Planting the Healing Garden: Joys of Early Spring (Redux)

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) in bloom. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) in bloom. Photo by Naomi Sachs

I wrote a post last year on this subject, and as it’s April again and I still feel the same way about the wonders of early spring (in my neck of the woods, anyway – I realize that down south things are much further along, and that things are way different in other parts of the country and world), I’m pointing you to that post from last year. Lots of pretty pictures in addition to my usual words of wisdom:) Planting the Healing Garden: The Quiet Joys of Early Spring. Enjoy!

The Healing Garden in Early Spring: A good time for planning

Crocuses and an early pollinator. Photo courtesy of Chiot's Run,

Photo courtesy of Chiot's Run,

Just a little green
Like the color when the spring is born.
There’ll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow.

– Joni Mitchell, ‘Little Green’

Every year at this time, I kick myself for not having planted spring-blooming bulbs last fall. Other people are mooning about their snowdrops and crocuses, and I spy them blooming gayly, in spite of the cold, from gardens all over town. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s crocuses…

So don’t follow my example. In other words, do as I say, not as I do: Now is the time to look at your (or your clients’) garden – as depressing a sight as it may be if you live in northern climes – and think about what and where you might like to see things that will tide you over until everything starts going gangbusters in April or May. Take notes so that when fall rolls around, you will remember what to buy and where to plant. Write yourself a letter or a poem pleading with your future self to follow through with your plans. Take pictures of the barren ground from which, in your mind’s eye, you see brilliant sparks of hope waving to you like little beacons, and attach them to your letter/poem. I would (will!) plant crocuses and other early bloomers where I could see them from my kitchen window, which is the window that I most often gaze out of all year long. Perhaps also near the front door and outside my office window.

Crocuses, March. Photo by Philomena Kiernan

Crocuses, March. Photo by Philomena Kiernan

Also think about other plants, like evergreens – where could they be placed, as large statements or as small whispers tucked in here and there to provide green relief from the monotony of winter’s browns and greys? (more…)

It’s in the Dirt! Bacteria in soil may make us happier, smarter

Yum, dirt! Photo by Guy Ambrosino.A big thank you to Horticulture Magazine for featuring this post on their website. We are honored to be chosen as one of their Best Gardening Blogs 2011!

AND to the National Wildlife Federation for featuring this article as a guest post on their blog!

Many people, including me, talk about the restorative benefits of gardening (see last Tuesday’s post, for example) and the reasons why it makes us feel good. Just being in nature is already therapeutic, but actively connecting with nature through gardening is value-added. And why is that? All sorts of reasons have been posited: It’s a meditative practice; it’s gentle exercise; it’s fun; it allows us to be nurturing and to connect with life on a fundamental level.

And some recent research has added another missing piece to the puzzle: It’s in the dirt. Or to be a little more specific, a strain of bacterium in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, has been found to trigger the release of seratonin, which in turn elevates mood and decreases anxiety. And on top of that, this little bacterium has been found to improve cognitive function and possibly even treat cancer and other diseases. Which means that contact with soil, through gardening or other means (see Elio, above), is beneficial. How did this discovery come about?


Allotment Therapy: More empirical evidence on the salutary benefits of gardening

    Warrenville Lakes Homeowners Community Garden. Photo by Shawna Coronado,

Warrenville Lakes Homeowners Community Garden. Photo by Shawna Coronado,

Speaking of allotment gardens (see our 1/13 post about Charlie Hopkinson’s photography of allotment gardens), here’s an interesting study:

30 allotment gardeners were assigned to do a stressful task (not related to gardening). Immediately after, half of the gardeners worked in their own allotment plot and half read indoors, both for 30 minutes. With both groups, cortisol (a stress indicator) and self-reported stress levels went down, but they decreased significantly more in the group that gardened. I think I’m going to build me a greenhouse…

And here’s a moving blog by someone who struggles with depression and finds solace in her allotment garden. The blog is Allotment Therapy: A personal view of Ecotherapy, and the post is “The Wisdom of Plants.”

Stay tuned for another article on this topic, coming very soon!

Full abstract (link to the Journal of Health Psychology website to access the abstract and to buy the article): Stress-relieving effects of gardening were hypothesized and tested in a field experiment. Thirty allotment gardeners performed a stressful Stroop task and were then randomly assigned to 30 minutes of outdoor gardening or indoor reading on their own allotment plot. Salivary cortisol levels and self-reported mood were repeatedly measured. Gardening and reading each led to decreases in cortisol during the recovery period, but decreases were significantly stronger in the gardening group. Positive mood was fully restored after gardening, but further deteriorated during reading. These findings provide the first experimental evidence that gardening can promote relief from acute stress.

