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: 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.”

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.”

Forcing spring

Image from House Beautiful, 2008

It’s the third warm, sunny day here in the Hudson Valley, and it really feels like spring. Today I celebrated by cutting some stems from our giant forsythia hedge to force indoors. Even though forsythia and magnolia are three of the earliest spring-blooming shrubs (but later than witch hazel – see this post), we’ve still got a few weeks before they really burst into full glory. By taking cuttings and bringing them inside, you can trick trees and shrubs into thinking spring is further along, hence the term “forcing.” I actually could have done this weeks ago, but I always forget! You can force lots of other shrubs and trees, too, including azalea, flowering quince, pussywillow, witch hazel, serviceberry, redbud, rhododendron, beautybush, crabapple, and other fruit trees such as cherry, apricot, pear, and apple. To see some really gorgeous examples, check out this blog post from Habitually Chic: “Forcing Spring.” 

Forcing trees and shrubs is also a nice idea in the healthcare setting, particularly in long-term care facilities like nursing homes and hospices. Think how nice it would be in a place where residents have been cooped up indoors all winter, if the horticultural therapist or another health care worker or a family member took some cuttings and brought them indoors for a little spring preview. Or better yet, went with the residents on a “field trip” to prune a few branches on the grounds. Most long-term care facilities have flowering trees and shrubs, and as long as they are pruned carefully and not too overzealously, no one will miss a few branches here and there. If you are letting residents help, make sure to oversee the use of sharp tools, and of course no matter who’s doing the cutting, make sure to prune so that the actual tree or shrub isn’t harmed. Here’s a good article from, that tells you when and how: “Forcing Spring Flowering Trees and Shrubs.” A bouquet of twigs, then buds, then flowering branches becomes a great conversation piece and provides that joyful anticipation of spring’s arrival. 
Of course, people force bulbs, too. Paperwhites and hyacinths are the most popular two, but other spring bulbs work as well. Here’s a good article about that from “Forcing Flowering Bulbs for Winter Color.” 

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!

Planting the Healing Garden: First Signs of Spring

Where I live in the northeast U.S., winter can get a little tiresome after awhile. Sure, it’s nice to pore over garden catalogs and watch the birds and the falling snow from the warmth of the house, but around February I’m done with shoveling and long underwear and root vegetables, and I start to look for signs of spring, thinking please, tell me winter isn’t going to last forever! 
For me, witch hazel (Hamemelis spp.) is one of the earliest and most wonderful spring harbingers. I blogged about this last year in one of my first posts (see this one, too, for more) and this year she’s doing it again, this time maybe even a little earlier, and still under a blanket of snow. Tiny little red buds appeared on the spare tan-colored branches about two weeks ago, and they have slowly unfurled to provide some much-needed color in the dreary end-of-winter landscape, as well as fragrance and the promise that spring will, indeed, come again. Different witch hazels bloom at different times: My ‘Jelena’ blooms at least a month earlier than my ‘Arnold’s Promise,’ whose fragrant blooms look like shredded Forsythia blossoms. A friend just turned me on to the New Jersey Botanical Garden, which apparently has a wonderful witch hazel collection. I sense a field trip coming on.

Some other early-spring bloomers ’round these parts are blue Siberian squills (Scilla), pictured above, which poke through last year’s fallen leaves around the same time as the skunkweed; blue snow glories, or glory of the snow (Chionodoxa); Iris reticulata; and snowdrops (Galanthus). I’m actually not sure if snowdrops’ common name is for the whiteness of the blossom or the fact that they often push through the snow to bloom, as you can see in this lovely photo from Anette Linnea Rasmussen, but regardless, they sure make for a welcome change.

And of course, Crocuses! Remember that Joni Mitchell song, Little Green: “There’ll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow…” Curious about what other plants give people hope, I polled my network on twitter, and sure enough, Crocuses were the most popular early-spring bloomers. For perennials, Hellebores (also called Lenten rose for the bloom’s coinciding with Lent) were a favorite. And what about the rest of the country? In Maryland, the pussywillow is one person’s favorite, and a little south of there, in upstate South Carolina, Prunus mume does the trick. This photo by was taken in mid February, but they can bloom even earlier (though they do sometimes get damaged by frost). 

