Mountain Laurel and Russel Wright

Native mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) at Manitoga today

I’m lucky enough to live in the lower Hudson Valley, home – among many other wonderful things – of the Russel Wright Design Center in Garrison, NY. When Wright found the property in 1942, it was a former quarry that had been marred by a century of quarrying and lumbering. He made it his home, and began to “heal” the damaged landscape where he lived and worked. He named the place “Manitoga,” which means Place of the Great Spirit in Algonquin. “Over the next three decades, until his death in 1976, he carefully redesigned and re-sculpted Manitoga’s 75 acres using native plants, his training as a theater designer and sculptor, and his innovative design ideas. Though the landscape appears natural, it is actually a careful design of native trees, rocks, ferns, mosses, and wild flowers.”* (He also built a beautiful house and studio there, and made some pretty cool dishware as well).

My favorite examples of healing gardens are those where the designers have done their part to heal the site, and in so doing, have created a place that restores and rejuvenates us, as well.

It’s a beautiful site throughout the year, and when the native mountain laurel is in bloom, it’s simply stunning. Wright once said, “When in full bloom, the mountain laurel reminds me of fields of strawberry ice cream.” Yum. But of course this wouldn’t be the TLDBlog without a caveat, so here goes: Mountain laurel may be beautiful, but it’s also quite toxic! Not for planting in gardens for children, the developmentally disabled, and people with dementia. You can read more about what plants use with caution on the Therapeutic Landscapes Database Plants page.

Beech sapling emerging from quarry stone

More on scent and memory – Guest post by Wendy Meyer

Image courtesy Henry Domke,

Photo by Henry Domke,

Wendy Meyer, a recent MLA graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington left such an informative comment on the last blog post, on scent as an emotional memory trigger, that I thought it was worth printing in its entirety, especially since she provides a link to her thesis, “Persistence of Memory: Scent Gardens for Therapeutic Life Review in Communities for the Elderly.”

Aha, I finally figured out how to post a comment! I wrote my master’s thesis in landscape architecture on this subject–specifically, on using fragrant plants in gardens for elderly people to help conduct reminiscence therapy. There is a ton of new brain science being done on the links between smells, emotions and memories. It turns out that early, emotional autobiographical memories are strongly related to smells, because of the way the brain evolved. I looked at how reminiscence helps older people come to terms with their lives, historic use of scent in gardens as well as history of therapeutic gardens. I also interviewed a group of practitioners for their advice and insights on using scent for therapy in gardens. I got different perspectives from landscape architects who design therapeutic gardens, nurses/therapists who work with elderly populations and horticultural therapists who work in all kinds of settings. One of the recurring themes was the need for everyone involved to work together in creating these gardens–not just garden designers and hospital/nursing home administrators, but the therapy staff, families, patients and (not to be forgotten!) the maintenance staff. I spent two and a half years reading and could have spent lots longer (but I needed to graduate)! You can see the thesis at this link: Or if that doesn’t work, I’m sending a PDF to the Therapeutic Landscapes Network website.

When I asked Wendy for permission to post this, and mentioned I might use a rose for the image, here’s what she had to say:

“Roses were probably the flower that came up the most–particularly rugosas, because the hips have a distinctive scent–but also lavender, gardenias, rosemary and lilac. People mentioned a lot of scents outside the garden as well–firs in the Northwest, sagebrush after a thunderstorm in the Southwest, crabapple blossoms in Wisconsin. I have a bunch of plant lists in the appendices–that was one of the fun parts to put together!”

Thanks so much, Wendy!

Scent as emotional memory trigger in the healing garden

Lilac image courtesy What Do I Know? blog

Image courtesy What Do I Know?

Lilacs. Roses. Jasmine. Gardenia. Freshly mown grass. Chaparral. Depending on where you grew up, these scents probably conjure up some pretty powerful emotions and memories. In fact, of the five, our olfactory sense is the strongest emotional memory trigger. According to a June ’09 issue of Organic Gardening, “That’s because the part of our brain responsible for basic memory evolved out of the tissue that makes up the olfactory cortex.” For a slightly more detailed explanation, see this article on the psychology of scent, “Whisking up a memory with a whiff: Rachel Herz explores the psychology of scent.“) And here’s another good one, from Science & Tech: “Can you really smell memories? How childhood scents get ‘etched’ on the brain.” See also our next blog post, a guest post by Wendy Meyer that includes a link to her thesis “Persistence of Memory: Scent Gardens for Therapeutic Life Review in Communities for the Elderly.

