Bundle up! Don’t let the cold stop you, get outside and play.

I just stumbled across this article, “Going outside—even in the cold—improves memory, attention,” that the TKF Foundation posted on their Facebook page, which is so timely given a conversation I had this morning.

I was talking with a friend about the importance of outdoor play for children (well, for all of us, but this conversation was about kids). We live in New York in the Hudson Valley, where it gets cold in the winter. It has been getting cold here in the winter for a long time (and I’m talking geological time), and yet last week, his son’s school barred students from going out during recess because “it was too cold.” It was 30 degrees out. Um, hello-o, that’s barely above freezing. People upstate, like in Buffalo, not to mention North Dakota, would just laugh.

A couple of months ago, another parent told me that her son’s school was using recess – or the withholding of it – as punishment. Misbehave and you don’t get to go out at lunchtime. This is like trying to put out a big fire by giving it more oxygen. Kids need exercise. They need to blow off steam. They need unstructured play. They need to socialize outside of the classroom.

This is, sadly, a common problem, which is why the Children & Nature Network and lots of other wonderful organizations have sprung up in recent years (for a partial list, see the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s Get Out and Play! page). Access to nature – for play, for fresh air and exercise, for a sense of wonder, for growing the next generation of stewards – is critical, and we need to keep fighting for it. So here’s some ammunition for our fight:

The Case of Elementary School Recess by the U.S. Affiliate of the International Play Association.

Several studies by Frances Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Landscape and Human Health Lab have proven the benefits of “doses” of nature for kids, including those with ADHD. For a good summary, click on this link:, and also “Children with ADHD Benefit from Time Outdoors Enjoying Nature.” Here are the actual citations:

Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings.” Andrea Faber Taylor, A., Frances Kuo, & W.C. Sullivan, (2001).  Environment and Behavior, 33(1), 54-77.



Forsythia buds indoors

“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.” —Charlotte Bronte

*For more on how to force branches indoors for early spring blossoms, see this post.

Many thanks to Judi Gerber for bringing this lovely quote to my attention.

Surviving the Winter by Connecting with Nature…from Indoors (Part V)

Sometimes it’s best to stay indoors…

I’ve managed to string this series of posts out long enough that it feels like spring is just around the corner…and perhaps for some of you in milder areas, it is. Here in Zone 5 New York, we still have a good few inches of snow on the ground, and the wind is making what is technically an above-freezing day feel like it’s well below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. So, I’m enjoying writing this post from the comfort of my office, which overlooks part of the garden, including a witch hazel in full bloom. Seeing this harbinger of spring, with her strange beautiful blossoms, always lifts my spirits and gives me hope. For more on other early spring bloomers, take a look at this post.

witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’

During this series on “surviving the winter by staying connected to nature,” I’ve mentioned those times when we just can’t get outside. Maybe the weather or the walking conditions are just too harsh or dangerous. Maybe our physical condition limits how much we can get out. Fortunately, there are still things that we can do, from the comfort of our homes, to keep us connected to nature until spring. That’s what this post is about: Connecting with nature, from indoors.

Watch the birds, and other wildlife, through your window
We covered birdwatching in a recent post (as well as other wildlife, if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where you can see it), and I hope that some of you were able to participate in this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count. You can participate all year long with Project Feeder Watch – click on the link to learn more.

Enjoy your indoor plants
Did you know that people who work in places with live indoor plants have significantly higher levels of job satisfaction than those with no plants? It’s true! See this blog post for more on that. Another recent study found that postoperative patients with flowering and foliage plants in their rooms fared better than those with no plants, including needing less pain medication and recovering faster. So there’s a real scientific reason for taking flowers to people in the hospital. This TLN Blog post lists that and several other similar research studies. If indoor plants are good in the workplace and at the hospital, you can bet that they’re good for us at home, too. Indoor plants are also excellent air purifiers. Here are some more resources:

1. Plants That Heal: Indoor Therapeutic Gardens – An article by Planterra about one of their indoor hospital gardens, with great information about how plants purify the air.

2.’s list of the Top 5 Plants for Improving Indoor Air Quality.

3. Living on Earth’s list of “Ten Eco-Friendly House Plants.”

4. A really heartwarming story (also from Living on Earth) about students at Stuyvesant High School (above), which is just blocks away from Ground Zero, who received indoor plants from nurseries after the attacks on September 11, 2001, as a way to purify the air.

