Healing Garden

Garden = Life

Ulfelder Healing Garden, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Ulfelder Healing Garden, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Photo by Naomi Sachs

On my visit to one of three healing gardens last week in Boston, I waited in the hospital lobby for someone from administration to meet me. A pajama-clad man, connected through various tubes to an IV pole, ambled slowly by, his expression a combination of concentration and resignation. Someone grimaced while maneuvering, with difficulty, a wheelchair bearing the profound weight of an obese middle-aged woman. Doctors and interns in their scrubs and stethoscopes whisked quickly through the space to whatever important task awaited them.

And it dawned on me (not that this hasn’t occurred to me before, but there was something different, perhaps more immediate or visceral, this time): As much as hospitals are places for birth and healing, they are also inherently places of pain, sickness, and death. Most people begin their lives and bring forth new life in the hospital, and that is a wonderful thing. But other than that, we don’t really want to be there. Hospitals are where sick and injured people go to be healed, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Thus, they are places that elicit uncertainty, fear, and sadness.

And the environment itself, designed to be clean and efficient, is therefore sterile, intimidating, and alienating. It is so far from what most of us experience in our day-to-day lives.

And then there’s the garden. If you’re lucky, your hospital has a garden. And if it’s a good one, it’s an antidote, a life-affirming oasis, a desperately needed contrast to the strange machines, shiny surfaces, alien sounds, and assaulting smells. Gardens are about life. They contain green, living things; fresh air; birds; water. There is death in the garden, too, of course; plants don’t live forever. But somehow, even their death feels more natural, more just part of the cycle of life rather than a startling and traumatic interruption. And often even when plants look like they have died, we know that they have simply gone dormant: Autumn comes, leaves turn color and fall to the ground, and everything goes into hibernation. Then spring arrives and, as if by some miracle, green shoots emerge from the earth, from buds and branches. And the cycle begins again.

There is so much hope and promise in a garden. As Maude tells Harold in my all-time favorite movie, ‘Harold and Maude’:

“I like to watch things grow. They grow, and bloom, and fade, and die, and change into something else. Ah, life!”

Here’s a clip that includes that scene and the daisy scene, which comes right after: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4-xMPTduds&feature=related.

The biologist E.O. Wilson termed our affinity to nature “biophilia” – an innate attraction to life and living things.

So that was my realization. Without going into a zillion caveats, which I’m usually wont to do: Hospital = pain and sickness, and sometimes death. Garden = respite and life and hope.

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday, 7/13/11 – Fountain ripples

Fountain at Ulfelder Healing Garden, Massachusetts General Hospital

Fountain at Ulfelder Healing Garden, Massachusetts General Hospital

I had the good fortune to be able to visit the Ulfelder Garden at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston last week while attending the Design & Health World Congress. Stay tuned for a blog post with images and description of the garden. In the meantime, here’s an interesting article, from The Holistic Oncologist, about an evaluation of the garden based on guest book comments.

And here are some of the comments from the guest book on the day of my visit:

“Thank you to all the physicians that took care of my treatment this last day of treatment, 6/17 – this garden is ideal!”

“Thank you for this miracle garden.”

“Peace in the garden.”

“This is truly a healing garden.”



Butterfly magic, St. Louis Children’s Hospital Healing Garden

Painted Lady butterly on little hands, St. Louis Children's Hospital. Photo by Gary Wangler

Painted Lady butterly on little hands, St. Louis Children's Hospital. Photo by Gary Wangler

Last week, Painted Lady butterflies were released in the Olson Family Garden at the St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Gary Wangler, Horticulturist/Manager of Grounds Operations/Horticultural Therapist sent these photographs and this description:

“We do 2 releases each year. I get 100 larvae off the internet as a kit. The kids assemble the small containers with lids, place larvae food into each container, and in 3 weeks, we have butterflies. The last 3 days, I feed the butterflies with cotton balls that I have soaked with sugar water and on a nice day, we send word through the hospital about the release. At 1:00 in the Garden, patients and families come out to release the little winged creatures to the new world.”

This is the magic we can bring to people when they need it most.

The Olson Family Garden is one of the best examples of a children’s healing garden and rooftop healing garden. For more information, visit the St. Louis Children’s Hospital website, www.stlouischildrens.org/content/OlsonFamilyGarden.htm.

Butterflies awaiting release, St. Louis Children's Hospital. Photo by Gary Wangler

Butterflies awaiting release, St. Louis Children's Hospital. Photo by Gary Wangler

Painted Lady butterfly, St. Louis Children's Hospital. Photo by Gary Wangler

Painted Lady butterfly, St. Louis Children's Hospital. Photo by Gary Wangler

Butterfly release, St. Louis Children's Hospital. Photo by Gary Wangler

Butterfly release, St. Louis Children's Hospital. Photo by Gary Wangler

Butterfly release, St. Louis Children's Hospital. Photo by Gary Wangler

Butterfly release, St. Louis Children's Hospital. Photo by Gary Wangler

Many thanks, Gary, for these wonderful images! All photos by Gary Wangler. By consent of the guardian(s), these images may be used.

