much at once. Plant what (or maybe even less than) you think you’ll need or that you have time to tend. Nothing puts a damper on your enjoyment of a garden like feeling overwhelmed, guilty, or inept. You can always do more next year.

3. Grow stuff you really like, or that you can’t get enough of locally (for example, even if I wanted to buy sorrel, it just isn’t available around here; and the first thing I’d plant if I had more space would be a fig tree); or that’s expensive to buy at the store/market (another example: I don’t grow potatoes or onions because I can get them cheap. Arugula, on the other hand…).

4. Teach the children: Put your kids to work! Or better yet, set aside a part of the garden that’s just for them. Radishes, carrots, tomatoes, zucchini, peas, and many herbs are easy to grow, even from seed. Here’s an article on the “top ten” kid-friendly veggies (and fruit) and another on the ones that might be a bit more of a challenge. What magic, to put a tiny radish seed into the ground, to water and care for it, to see a tiny shoot emerge, to tend it some more, and then pull it out of the ground and savor its bright pink, spicy peppery crispness. And what joy to be a part of that discovery and delight.

5. Include your elders. Maybe it’s your parents, or your grandparents, or other relatives, or the elderly couple that lives down the street. Maybe it’s residents of a nearby senior center. Many people from earlier generations grew up farming, or at least tending a kitchen garden, and they have knowledge and stories to share. In return, you can share some of your bounty with them. If I had my druthers, intergenerational gardening would be the next big thing.

6. And speaking of which: Share! If for no other reason than to impress your neighbors with your farming acumen, give some of your harvest away. What a truly generous gift.

7. And last but not least: Enjoy. Every time I bite into one of my home-grown tomatoes, I’m blown away not just by the taste; I also feel a deep sense of wonder and gratitude. Such beauty, such flavor, such nourishment. To me, that’s about as healing as it gets.

Image courtesy of Claire Brown and Plant Passion

Planting the Healing Garden: Bring on the Bees!

This image is courtesy of
I haven’t been able to keep up with the regular blog posts lately (hm, same thing happened last spring, I wonder why?), and today is not much of an exception. I’m actually going to direct you to a great article on bumblebees and honeybees on the Fine Gardening website (“Bring the Buzzzzz Back to Your Garden”); it’s got some great information about various kinds of bees and what you can plant in your garden to attract them. And here’s another great website that I stumbled upon while looking for good bee pictures: The Science Museum’s “Bumblebees like it hot.”
As a landscape designer who specializes in restorative gardens, I have the funny experience of some clients wanting gardens that attract bees, and other clients wanting gardens that don’t. After a nasty yellowjacket incident when I was five (involving over 25 of the beasts attacking me after I accidentally stepped on their nest), I’ve struggled to master my stinging-insect phobia. I can relate to people who would be happy if the bees just stayed away. Nevertheless, I like to educate clients about the fact that honeybees and bumblebees rarely sting (something I’ve learned from my own gardening experience – I’ve been stung by many a wasp in my life, but never by a bee), and I also stress the importance of providing food and habitat for our wonderful pollinating friends who’ve been having a bit of a tough time lately (you can read about Colony Collapse Disorder on many websites and blogs, but here’s the Wikipedia article to get you started). Incidentally, beekeeping has really taken off in the past couple of years. A friend in Beacon has a great blog called Beacon Bee, and I’ve been learning a lot from her. There are even urban beekeepers; in france, they call it “concrete honey.”

Planting the Healing Garden: Growing Your Own Bird Seed

Image of prairie warbler courtesy Henry Domke Fine Art

Not much time for blogging lately, but here’s a good
article about planting flowers that will attract birds into your garden. And if they don’t eat it all while it’s “on the vine,” you can harvest to feed the birds later. “How to Grow Your Own Bird Seed in the Garden.” Enjoy, and the birds will, too!

Planting the Healing Garden: Ornamental Grasses

This and other images for this post courtesy Henry Domke Fine Art

It’s a balmy 41 degrees here in the Hudson Valley today. I’m not being sarcastic! Anything over 40 degrees is a welcome change, and it’s sunny to add…hm, what’s the opposite of adding insult to injury? Icing to cake? 

Anyway, it was warm enough for me to get out and garden for the first time in months, and it felt really good. Not much to do yet, but it is the time to cut back any perennial stalks that you left up for the winter for vertical interest and birds, and it’s also time to cut back your ornamental grasses, which is what I did today. Note to self: Next fall, plant lots of bulbs amidst the grasses so that something green and colorful will be coming up after the grasses have been cut back and before they start to grow in again. More on this in a minute.

Ornamental grasses are a wonderful plant for any garden, including the healing garden. Many people think that a “healing garden” has to have medicinal plants. Not necessarily so! While herbs are certainly great – for actual medicinal use, or as symbols of healing, or just because they smell good and are therefore a delight to the senses – many more healing gardens don’t have any medicinal plants at all, or they have a mix of herbs, vegetables and fruit, trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and any other kind of plant material that seems appropriate for the intended user (the technical term for the person who will be enjoying the garden) and the space. 

Here are some reasons why I think ornamental grasses are ideal for healing gardens:

1. They are beautiful! Aesthetically speaking, ornamental grasses really do it for me. So reasons #1-6 all have to do with beauty.