Fragrance in the healing garden

For this reason, using plants with fragrant flowers and foliage is an important part of designing the healing garden.* Especially in nursing homes, dementia gardens, and other landscapes for people with memory loss, scent can be very powerful. Consider this story, from Martha M. Tyson’s wonderful book The Healing Landscape: Therapeutic Outdoor Environments, about our colleague Vince Healy:

Vince’s grandmother was in her nineties. For quite some time she had not recognized Vince and was not really fully aware of what was going on around her. Since it was Easter time, Vince decided to pay her a visit. During his drive there, Vince came upon a roadside stand that advertised lilacs for sale. In southern California, lilacs do not grow well. This stand, however, had great quantities of them, and they were cheap. So Vince brought an enormous number of the lilacs and put them in the back of his van…By the time Vince arrived at the nursing home, the lilacs were looking very sad. When Vince walked into his grandmother’s room, she looked at him as always, blankly, and then she looked at the flowers. “They’re wilted! Throw them away!” After all this effort Vince was not about to throw them away, so he moved the lilacs closer, right under her nose. She drew in the fragrance with a deep breath and a sigh and said, “Lilacs….” Then she looked up at Vince and said, “Vinnie, how are you?”

Designing with fragrance as an emotional memory trigger

But even with less miraculous results, scents that elderly people remember fondly – “old-fashioned” flowers like lilacs, honeysuckle, gardenia, mock orange, roses – can evoke positive feelings and often facilitate conversations, thus providing something important but often lacking in places like nursing homes: Personal connection. Because our sense of smell often decreases as we age, strongly scented plants have a better chance of triggering a reaction than something subtle. I highly recommend Tyson’s book for more information, and Clare Cooper Marcus and Marni Barnes’ book Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations is also valuable, especially the Chapter 8 on nursing home gardens and Chapter 9 on Alzheimer’s treatment gardens. Several other books have been published on gardens for the elderly, including Jack Carman et al’s new book Recreating Neighborhoods for Successful Aging. If you know of books that specifically address this issue of scent as a memory trigger in healing gardens, I’ll add it to our list!

*One caveat: In some cases, such as with gardens for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, even a good scent may be too overwhelming, and even nauseating. I don’t know of any specific research on what to steer clear of – if anyone reading this knows, please pass the information my way and I’ll list it on the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s website.

Where’d the blogger go?

Image courtesy Henry Domke Fine Art

It’s been weeks since the last blog post. I’m sorry. This happened last year, too, because right now, this TLN blogging thing is a one-woman show, and the one woman happens to be frantically busy since spring arrived on the scene. The new Therapeutic Landscapes Network website is getting close to completion, which is very exciting (and very time-consuming). We plan to launch in June. Design work has also picked up – whether that’s a sign of a gradually recovering economy or just spring, I’m not sure, but I’m grateful. 

The TLN is also looking for a summer intern! If you or someone you know would like to live in or near Beacon, NY (60 miles north of NYC – an easy ride on the Metro North line) this summer and work (part-time, unpaid) on most aspects of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network, please see our post on the ASLA joblink website. This is a great opportunity to learn about healing gardens and other landscapes that facilitate health and wellness; to learn or hone valuable skills such as writing, research, development, communication, grantwriting, Dreamweaver and HTML, and pretty much anything else that goes on here; and of course to help the TLN grow and thrive. If you’re interested, post a comment and we’ll get back with you. 

In the meantime, please be patient and stay tuned for the big launch and the TLN offering even more great information and abilities for people to connect and collaborate; we promise it’ll be worth the wait!