If you can only plant one thing, plant a tree

White oak. Photo by Henry Domke, http://henrydomke.com

White oak. Photo by Henry Domke, henrydomke.com

The best friend of earth of man is the tree.  When we use the tree respectfully and economically, we have one of the greatest resources on the earth.
–   Frank Lloyd Wright

Let’s say you are designing a healing garden – for a client or yourself – and you only have 10 square feet of planting space. You could plant a few shrubs, or a few more perennials, or a bunch of annuals. Or you could plant a tree. If there’s enough vertical space, and there usually is, go for the tree. Why? Here are some reasons:

Shade is one of the most important components of any therapeutic landscape, and yet it is overlooked so often that sometimes I just want to cry. I’ve seen countless designs that might be successful if enough shade were provided for people to actually enjoy the garden even on hot, sunny days. I’m going to do a whole post on this soon, but I’ll point out a couple key things here. Especially in the healthcare setting, shade is crucial. Many people are “photosensitive” – sensitive to sun and bright light, either because of their condition or from the medication that they’re on. Imagine a garden in a cancer center without shade. I’ve seen those! If you include trees in your design, make sure they are big enough when they go in to provide shade right away. See that mother who is visiting her sick child and wants to sit with him under a nice, shady tree for a few minutes? Look her in the eye and tell her to come back in five years when the tree will be big enough to provide adequate shade. Or plant a big tree and watch as people gravitate to and gather under its soothing, protective boughs. Speaking of which…

You can’t beat trees for symbolism. They are so strong and resilient, and yet so graceful, flexible, and nurturing. And they can live for hundreds of years. Pretty inspiring. Furthermore, lots of trees are used for medicinal purposes. Even if a willow isn’t actually harvested for its analgesic properties, it can still be a good symbol of pain relief in a setting where healing is the goal.

Alone with myself
The trees bend to caress me
The shade hugs my heart.
~Candy Polgar

Sensory engagement
Sight is the most obvious sense, and we can appreciate a tree from a distance, from below looking up at the leaves and the patterns of light filtered through them, from above looking down through a window onto green rather than brown or grey. Remember Roger Ulrich’s seminal study* of patients recovering from surgery? The view that the patients had who recovered faster and needed pain medication was of a grove of trees. (more…)

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, www.chiotsrun.com

Photo courtesy of Chiot's Run, www.chiotsrun.com

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…)

“Bonner Healing Garden: A Place of Solidarity at Life’s Threshold.” Guest post by Chris Garcia

In the following guest blog post, Chris Garcia, a U.C. Berkeley fellowship recipient for the study of healing gardens, writes about how Bonner Healing Garden facilitated an experience of emotional solidarity between him and six garden visitors at Bonner Community Hospice in Sandpoint, Idaho. To read the full the article, visit the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s References page.

“Bonner Healing Garden: A Place of Solidarity at Life’s Threshold”

Bonner Healing Garden, Sandpoint, ID. Photo by Chris Garcia

Old-growth Cottonwoods and natural materials convey a sense of permanence. Photo by Chris Garcia

A gray and white pencil sketch faces Debra Kellerman, Director of Bonner Hospice, as she works at her desk. The sketch is composed of ghostly human figures that dance around the garden chapel, climb its pitched roof, grow wings, and ascend toward the moonlit night sky. Kellerman bought the drawing from a sixth-grade artist for twenty-five dollars, at a community auction to raise funds for the Healing Garden. “I think this drawing really captures how kids see the Healing Garden,” says Kellerman. The drawing is a symbol of the invisible community spirit that pervades Bonner Healing Garden; a place that fosters collective meaning and provides hope at life’s threshold where the “transformative ascent” is comfortable dying.

Bonner Healing Garden, Sandpoint, ID. Photo by Chris Garcia

The meditation chapel provides a private shelter for grieving and contemplation. Photo by Chris Garcia

I first read about Sandpoint’s Bonner Healing Garden in an article when preparing a list of healthcare facilities to visit for my fellowship granted by the University of California, Berkeley.


Finally! A Sure Sign of Spring

Hamamelis 'Jelena,' 2008. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Hamamelis 'Jelena,' 2008. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Well, it wasn’t easy coming home to below-freezing temperatures yesterday after spending a week of summer in tropical Peru. My “office” on Saturday was in the hotel courtyard in Lima.

TLN branch office, Lima, Peru. Photo by Naomi Sachs

TLN branch office, Lima, Peru. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Today I’m back inside, working by the glow of the pellet stove, once again bundled in long underwear and wool, with a freshly fallen blanket of snow on the ground outside.

But yesterday as I was walking through the mostly snowcovered landscape of my winter garden, I encountered a welcome surprise: My witch hazel has bloomed! This variety, Hamemelis x intermedia ‘Jelena,’ tends to bloom earlier than some of the others like ‘Arnold’s Promise.’ Last year, a mild winter, flowers were already appearing at the end of December. Not so this year – record cold and snow has kept those buds closed up tight. I was beginning to wonder whether they would ever release their grip. A couple of warm days last week were enough to coax them into emerging.

One of my first blog posts ever, from January 2008, was about Jelena. Here’s an excerpt:

Hamamelis 'Jelena,' 2008. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Hamamelis 'Jelena,' 2008. Photo by Naomi Sachs

It’s 23 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the warmest it’s been all day, and this is the view from my office window here in Beacon, NY. Now, to some of you this may look rather bleak – the last windswept vestiges of last week’s snowfall, the winter sunlight just barely lighting up that north side of the garden, and a puny tree with no leaves, only bare branches. Well, let me tell you, that tree is a witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena,’ and every time I look at her, a smile creeps across my face. You see, “Jelena,” as I like to call her, holds great promise: The promise of spring, and soon. I learned to appreciate witch hazels in Providence, RI on wintry walks to and from work, and have wanted one (at least one!) in my own garden ever since. I knew when I planted Jelena that long before anything else was even thinking about emerging from dormancy, this intrepid tree would begin to bloom, pushing forth bright red (or yellow or orange, depending on the variety) fingers of delightfully scented blossoms from soft, velvety buds. And today I checked and sure enough, inside of those tight fists of buds are bright red spots promising blossoms in a month, maybe a little more, maybe a little less. Spring in February/March in New York, not too shabby.

My harbinger has announced spring’s imminent arrival. What about you? What signs of spring are you seeing in your garden?

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?


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.