healing garden

The healing garden down the street: Guest blog post by Joan Vorderbruggen and Lisa Overby-Blosser

Joan Vorderbruggen's garden patio. All photos by  Joan Vorderbruggen

Joan Vorderbruggen’s garden patio. All photos by Joan Vorderbruggen

I first met Joan Vorderbruggen at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) meeting in 2013 in Providence, RI. She presented an expanded version of this lovely post, and I was very moved. Sometimes we researchers and designers get so bogged down in trying to analyze and quantify everything that we forget the more human and – dare I say it? – even the spiritual dimension. Joan’s and Lisa’s words, along with images from Joan’s garden, get to the heart of it. Many thanks to both of them for sharing here.

The healing garden down the street
By Joan Vorderbruggen and Lisa Overby-Blosser

The spring of 2012 held little hope for my neighbor, Lisa, wife and mother of four teenagers.  Lisa had just been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer and was given a year or less to live. Asking me if she could spend time in my backyard garden, she felt time in a peaceful setting would help her deal with the upcoming chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and other stresses.

Over that summer, Lisa spent a great deal of time walking the 5-house distance to my yard, sometimes barely able to put one foot in front of the other.  Still, she persevered, settling in to journal, sketch, and just be in the moment.  While I encouraged her to come and go as she pleased, I was happy that at times, she would join me on my deck and, without any prompting, speak of how the garden and natural world supported her during that time. I asked if I could share her words with others.

Lisa’s words (italicized) fit neatly within the framework of Stephen Kellert’s Biophillic Design Elements (below). According to Kellert, these elements stem from an intuitive human-nature connection, where people feel that spending time in nature can help them heal mentally, physically and spiritually. The Biophilia hypothesis assertion is that because humans evolved with nature, they feel comforted by nature (Kellert and Wilson, The Biophilia Hypothesis, 1993).

The idea of prospect is primarily about being able to control your view, to scan the horizon and understand where you are in relationship to your surroundings.
In the garden you have control – of where you sit, where you look, what you choose to focus on – whether it’s a wide view or something really small…  There are so many choices available to you.  The fact that you can make a choice of something can be healing.

Prospect. Photo by Joan Vorderbruggen

Prospect and Refuge


Refuge allows us to feel safe, sheltered and protected.  In my garden, Lisa chose to sit under a grapevine trellis.  She speaks more in metaphor of her feelings of refuge.
The garden is always welcoming; no plants fall over or trees drop their leaves in disgust or empathy when I took my hat off exposing my baldness….  The garden accepts where your body and emotions are at that moment in time.


Nature and Well-Being: Lecture series at the Bloedel Reserve

Reflecting pool, Bloedel Reserve. Photo by Henry Domke, http://henrydomke.com

Reflecting pool, Bloedel Reserve. Photo by Henry Domke, www.henrydomke.com

During June, Puget Sound’s Bloedel Reserve will put the spotlight on nature and well-being by hosting a series of lectures. Throughout the month, experts from diverse disciplines will explore the unique  relationship between nature and humans, and the healing and therapeutic qualities of landscapes and gardens.

Our founder Prentice Bloedel was fascinated with the relationship between people and plants, often writing eloquently on the subject, as he designed the gardens and landscapes of The Reserve. In June, we are bringing together experts from many disciplines to explore the unique relationship between nature and humans, and the healing and therapeutic qualities of landscapes and gardens.

The Bloedel Reserve is a public treasure that sits on 150 acres of natural woodlands and landscaped gardens just a short ferry ride away from downtown Seattle. In addition to interconnected paths, a Japanese garden, a moss garden, and a reflection pool, visitors will find the Bloedel’s former estate home. The Reserve was created by Prentice and Virginia Bloedel who resided on the property from 1951 until 1986. A man ahead of his time, Prentice Bloedel had an abiding interest in the relationship between people and the natural world. The primary mission of The Reserve is to provide a tranquil, restorative and emotionally evocative experience of nature.

See this past Guest TLN Blog Post by Sally Schauman for more on The Bloedel Reserve as a Therapeutic Landscape.

For more information on this month’s Lecture Series, visit The Bloedel Reserve web site.  Summer hours are extended for June, July and August: Tuesday and Wednesday, 10am-4pm; Thursday through Sunday, 10am-7pm. A short description of the lecture series follow. For a complete description of the talks and other classes at The Reserve, see the summer bulletin. To register for all the lectures that range from $10 to $15 per session, call 206-842-7631, or click on the Brown Paper Tickets.