2. Color: Who can resist the bright and rich greens, bronzes, tans, and even reds of grasses, a constantly shifting display of color throughout the year? From the moment they emerge from the ground to when they get cut back in the spring, grasses put on a show of sometimes subtle, sometimes stop-in-your tracks color variation. 

3. Play with light: If you’ve ever seen bright-red Japanese bloodgrass (Imperata) in summer or copper little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium, above) in autumn backlit by the sun, you have experienced a thing of true beauty. Sometimes it’s the foliage that gets highlighted, sometimes the flowers, and sometimes both; when you’re thinking about where to site grasses, keep in mind where the light comes from; backlighting can have a really dramatic effect. 

4. Movement: Most grasses are very light and airy, and therefore catch the slightest movement of air. There’s something enchanting about seeing grasses dancing and shimmering in the breeze.

5. Seasonal interest: Most grasses offer almost four whole seasons of interest. There’s about a month in the early spring when they get cut back (hence the note to self about bulbs to fill in the gaps), but other than that they put on a great show year-round with changing colors of foliage and flowers, and with texture as well. Like evergreens but with more variation, they provide a kind of structure and continuity in the garden as other plants around them appear, grow, bloom, fade, and go dormant again.

Other great reasons to use grasses:

7. Sound: Many ornamental grasses make a rustling sound when moved by the breeze, bringing an element of sound into the garden. That gentle “ssshhh” adds another layer to the sensory experience, and can even stand in for visual elements in gardens for the visually impaired. 

8. Critter-proof! Whether you’re battling squirrels, deer, Japanese beetles or any other kind of pest, grasses are pretty tough. Most animals (other than my dogs – they love to chew on some of my grasses!) don’t like them. 

9. Low maintenance: As mentioned above, most ornamental grasses are pretty good at fending for themselves. Other than being cut back in the spring, they don’t need the pruning, staking, deadheading, raking, etc. that we have to do for our other beloved garden inhabitants. 

10. Good in containers. Grasses do well in pots and other containers, making them excellent candidates for small-space, rooftop, and other types of container gardens. They can act as nice vertical and or/softening accents, they are often drought- and wind-tolerant, and they (usually -see below!) get along well with their neighbors. 

Caution Caveat: A few species of ornamental grasses (especially pampas grass) have very sharp blades (I guess they don’t call them blades for nothing); if you’re using grasses for a children’s garden or another space where people might grab hold or have to brush past, make sure to plant the kinder, gentler, touch-friendly species.

Also, a few species of ornamental grasses do not make good neighbors; they can be a garden nuisance (Hakonochlea and Stipa tennuissima, for example) or even a threat to native grasses and other flora (especially pampas grass, runner bamboos, and varieties of Miscanthus in some parts of the country). So whether it’s your own garden and especially if it’s a garden for a client, do your homework: Make sure you’re not saddling yourself or someone else with a lovely but unruly beast! Here are a couple of articles to start you off: “Native and Invasive Ornamental Grasses” and “Bad Boys of Ornamental Grasses.

Oh, and one more thing: Here’s an interesting article on caring for ornamental grasses – turns out it depends on whether they are really grasses (vs. sedges or rushes). Thanks to gardenmentor for sending me the link on twitter!

(Especially in Winter), Feed the Birds

White-throated sparrow. Photo by Henry Domke,

White-throated sparrow. Photo by Henry Domke,

A bird’s life is tough in winter when food supplies and drinking water are scarce. This makes it an ideal time for us humans to participate in “armchair birdwatching.” If you keep your feeders and baths full and clean (and heated, if temperatures gets below freezing), you’ll get to enjoy the show when your feathered friends come to visit. It’s a wonderful way to get kids interested in nature – who wouldn’t be excited about spotting a brilliant red cardinal or a bright yellow goldfinch? Armchair bird-watching can be enjoyed at any age. My great-aunt Stefanie, who is 94, loves watching the birds, especially on days when she can’t go outside. The other day I spied some kind of woodpecker with a brilliant red patch on its nape that put even the most showy cardinal to shame. I looked it up in my Field Guide to Birds of North America (which I keep near the window for precisely this reason, just as my parents did when I was growing up) and learned that it was a yellow-shafted northern flicker. Who knew? There’s something about seeing and watching birds that elicits fascination, wonder and delight in even the most curmudgeonly sorts, and you don’t even have to leave the cozy warmth of your home.

Here are some links if you want to learn more, do more or buy more to watch the birds and help them at the same time:

And here are some sites and articles specifically about winter bird-feeding:

If you buy one book on bird-watching, it should be a field guide to help you identify what you see. A guide to birds in your area is probably sufficient (see the first book on the list below for my favorite regional guide). Other recommendations for book on bird-watching and creating a garden for birds include:

  • My favorite book for the past couple of year has been the Birds of New York Field Guide, by Stan Tekiela – There’s one for every state, and some come with cds to help you identify bird calls:
  • The Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher
  • The National Wildlife Federation Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Backyard Wildlife
  • Sally Roth’s Attracting Birds to Your Backyard
  • The Backyard Birdlover’s Field Guide, by the same author
  • Projects for the Birder’s Garden