New book! “Restorative Commons: Creating Health and Well-being through Urban Landscapes”

I’m very excited about this hot-off-the-press book, the result of the 2007 Meristem Forum “Restorative Commons for Community Health.” This collection of 18 articles, edited by Lindsay Campbell and Anne Wiesen and published by the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station, “…explores human health in relation to the urban environment, drawing attention to sites and programs that utilize restorative design, foster civic stewardship of natural resources, and promote resilient neighborhoods.” If you know what the Therapeutic Landscapes Network is about (providing information and education about landscapes that facilitate health and well-being), you know we’re all over this one! You can get more information, and request or download a copy of the book, by clicking on this Meristem splashpage.

An “Urban Book Launch” is the first in a series of upcoming events surrounding the book’s release. It will be in New York City on Thursday, May 7th at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, 66 Fifth Avenue at 13th Street. Book talk from 6-7 PM and book signing from 7-8 PM.
See you there!

Planting the Healing Garden: Medicinal Herbs

Lavender fields image courtesy Oregon Lavender Festival website,

Lavender fields image courtesy Oregon Lavender Festival website,

One of the most frequently-asked questions at the Therapeutic Landscapes Network is about what grows in a healing garden. Many people assume that a “therapeutic landscape” is a garden filled with herbs grown and harvested for their medicinal properties – in essence, that the healing comes from the plants in the garden. And this is certainly true some of the time (for a more thorough explanation about and definition of healing gardens, therapeutic landscapes, and landscapes for health, see this post and this post). More often, though, a healing garden is simply a garden filled with plants; research has shown that the more heavily planted a garden is, the more restorative it will be. The type of plant seems to be less important, though a variety of flora that stimulates the senses is a good start.

That said, many healing gardens contain at least some medicinal herbs, which are grown for a variety reasons: Their scent, or texture, or aesthetic qualities, or for their symbolism (for example, Topher Delaney designed the Carolyn S. Stolman Healing Garden at the Avon Foundation Breast Center in San Francisco, CA with plants that were traditionally used to treat cancer). Are they always harvested, processed, and used for salutary purposes? Nope. The fact is that especially in a healthcare setting, there often isn’t time or knowledge or the right equipment for, say, distilling Echinacea flowers into the tincture that you would use to boost the immune system. Are they beautiful, native, easy-to-maintain flowers that attract butterflies and symbolize health? Absolutely! Do they get harvested to ward off the common cold? Not usually.

The wonderful thing about herbs is their versatility. Lavender, for example, is easy to grow; drought tolerant; beautiful; attracts honeybees; smells wonderful; and is easy to harvest for a variety of uses, including in tea, cooking, baking, and potpourri. Lavender is known for its calming properties, and, if distilled in a tincture, is an excellent anti-bacterial disinfectant.

Some other reasons to grow herbs:

1. Herbs are great for children’s gardens because they tend to be easy to grow and are a delight to the senses.

2. Many herbs do well in containers and small spaces, as they don’t take up much space and often need less water than other annuals or perennials. For many years, the only gardens I had were herb gardens in pots on steps or front porches.

3. To the delight of gardeners with deer, rabbits, and other ravenous garden invaders, many herbs are not attractive for nibbling. In fact, sometimes they can even act as a deterrent and a “mask” for other more inviting flora.

4. Herbs often do “double duty” as culinary and medicinal herbs. If you have a kitchen garden, you may already be growing medicinal herbs: Rosemary improves memory and circulation and relieves sore throats and gums; peppermint aids digestion and treats sore throats, colds, and toothaches; parsley cures urinary tract infections and also helps to alleviate bad breath; marjoram treats tonsillitis, asthma, and bronchitis; thyme is used to treat gastrointestinal problems as well as sore throats and coughs; lemon balm is calming; basil reduces fever, lowers blood pressure, and is also an analgesic.

Sometimes you don’t even have to grow medicinal herbs – you can simply find them in your backyard or woods; those dandelions and pursane plants that are “ruining” your lawn? Think of them (or better yet, use them!) as medicinal herbs and/or delicious, nutritious greens and maybe your grass will look greener on this side (who needs a full-blown victory garden when you can just graze from your weedy lawn, right?). Worried about the stinging nettle at the edge of the garden? Harvest it – carefully! – to treat a whole slew of ailments, as well as for delicious meals like nettle soup.

With any herb, a little research may be needed to find out what part of the plant to use and how to prepare it for use in an herbal remedy. Sometimes it’s as simple as harvesting the flowers (chamomile, lavender) or leaves (lemon balm, peppermint) and making tea, other times preparation may be a bit more complex.