The Bloedel Reserve Lecture Series for June is as follows:

Friday, June 8 at 4:30pm
Every Step a Healing Step (lecture & guided meditative walk)
Carolyn Scott Kortge, author, The Spirited Walker & Healing Walks for Hard Times

Sunday, June 10 at 2:00pm
The Restorative Power of Plants
Patty Cassidy, RHT, Horticultural Therapist & Gardener for Legacy Health Systems, Portland

Wednesday, June 13 at 10:00am
Healing Garden Designs
Daniel Winterbottom, RLA, FASLA, professor, Landscape Architecture, University of Washington

Thursday, June 14 at 2:00pm
Landscaping for Privacy: Innovative Ways to Turn Your Outdoor Space into a Peaceful Retreat
Marty Wingate, author & garden designer

Saturday, June 16 at 4:30pm
Therapeutic Design Adaptations for the Home Garden
Mark Epstein, registered landscape architect

Sunday, June 17 at 4:30pm
Art in Nature: The Therapeutic Effects of Nature Photography-A Personal Story
Charles Needle, photographer

Tuesday, June 19 at 10:00am
Leave No Child Inside: Reconnecting Children with Nature
Martin LeBlanc, founder, Children & Nature Network; Sr. VP, Islandwood

Friday, June 29 at 7:30pm
“Echoes of Creation” (Video screening & talk)
Jan Nickman, film & television director & cinematographer

Saturday, June 30 at 3:00pm
Restoration & Celebration — The Created World Around Us (lecture & guided meditative walk)
Christie Lynk, professor of psychology, Seattle University

Maintaining the healing garden – An essential design element

Photo by Naomi Sachs

Higher maintenance. Photo by Naomi Sachs

There’s gardening, and then there’s maintenance. Things have been so busy this year, and for the first time in my life, my garden has felt like a chore. I don’t have time to be in it – relaxing or gardening – and I barely have time to maintain it. Maintenance isn’t the sexiest of garden topics, but it’s part of life, so let’s talk about it.

As a designer, especially one who loves plants and gardening and who knows about the myriad benefits thereof, I used to be so disapproving when clients wanted a “low-maintenance” landscape. How boring! Nevertheless, I would try to sympathize and design accordingly. A low-maintenance landscape can still be beautiful and rewarding. For example, one Santa Fe client had a sweet little backyard but was not a gardener and was away about half the time, traveling for work. When she was home, she didn’t want to worry about weeding and pruning and deadheading and mowing; she wanted to sit in her garden with a cup of tea, or meditate under her favorite tree, or hang out with friends. She was very happy with the design, a xeric, “zen-like” garden.

"Sanctuary garden" designed by Naomi Sachs. Photo by Lee Anne White, www.leeannewhite.com

"Sanctuary garden" by Naomi Sachs. Photo by Lee Anne White, www.leeannewhite.com

In presentations on restorative landscapes, I talk a lot about stress reduction, and I do touch on maintenance. If you’re not a gardener, or if you don’t have time to garden, or if your climate doesn’t allow for gardening (think Texas in the summer), or you don’t have the budget to pay a gardener, a high-maintenance garden is going to cause more stress than joy. You don’t want to look out your window and think about out all the work that needs doing, or be sad when your plants die because they are not being tended to. Where’s the pleasure in that?

For private home healing or sanctuary gardens, you have to know yourself and your limitations (preferences, time, funds). Whether you’re designing and planting for yourself or hiring a designer and installers, be honest with yourself, and only bite off what you can chew.

Photo by Naomi Sachs

A mailbox at a home for people with dementia is a wonderful idea...as long as the roses are kept pruned! Photo by Naomi Sachs

And the same thing goes for gardens in healthcare facilities and other public spaces. There’s a garden nearby that was so beautiful when it was installed a few years ago. A very interesting design, with a rich variety of native plants, around a really cool building. But the organization that owns that property lacks the funding and the volunteers to maintain the landscape. It needs more TLC than it gets, and is no longer the best reflection of the organization.

It doesn’t matter how beautiful the design is, or how successful it would be in an ideal world. If it’s not maintained, it doesn’t serve the facility or the users of the space – the patients, clients, the visitors, the staff. Maintenance should always be budgeted in from the start, and a plan should be provided to the facility so that things can be kept looking good and working well. Having a horticultural therapist on staff certainly helps, as they work with patients in the garden and can really keep an eye on things. A good designer will know and understand the limitations and the strengths of the facility and design with that in mind.