Image from

Force bulbs and branches
When spring just won’t hurry up and get here fast enough, we can do something to hurry it along called “forcing,” with bulbs and flowering branches of shrubs and trees. Putting these plants in water in the warmth of our homes fools them into thinking that spring has arrived, and they go about sending up shoots and flowers. I do this every year with forsythia, and this year I think I’ll try it with serviceberry as well. Here’s a good article on forcing bulbs, and here’s a nice article from Fine Gardening about forcing branches, including a list of some good trees and shrubs to use. The blog Heirloom Gardener has some really beautiful images of forced branches, along with a good forcing calendar.

Plan for next year’s winter garden
Now is a great time of year to look out onto your (or your clients’) garden and see what’s missing in the winter-time. Are you hungry for more color? Perhaps you should plan for some more evergreens, or shrubs with brightly-colored branches (such as red-twig dogwood, coral maple, and several willow species) or berries for next year. Or perhaps your garden needs more structure – what we designers call “the bones” of the garden. Maybe an unexpected tree or shrub form would help to add interest and even levity to the garden: For example, the Dr. Suess-like branches of Henry Lauder’s walking stick or corkscrew willow.

Start seeds
There’s something so promising about seeing little seedlings of herbs and vegetables nosing their way through the soil and emerging into the light and warmth of our homes. Lots of good information on the web, but two of my favorite sources are One Green Generation and Fine Gardening’ 10 Seed-Starting Tips. You’ll find some informative videos on that page as well.

Look at garden books and catalogs
Here’s one comment that I received from an earlier post in this series:

When I lived in Michigan, I took up cross country skiing to make winter bearable. Still found the long winters with flat gray sky day after day tough – I always felt starved for color. Looking at art books and garden books helped.

Curling up with a good, juicy garden book, or a plant or seed catalog, can be just what the Winter Doldrums Doctor ordered. And now is the time to do it, which leads me to my last suggestion:

Enjoy the down time

In some ways, winter forces us to slow down and turn inward. This can actually be a good thing, allowing us to rest, recharge our batteries, and emerge in the spring like new buds from recently dormant branches , rejuvenated and ready for a productive and fruitful growing season. So go ahead, for the remainder of the winter, allow yourself to revel in its quiet coziness: Curl up by the fire with a cup of hot something and a good garden book and allow yourself to dream…spring will be here before you know it.