Full citation: Van Den Berg, Agnes and Custers, Mariëtte H.G. (2011). “Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress.” Journal of Health Psychology, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 3-11.

Color in the winter garden: Beyond trees and shrubs

Blue chair. Photo by Naomi SachsWinter in the garden consists mostly of earth-toned hues – browns, tans, buffs, greys – and these do have their subtle charms. But around January, I start to pine for color.

Yes, trees and shrubs can fulfill that need – evergreens, of course, and also trees like Hawthorns, with their bright red berries that persist until spring, and shrubs like red- and yellow-twig dogwood with bark that is striking against a backdrop of snow.

But don’t feel limited to plants. I have one very durable blue metal chair that stays out all winter long, and it brings me cheer. I’ve seen brightly painted garden walls and fences, furniture, pots, sculpture, and all sorts of other non-plant-material garden elements that stand out and provide color between November and April. What about you? What’s “blooming” in your winter garden? Now is the time to gaze out the window and think about where you might want those bright sparks that bring joy and hope on a cold, grey winter’s day.

To Rake or Not to Rake? Good Question!

Autumn leaves photo by Allison Vallin,

Photo courtesy of Allison Vallin,

Well, it’s November, and if your yard looks anything like mine, the leaves are starting to pile up. So, do you rake them, do you let them be, does a landscaping crew come with their leaf-blowers and haul them away? This year, I’ve seen several articles suggesting that gardeners not rake. Leaves make excellent mulch and they attract and protect all kinds of beneficial wildlife. And they’re free! Personally, as I live under two giant white oak trees, I feel the need to rake some (in fact, in Ellen Sousa’s recent blog post “Leave those leaves!” in which she advocates for not raking, she makes an exception for oak leaves). Carole Brown of Ecosystem Gardening and co-founder of Beautiful Wildlife Garden posted a good “to rake or not to rake” discussion that touches on many reasons why people do and don’t (and even should and shouldn’t) rake: “I am the Lorax, I Speak for the Leaves.”

Autumn leaves photo by Allison Vallin

Photo courtesy of Allison Vallin

A recent article in Fine Gardening (“Improve Your Soil by Raking Less“) provides lots of ideas about how to turn your leaves into gold. For leaves on the lawn, you can run them over with a mulching mower. Rather than smothering it, the organic matter and nutrients in the leaves will improve turf quality. You can rake leaves into garden beds to create mulch that both protects and feeds. You can even build planting beds with leaves. I highly recommend all three of the above-mentioned online articles for information and inspiration.

If you do choose to rake, think of it as an exercise opportunity rather than a burdensome chore. Who needs the gym when you’ve got leaves! Raking is one of many gardening activities that, if done for 30 minutes a day, can increase metabolic rate, reduce blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels, tone muscles, improve flexibility, and even improve cardiovascular fitness – enough to reduce the risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes. Raking burns approximately 375 calories per hour (for comparison, jogging burns about 430 calories per hour).

Autumn leaves photo by Allison Vallin

Photo courtesy of Allison Vallin

Many horticultural therapy programs include raking, both for the physical and psychological benefits. It’s something most of us have done at some point in our lives, and it often brings back fond memories (mine are a lot like these pictures, jumping into and playing in big piles of leaves).

So if you’ve got leaves, the decision is yours what to do with them. But whether you rake them up, leave them be (sorry, couldn’t resist) or something in between, try to think of them as yet another gift from the garden.

Many thanks to Allison Vallin and her lovely blog, A Tasteful Garden, for the photos.

Garden Designers Roundtable: Thoughts and Evidence on Therapy and Healing in the Garden

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.
~ John Burroughs

Autumn crocus, The High Line, New York City. Photo by Naomi Sachs

This blog post comes courtesy of the Garden Designers Roundtable, who invited me to be their first-ever guest blogger. I’m honored and excited to be participating in today’s roundtable discussion, the theme of which is “Therapy and healing in the garden.” All photos are by Naomi Sachs.

Some Thoughts and Evidence on Therapy and Healing in the Garden

The idea that gardens and landscapes foster good health seems like a no-brainer, especially to gardeners and garden/landscape designers/architects. It’s like telling Newton that apples really do fall down. Sadly, though I’m preaching to the choir here today, many people still haven’t grasped this concept, and we can find all too many examples of landscapes that are anything but healing (picture, if you will, a parking lot at the mall…). At the Therapeutic Landscape Network, we focus a lot of our attention on the design of hospitals and other healthcare environments because – oddly enough – they tend to be so far behind as places that facilitate health and well-being on a holistic level. We’re getting there, but we still have a long way to go.