There are so many good books and websites about medicinal herbs, but here are a few resources that we list on the Therapeutic Landscapes Network. If you know of a great book, website, organization, or garden as resource about medicinal herbs, please share it with us! We will gladly add it. We are also looking for more examples of healthcare gardens and horticultural therapy programs that use specific plant material, including medicinal herbs. Use the comments section at the end of this post to submit suggestions, ideas, and information.

To get you started, here’s a nice article from about common medicinal herbs that are easy to grow, harvest, and use.

And here are a few fairly comprehensive websites to bookmark as references:

Herbs to Herbs

Plants for a Future (Includes a 7,000 plant database for US and UK, and they have a book, too. Very impressive!)

Traditional Chinese Medicine Database System

The University of Washington Medicinal Herb Garden

And thanks to WMassHerbGarden on twitter for this recommendation: Growing 101 Herbs That Heal.

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.”

New ASLA Professional Practice Network: Children’s Outdoor Environments

Here’s another sign that people are recognizing the importance of outdoor environments for kids: The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) recently approved a new Professional Practice Network (PPN) on Children’s Outdoor Environments. The Healthcare and Therapeutic Design and other PPNs have touched on this subject, but it’s high time it had its own PPN, so kudos to Jena Ponti, this year’s chair, for making it happen. Here’s her guest blog post about the new ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN:

“Landscape architects play a critical role in advocating and designing a variety of places for children to play, learn, and develop a relationship with the natural environment to carry with them into adulthood and citizenship.  The movement to (re)connect children with nature has been steadily growing and gaining momentum.  

In a time when children, on average, spend 45 hours a week “plugged in” and less than 30 minutes a week in outdoor unstructured play, our profession has no option but to act.

One exciting step forward is the recent passing of the No Child Left Inside Act H.R. 3036 and S. 1981.  This Act symbolizes recognition on a federal level of the movement to uplift ecological literacy in schools through enhanced environmental education curriculum.  The NCLI Act requires K-12 school systems to strengthen environmental education curriculums, provide teacher training, and provide federal grant money for schools to pay for environmental education.  This Act will provide $100 million a year to support this work in participating school systems.”

For more information on the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN please contact Jena Ponti, RLA at or click HERE. 

Many thanks to Jena for this guest post, and to A.S. for the photo of his lovely daughter.

Alzheimer’s Awareness Perennial Garden

Better Homes & Gardens has teamed up with the Alzheimer’s Association to offer an exclusive Alzheimer Awareness Perennial Garden to help champion Alzheimer’s research and programs.
The collection of five perennials (echinacea, aster, salvia, phlox, and sedum) in whites and blues creates a beautiful, fragrant display that also attracts butterflies, all while raising awareness about and funding for Alzheimer’s disease.
The Alzheimer’s Association receives 10% of the gross sales from all Alzheimer’s Awareness Perennial Gardens (which sell for $99.95) to support research and services in communities nationwide for people touched by Alzheimer’s and related types of dementia. Recipients get a personalized gift card, planting instructions, and a planting plan. 
Nice idea, right? Thanks to Jasmine’s Blog for blogging about this first! As she so eloquently put it, “Not only does the garden raise funds for the fight against Alzheimer’s, but part of the beauty of the concept is the stress-reduction offered by the pastime of gardening. The Alzheimer’s Association hopes that some of the 10 million unpaid caregivers in America will find relaxation through gardening. The kit also makes a beautiful tribute to a loved one.”

Alzheimer’s Association conference in Houston, May 1st

Image of hawthorne blossoms courtesy of Lotus Petal’s Flickr page
Hawthorne is considered to be a good herb to improve 
memory and mental alertness. Learn more on this website.

Mark your calendars for the Alzheimer’s Association‘s Schlicting Education Conference for Professionals, May 1st, 2009 in Houston, TX. This announcement came through someone who’s interested in therapeutic landscapes, so imagine the conference will have some component about outdoor space. Find out more by visiting this website.
Many thanks to Suzanne at the Alzheimer’s Association’s Houston & Southeast TX Chapter for the heads-up!