Get Out There! Surviving the Winter by Connecting with Nature, Part IV

Boo knows the benefits of a sunny romp in the snow
In my first post for this series on “surviving the winter by staying connected to nature,” I alluded to the health benefits of getting your butt off the sofa (or office chair) and into the great outdoors. Several people left comments on this blog, as well as on Facebook and twitter, that what keeps them sane and healthy in the winter is getting outside. So let’s talk about that. Why is getting outdoors so important?
Reason #1: Sunlight (or “take you vitamins!”)
Sunlight provides several essential ingredients for good health:
a. The first is Vitamin D. The sun contributes significantly to its production in our bodies, which aids in the absorption of calcium, which helps maintain strong bones. Vitamin D helps to prevent osteoporosis, as well as hypertension (high blood pressure), cancer, and several autoimmune diseases. Rickets (remember rickets? Kids are getting rickets again! Gee, I wonder why…) and osteomalacia are common D deficiency diseases. Yuck. So get outside for some sunlight.
As little as 10 minutes of exposure a day is thought to be enough to prevent Vitamin D deficiencies.* In the winter, when the sun is low and most of our bodies are bundled up, we may need a little longer than 10 minutes. I try to get out at mid-day when the sun is highest. This works out well for lunch hour; rather than scarfing down that sandwich in front of your computer, throw on your coat (and gloves, and scarf, and hat…) and take a walk. Ten bucks says you’ll feel more energetic and better able to focus for the rest of the day (there’s research to back this up, too, but I’ll cover that another time).
b. Normal circadian rhythms – Exposure to sunlight helps us to maintain our internal biological clocks, which in turn helps us sleep. When bright light enters our eyes, it stimulates our “circadian pacemaker” (I kid you not). This little pacemaker signals the brain to stop making melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy. There’s a good amount of research now that maintaining normal circadian rhythms in people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can improve sleep and decrease restlessness, agitation, and even aggression. Lack of sunlight also causes the “winter blues,” otherwise known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This depression is recognized by the medical community. But instead of upping your dose of anti-depressants or buying one of those light therapy lamps, try getting some natural sunlight first (disclaimer here about my not being a doctor and that if you need more than the sunlight cure, you should seek medical advice).
c. Spending time outdoors early in life may even help to prevent myopia (nearsightedness). Click HERE to read or listen to the story by Joseph Shapiro on NPR, and click HERE to read the article “What’s Hot in Myopia Research” by presented Neville A. McBrien, Ian G. Morgan, and Donald O. Mutti at the 12th International Myopia Conference in Australia, July 2008. I just love that title, “What’s Hot in Myopia Research.”
Reason #2: Exercise
We all know by now that exercise is good for our physical and mental/emotional health, right? So if you can do it outside while getting your daily Vitamin D intake and your circadian rhythms adjusted all at the same time, you’re golden. Even mild exercise, like walking, is beneficial. And then of course there’s skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, snowshoeing, curling… perhaps watching the winter olympics will inspire.
Reason #3: Emotional well-being
When we experience positive stimuli, endorphins (chemicals that make us feel good) are released. Our outdoor experience is usually positive on a multi-sensory level, which means that more than one sense is being stimulated, in a good way, at the same time. We feel the sun’s warmth on our face as we listen to birds chirping (yes, even in winter) and see snowflakes falling, or our dogs romping, or our children making snow angels. For more on this, read my interview with Esther Sternberg, author of Healing Spaces: The Science and Place of Well-Being.
Researchers Stephen and Rachel Kaplan figured this out long before neurologists had the brain imaging technology to prove it. They believe that nature holds our attention through “soft fascination” rather than the kind of concentration and fight-or-flight attention needed when we’re working or walking along a busy city street (for more, see this blog post). Studies by Roger Ulrich and others have found that interacting with and even just viewing nature can help people recover from stressful events. And really, who isn’t under some degree of stress these days? So go outside. Your body will thank you.
And if you need any further convincing, read this article, “Science Suggests Access to Nature is Essential for Human Health.”
There is a caveat to all of this: Be safe!
Here are some tips to staying warm and safe from the National Wildlife Federation and Outdoor Afro (Part I and II). Sometimes, due to the weather or one’s physical condition, getting outside isn’t an option. I received this comment from a reader, and she definitely has a point:
Getting outdoors every day helps pass the winter. The only problem we encounter here is that the temperatures can drop to the point where being outdoors for more than a few minutes is not a good idea. What many people here do is go to the city gym and track. It’s a great meeting place and a way for us to avoid falling on ice and climbing big snowbanks. It’s better than being housebound for many elderly and disabled persons, including me.
In the next post, I’ll talk about more that we can do indoors on those days when venturing out isn’t possible. And then, before you know it, it’ll be spring!
And speaking of which, here’s another comment I got about fighting the winter doldrums:
“I go outside…and look for signs of spring.” And here’s a picture from one of our members, who did just that and found the first yellow crocus of spring.

“First Yellow Crocus” courtesy of Stevie at Garden Therapy
*My source for the Vitamin D information was an article on

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

Connecting with Nature in Winter, Part II: Loving the Subtle Beauty

Photo courtesy of Kelly Riccitti, from her gorgeous blog Red and the Peanut

I’ve gotten several good comments from blog readers and TLN Facebook fans about what keeps them healthy and sane during the long, dark, cold winter months. Many are about getting outside, even if only briefly, and appreciating what winter has to offer:

“I have to go out every day. I feel pent up if I don’t. I wrap up and go for a walk.”

“I think the trick to getting outside is to just get yourself out the door. Even if I don’t have the time and energy to be outside for long, it still refreshes my spirit to go out for a bit and closely observe just one plant or wild animal.”

There is so much beauty in the winter landscape, though we may have to look a little harder to find it. Unlike the knock-out displays of summer, winter is quieter and more subtle. When I told Kelly Riccitti that I loved her blog post The beautiful grays of winter,she replied with this, which really sums it up:

“Here in Ohio, the weather can really be trying midwinter and many suffer from SAD [Seasonal Affective Disorder]. It’s so important to get outside and see the beauty hiding behind the gray. Finding texture, form, birds, and recognizing the soft, soothing color keeps me happy. I hope I can inspire others to look past the gray and be calm…”

Photo courtesy of Kelly Riccitti, from Red and the Peanut

So for the rest of this post, inspired by Kelly, here are some photos that I’ve taken on winter forays. And what about you? What, in winter, strikes you as beautiful and life-affirming? What feeds your brain and your soul?