For today, since a big part of the TLN’s mission is to connect designers and health and human service providers with the research they need to design beautiful, nurturing, successfully restorative spaces, I thought I’d highlight some of the evidence that we’ve blogged about over the years. In this case, research that “proves” that being in and interacting with nature is, indeed, restorative for body and soul. This research is important because it’s positive ammunition. It’s what makes CEOs, and policy makers, and grant funders and our clients sit up and take notice (and change the laws and sign the checks!). I’ve provided a one-sentence summary of the research, with the title of each related blog post that you can link to for more information and full citations.

But first, for background, the seminal ‘View Through a Window’ study:
In 1984, Roger Ulrich studied two sets of patients, both in the same hospital, both recovering from the same surgery. The key difference: One group’s view from their window was of nature – grass, trees and sky; the other’s was of a brick wall. Ulrich found that the patients with the nature view complained less, required less pain medication, and made a faster recovery. Here, finally, was empirical proof of the salutary benefits of nature. Ulrich’s paper, published in the journal Science, got the attention of the medical community and legitimized the field of evidence-based design. Evidence-based design being the use of quantitative, and sometimes qualitative, research to design environments that facilitate health and improve outcomes. Since then, hundreds of studies have been published. Some, like those cited below, continue to demonstrate that contact with nature is good for people; some explore how people benefit, and what conditions are best for specific groups, needs, and situations (e.g., children; seniors with dementia; gardens for people who are immuno-compromised).

Innisfree, Millbrook, NY

The evidence since ‘View Through a Window.’ A few good examples:

Trees, greenery, and other vegetation make neighborhoods safer and more desirable. They even play a role in boosting students’ grades and reducing the risk of domestic violence.
See “Healing the Neighborhood: The Power of Gardens.”

Plants in an office setting improve worker satisfaction, creativity, and productivity.
See “I Demand Satisfaction! The Role of Nature in Job Satisfaction.”

As little as 10 minutes spent outside improves attention in children with ADHD; neighborhoods with more green space improve body mass index of children and youth.
See “Nature Deficit Disorder: Getting Kids Outdoors.” For many more resources on nature-based learning and play for kids, visit our Get Out and Play! page.

Uma, picking serviceberries. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Gardening improves health and happiness, including reducing heart rate and blood pressure.
See “Horticultural Therapy in the Wall Street Journal.” Horticultural Therapy is “a professional practice that uses the cultivation of plants and gardening activities to improve the mental and physical health of its participants,” (definition courtesy of the Horticultural Therapy Institute). Hort therapists often work with occupational and physical therapists in a garden setting; gardens that are designed specifically for this kind of therapy are called rehabilitation gardens. For more information, see the horticultural therapy page on our website and for a really inspiring post about the power of horticultural therapy, see A Life Worth Living: The Garden as Healer.

Exposure to nature makes people more altruistic and generous.
It’s true, Nature Makes Us Nicer!

Autumn leaves. Photo by Naomi Sachs

I hope that now that you’ve been introduced to the Therapeutic Landscapes Network Blog, you’ll stay awhile and read some of our older posts, and that you’ll visit us again for new ones (you can also sign up to have posts emailed to you). I welcome your comments, which can often lead to great dialog on the TLN Blog.

Many thanks again to the Garden Designers Roundtable for the invitation and warm welcome as a guest blogger. Visit the GDRT website (, or click on the links below, to read other bloggers’ posts (and to see some great pictures) – it’s an excellent group, and each blogger has something interesting to say on the topic.

Genevieve Schmidt, North Coast Gardening: Designing a Landscape for Colorblind People
Ivette Soler, The Germinatrix: Plant a Garden, The Life You Save Might Be Your Own
Jenny Petersen, J Petersen Garden Design: Therapeutic Spaces
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber, Hegarty Webber Partnership: Homage to Ariadne: Labyrinthine Therapy
Rochelle Greayer, Studio “G”: A Tale About What Makes a Garden Healing

Planting the Healing Garden: Plant Bulbs Now for Spring Joy

Siberian squill (Scilla siberica). Photo by Naomi Sachs

Siberian squill. Photo by Naomi Sachs

The growing season may be winding down, but the gardening season is still in full-swing (and I don’t just mean raking!). Fall is a great time for planting many shrubs, trees and perennials (it’s a good time to divide those perennials as well). It’s also the only time to plant most spring-blooming bulbs. After enduring a long winter with few signs of life in the garden, is there anything more exciting than seeing the first snowdrops appear? They are a sorely needed sign that spring – and more importantly, the end of winter – is imminent. Spring bulbs cheer up any landscape, and they give interest to a garden when most plants are either still dormant or just starting to leaf out.