There’s no such thing as no maintenance (and believe me, I’ve had requests!). But there’s a big range in how much a landscape needs to stay healthy and beautiful. If you keep in mind the reality of what can and cannot be done, the garden – for yourself or for clients – has the best chance of being a true source of healing and inspiration.

Note: We’ve been having a good discussion (http://lnkd.in/mfJzKu) on this topic in our Therapeutic Landscapes Network LinkedIn group. Come join us!

(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.”



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…)

“A Running, Hollering, Skipping, Playing Place,” guest blog post by Addie Hahn

Topiary at Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden. Photo by Max Sokol

Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden, Portland, OR Photo by Max Sokol

In the following interview, Teresia Hazen answers questions by Addie Hahn, a writer who is also working towards her Child Life credential, about the Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden, which won the American Horticultural Therapy Association Therapeutic Garden Award in 2000. Below are excerpts from the interview, and images of the garden by Max Sokol. To read the full interview, visit the Therapeutic Landscapes Network website.

Teresia Hazen, M.Ed., HTR, QMPH is the Coordinator of Therapeutic Gardens and Horticultural Therapy for Legacy Health System in Oregon.

“A Running, Hollering, Skipping, Playing Place: A Conversation with Teresia Hazen on the Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden.”

AH: Could you briefly describe the design process that led to the creation of the Emanuel Children’s Hospital garden?

TH: We did our design work in 1996. Then it was a three-stage process to develop all this, between 1997-99. Two major elements we wanted to address in this garden for kids and their siblings were a therapeutic focus and a restorative focus, or unstructured, independent time. To develop our list of therapeutic requirements, we needed to involve the clinicians. And in these meetings, we needed to hear about the dreams, the aspirations and the clinical goals of each team. We had Physical Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Speech and Language Therapists, Child Life, Spiritual Care, Managers, Horticultural Therapists and our Landscape Architect. All of those people had very specific goals and needs for the garden setting.

The second reason we have the garden is to provide a restorative setting for every patient, visitor and employee 24-7. So we had to be thinking about some of the elements that were needed for that. One of those turned into the 3-5 niche spots, or bump-out areas where a small group can gather to socialize, provide emotional support or grieve together.

Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden, Portland, OR Photo by Max Sokol

Benches provide a place for privacy and social support. Photo by Max Sokol

AH: What are a few of the ways the garden is used clinically now?

TH: Physical Therapists needed walking rails for adults and for children, as well as some inclines, because you have to learn to walk in settings like this first if you’re going to go back out in to community settings.

Speech and Language Therapists needed items that would lead and encourage children around the garden. So, having a curved pathway encourages them now to go, “What’s around that corner?” A dragonfly sculpture in a tree might be something to watch for and “tell us when you see it.” The dragonfly starts the communication task.

We needed places where kids could maneuver—inclines, declines and a variety of surfaces that they need to manage while working on mobility skills. Kids ride their trikes and scooters for therapy, and we even have a Seguay now that kids with vestibular disorders ride to work toward meeting their treatment goals.

Yellow Brick Road, Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden. Photo by Max Sokol

The "yellow brick road" pathway winds through the garden. Photo by Max Sokol

AH: What do you suggest for hospitals that may not have the funds to hire a Horticultural Therapist, or where staff may at first be resistant to the idea of bringing a professional on board? Are there ways a Child Life Therapist or other staff member could slowly introduce staff to the idea?

TH: Any therapist can add nature-based activities. They could say, “We’re going to integrate nature into our programming.” Anyone can do that. Integrate what you can manage. Consider a 12’ X 12 niche. Do only what you can maintain, and maintain with quality year-round. Therapeutic gardens need to be four season environments.

AH: Can you talk about what you believe is behind the growing interest in incorporating ‘healing gardens’ or smaller-scale, natural elements into hospitals and other healthcare environments?

TH: Programs everywhere are looking for cost-effective ways to help client therapeutic programs do their work most efficiently and effectively.  We’re all working leaner these days–a reflection of the economic setting. These gardens provide choices for all therapeutic programs to help patients connect in whatever ways they need to to aid rehabilitation and recovery and discharge as soon as possible. These gardens are a coping resource and if well designed, can assist patients in their treatment and recovery.

We can also provide that kind of care and honoring even to families that have a baby or a child who is in hospice. The clinical team has assisted parents in supporting the child’s death in the garden. Two nurses will come with the parents. Parents initiate this request and they want their child to experience the fresh air or the sunshine before they die.  Nature is a place of spirituality for many family groups.