Prunus mume ‘Rosemary Clark.’ 
Photo by Karen Russ, © HGIC, Clemson Extension
In the Pacific northwest, primroses are the spring harbinger, as well as by Daphne odora – my Daphne blooms much later, so I don’t think of it as an early-spring plant, but I’m glad it is for somebody – the intoxicatingly fragrant blossoms must produce a Pavlovian like response up there in Seattle. 
One person responded that catnip was their favorite spring plant because as soon as its little green shoots start to emerge from the soil, the cats find it, get stoned, and frolick about. Now that’s spring fever! In Florida, it’s Viburnum and Hippeastrum. And in Los Angeles, though I would have thought it wouldn’t even matter, people still do like to mark the change of seasons. For some Angelinos, Freesias mean spring; for others, it’s miles of bright orange California poppies blanketing everything. Here’s a photo I took from the airplane in early March last year. No, the hills are not on fire, they are abloom with poppies.

And in case you want more inspiration, here’s a nice publication by Iowa State University Extension, Early Spring Blooming Perennials. So, dear readers, what about you? What plants help you get through those last few weeks of winter? Add a comment so we can see and take notes!

Dumpster Gardens

Who says you need a yard for your garden? Oliver Bishop-Young has thought of – and implemented – some very creative uses for dumpsters (called skips in the U.K.), including gardens. Click HERE to see more great examples including lawn, water garden, and swimming pool. Now that’s dumpster diving I can get into!  Thanks to James Westwater for turning me on to this.

Book Review: Gardening Nude, by Shawna Coronado

“Gardening nude is the answer for better mental and physical health – it is combining healthier lifestyle practices, a green conservation plan, and improving relationships though community. Gardening nude is a metaphor which describes a more satisfying way of life. It is discovering your naked truth and doing something with it to help make a difference for yourself and humanity. Gardening nude is getting out in nature (while still remaining fully clothed) to strip away the excuses, the emotional baggage, and the stress by improving your lifestyle and living healthier.” 

Shawna Lee Coronado has a mission: To inspire us to live our lives to the fullest in ways that are healthiest for us, for the planet, and for our community. In her new book Gardening Nude, she shows us how. 
Based on her own experience of poor physical and emotional health that improved dramatically as she began gardening and otherwise interacting more with both nature and her community, Shawna Coronado has developed the “Get Your Green On Healthy Philosophy.” This philosophy has three components: The Go Green Health Plan, the Simple Conservation Plan, and the Building Community Plan. In essence, it’s about living a healthier lifestyle while working with and helping those around us, and leaving a smaller carbon footprint in the process. 

The book is filled not only with hearty enthusiasm and encouragement, but with sound research from experts like Drs. Andrew Weil and Madeline Levine, and with real-life examples of people who, in one way or another, are living a healthy, environmentally conscious, and community-centered life. The book is also packed with steps we can all take to achieving better health. For example, in the “Green and Simple Conservation Plan” chapter, we learn about ways to live a more ecologically  – and therefore personally – sustainable life, including conserving water, making compost, recycling, and planting our garden to attract beneficial insects (thus attracting wildlife while at the same time reducing the need for pesticides). 

I’ll admit, when Shawna first contacted me about including me in the book (full disclosure: my organization, the Therapeutic Landscapes Network, is one of the “Examples from Real Life” in Chapter Five), the academic “professional” in me was reluctant to be in a publication with the word “nude” in the title. But I was easily won over because unlike so many books that “preach to the converted,” here was something that might actually reach more than a few people.  Shawna is one of the most enthusiastic and gregarious people I’ve ever met, traits that make her message accessible to people who might not otherwise heed the advice of “treehuggers” and “health nuts.”

I hope Shawna sells lots of copies of Gardening Nude so that it can soon be reprinted in larger type and with juicy color photos instead of black and white. And of course so that even more people can benefit from Shawna’s inspiring yet wholly practical Get Your Green On Healthy Philosophy. Copies of Gardening Nude are available from both of Shawna Coronado’s websites ( and ( You can get the book from, too, but why do that when you can get it straight from the author herself for the same price? That said, you should stop by Amazon for more reviews of Gardening Nude