Long blue shadows – Fahnestock State Park, NY

Icy stream – Hiddenbrooke Park, Beacon, NY

Icy leaf

Snowy Hakonechloa grass

Wetland marsh – Fahnestock State Park, NY

Serviceberry branches, stone wall, snow

Root, moss, needles, leaves – Martha’s Vineyard, MA

Snowcapped Clematis – Little Stony Point, Cold Spring, NY

Sumac against an uncommonly blue sky

Connecting with Nature, Even in the Dead of Winter

View of the Hudson from Little Stony Point, Cold Spring, NY

I’ve been slacking off on the blog posts recently, which is not like me for January. Usually, this is when I have more time for things like blogging and research. Well, so much for that! Still, it’s time to get back to it, and what better way than starting a series of posts that I have to finish?

So, this is the first of several posts on “surviving the winter” by staying connected with nature. Now, if you’re in Australia or Hawaii or Palm Springs or somewhere else I’d like to be right about now, then never you mind. But for many of us around the world, winter means darkness, and cold, and dormant plants, and a certain amount of cabin fever. So how do we combat that and learn to embrace this time of year? For today, I’ll start with something relatively simple and yet incredibly important:

Go outside and play! Sure, the weather outside is frightful, or at least none too inviting. But that’s what boots and warm coats and mittens are for. It’s a sad irony (or perhaps just dumb logic) that at the time of the year when we need to be outside and active the most, leaving the house is just not that attractive a proposition. Our bodies need Vitamin D (which the sun so generously provides), exercise, and fresh air to stay healthy, both physically and mentally. And we also need to maintain our deep connection to nature even when the ground is frozen and there aren’t any roses to stop and smell.

So bundle up and get out there: Go for a walk or a jog; dust off those skis and skates and snowshoes and galoshes; build a snowman; jump in the puddles. What do you get in return? I’ll talk more about the specifics in the next post. In the meantime, get off the computer and get outside!

And here’s an invitation for when you get back on the computer: What do you do in the winter to stay healthy and connected to nature? Share your ideas with others by leaving a comment here or on our Facebook page.

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!

The Other Side of the Coin: The Need for Safety in Winter

I’m usually all for urging people to get outside and play in the snow, so this article in today’s BBC World News about an increase in injuries due to snow and ice caught my eye and reminded me that although winter is often beautiful and fun, it can also be dangerous. Like all facets of mother nature, winter is not to be taken lightly; a certain amount of respect is due in order to enjoy and be safe.

Safety is especially important for those who are more susceptible to the cold and less able to fend for themselves, namely senior citizens and children. The two most dangerous factors in winter (and I’m just talking about pedestrian safety here) are hypothermia from cold exposure and falls from slippery snow and ice. Of course, there are two types of braving the ravages of winter: Wanting to go out in it, and having to go out in it. 

For the wanting types (for anything from a gentle walk around your snow-muffled neighborhood to all-day sledding/skiing/hiking extravaganzas), you’ll want to dress appropriately including footwear (taking special precautions for very young children and the elderly), travel in groups, be able to recognize signs of frostnip and frostbite, take a map, and know your limits – are you and your family really up for a 10-mile trudge on a trail you don’t know well, or are you better sticking with something you know you can handle? 

For the have-to’s, again, make sure to dress appropriately, including sturdy, slip-resistant footwear (forget the Blahnik’s, they’ll get ruined anyway), stick to sidewalks and other well-cleared pathways whenever possible, and take it slow – budget extra time to get from Point A to Point B. If you have a family member or neighbor who is elderly or in poor health, offer to help: Run errands, shovel the sidewalk, or take them with you to the grocery store so that they don’t have to run the risk of exposure or a fall. There’s a wonderful group called “Faith, Hope and Love” in Indiana that was formed specifically to help seniors with snow removal. And when shoveling your neighbor’s or your own walkway, be sensible: Shovel when snow is fresh, take care to bend from the knees, avoid lifting too much at once, and pace yourself! 

The National Safety Council has some great information, and here are a couple more articles that I found useful: Cold, Ice, and Snow Safety  and Cold, snow pose danger to elderly.

(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