Daffodils in April. Photo by Naomi Sach

Just like it’s hard to bring ourselves to buy a wool sweater in summer, even if it’s on sale, it’s a challenge to think about spring bulbs when summer is in her full glory. Which is fine, since that’s not the time to plant them anyway. If your garden is like mine, then its major bloom-time is now over, and you’re starting to see some holes, which is also what you’ll see in early spring. The perfect time to assess your garden and decide where to plant the earliest bloomers.

Some of my favorite bulbs are snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), crocuses, daffodils (Narcissus spp.), Siberian squill, and early iris (Iris reticulata), but there are many more. The Better Homes and Gardens website has a nice slideshow of early bloomers, and BBC Gardening Guides has a good primer on bulb basics. So go ahead, get some bulbs in the ground – you’ll be delighted in the spring!

Postscript: I got this wonderful comment from a member on the TLN’s Facebook page and would like to share it here, because I think she summed it up so perfectly: “I think bulbs are especially important in healing gardens because of their early awakening in the gray thaw of early spring; always the promise of renewed life!”

A Life Worth Living: The Garden as Healer

Monarch Butterfly by Henry Domke

Monarch butterfly photo by Henry Domke,

I gave a “walking talk” yesterday on Restorative Landscapes at the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries in Beacon, NY. One of the participants, Mike, took the 1-hour train up from New York City, a beautiful ride along the Hudson River. Ten years ago, Mike lay in a hospital bed at NYU Medical Center, recovering from 12 hours of surgery after a traumatic brain injury. As I was driving him back to the train station after the talk, I asked him if he was familiar with the Enid Haupt Glass Garden at the Howard Rusk Institute, which is on the NYU campus. He most certainly was, and he shared the following story with me:

“After my surgery, I couldn’t do much of anything; like a stroke victim, I could barely talk or move. I had been a successful electrical engineer who flew all over the world for work. Now, suddenly, I was a 50 year old man who couldn’t do even the most ordinary tasks. It was dawning on me that I might forever be dependent on others’ care. That suddenly I had become a burden to my family and friends. I was depressed and suicidal. I started “looking at windows funny.” All the more depressing was the fact that even if I wanted to, I probably didn’t even have the capability to take my own life. As part of my rehabilitation, I started going down to the Glass Garden for horticultural therapy. They had us plant little seeds in soil, and water those seeds. Soon after, shoots began to emerge, to grow into little plants. And my life began to be worth something. I could grow something, care for and nurture it. Something relied on me; I was not just a dependent. It was a 180- degree turn. Life was again worth living.”

Garden “woo-woo” – A Video from Margaret Roach

Hosta and European ginger

Hosta and European ginger in Margaret Roach's garden

Because mixing things up is always a good idea (okay, almost always), I’m interrupting my thesis on gardens in healthcare for some eye candy with a message: Margaret Roach’s first video, in which she explains the meaning of the “woo-woo” in her tagline, “horticultural how-to and woo-woo.” It’s a gorgeous video, with lots of images from Margaret’s garden that will make you feel good just to look at (unless you get jealous, but that’s a risk you’re just going to have to take). What really impressed me was what she has to say, which, if you’re reading this blog and are a member of the TLN, will almost certainly resonate . Gardening was Margaret’s first spiritual practice, and it’s often a humbling experience. I especially love her description of the picnics during the cherry blossom festival in Japan. People gather as the blossoms begin to shatter and fall, because it “reminds them of the ephemeral nature of everything beautiful and important, including our own human lives.” If you don’t yet know Margaret Roach, consider this your introduction. She was the garden editor and then editorial director at ‘Martha Stewart Magazine’ for 15 years, and now spends most of her time in upstate New York, gardening and writing. Her blog, A Way to Garden, is always a pleasure to see and read and often has great horticultural information as well. I had the pleasure of seeing this little piece of paradise in May at a “garden tweet-up” (Twitter meet-up, when a bunch of garden and horticulture geeks get together and ooh and aah and speak a lot of genus-and-species Latin), and these are a couple of the pictures that I took on that lovely day. You can view the video on Margaret’s blog – Enjoy!