Clematis and roses at Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden. Photo by Max Sokol

Clematis and roses at Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden. Photo by Max Sokol

Addie Hahn is a freelance writer who is also working on obtaining her Child Life certification. She lives in West Linn, Oregon and can be reached at addiethahn@me.com.

Max Sokol is a freelance photographer based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at maxsokol@mac.com

Many thanks to Addie, Max, and Teresia for this excellent post! To read the full interview, visit the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s References page.

Why/How We Need Healing Gardens

I’ve been updating the Healthcare Gardens section of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network website, and stumbled upon Harrison Medical Center‘s new project, the Oncology Healing Garden (to be designed, in fact, by TLN board member Mark Epstein).

This fundraising video brought tears to my eyes. It really sums up how it feels to be in a hospital, and how it might feel to step outside into a garden.

“Therapy in the Desert” – Guest post by Brice Bradley: Three healing gardens in the Phoenix, AZ area

Banner Good Samaritan healing garden

Banner Good Samaritan healing garden, photo by Brice Bradley

This past winter, Brice Bradley, a landscape architect and member of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network, posted a query on the TLN group page at Land8Lounge (the social networking site for Landscape Architects) asking for recommendations of healing gardens to visit in the Phoenix, AZ area. He got some good suggestions, and I also encouraged him to take notes and report back with his impressions. What we got was so much more! Brice took photographs and wrote a wonderful descriptive piece about his visits to three different gardens: Banner Estrella Medical Center in Phoenix; the Elsie McCarthy Sensory Garden in Glendale; and Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center, also in Phoenix. This is a long post – one of the longest I’ve published! – but since it’s so good (and since I can’t figure out how to use the “more” tool with this blog platform), it’s here in full. To view the entire slideshow with the essay, visit Brice’s post on Land8Lounge. It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that these are Brice’s observations and opinions. I would love to feature more first-hand accounts of therapeutic gardens on the TLN Blog. If you have the ability to visit and report on one, or two, or more, we will all benefit. That’s what makes the Therapeutic Landscape Network so strong! A network of passionate, engaged people participating to connect with and educate each other about this exciting field. So, Brice, over to you:

Therapy in the Desert, by Brice Bradley

It was 8:00 in the morning in Tucson, and our Mazda 5 micro van was filled to capacity; my daughter (7) and son (5) were prepared for departure and were blowing their final kisses to Grandma. My wife and I weren’t necessarily looking forward to the drive back to chilly Colorado; why would we when the pleasantly mild Arizona temps were treating us like royalty? All that stood between us and our midway overnight stop in Albuquerque was my buried-in urge to visit a few of the many therapeutic gardens sprinkled throughout Phoenix.

As we made our way into the city, a sense of eagerness began to surface as I had surpassed the point of reading about the benefits of curative spaces and was primed to wholly experience them. I had the added benefit of having my children in attendance as I firmly believe that much can be gained by observing how an innocent child embraces a given space. All too often, I find it easy to put on my “professional” glasses and overlook key–yet subtle–elements within a space that make it attractive to a more diverse set of users. I have found that observing how my children respond to a space almost always leaves me with a stronger sense of whether or not it is successful.

Banner Estrella

Photo of Banner Estrella garden by Brice Bradley

We rolled into our first stop, Banner Estrella [Medical Center], around 9:45 am. As we approached the curative space, the first thing I noticed was a water feature pulled in tight to the building. Running along the outside face of a glass curtain wall spanning the length of the garden along the north side, this feature was a well-placed and welcome transitionary element, tying the interior and exterior spaces together. I soon discovered that my 5-year-old son also spotted the water as his laissez-faire saunter quickly found purpose.

We made our way into the garden where a diminutive sensation quickly set in. Upon entering the space from the west end, you find yourself surrounded by foundation-level planting and architecture on all but a portion of the east side. Other than receiving some early-to-mid-morning sun, this area looks like it sits in shade for much of the day. Due to its location in a desert environment, this isn’t a bad thing, but my initial thought was, “Who would want to sit in a space where they could be viewed from almost any direction–much like a fish in a fish bowl?” Some form of overhead canopy and partial screening would be beneficial toward making this area a more comfortable place to spend time.

As I walked eastward, I noticed a nonconventional wood-and-steel door system on casters at the corner of what I soon discovered was a meditation chapel. As with all the spaces I planned on visiting that day, I tried to focus all of my observations around the question, “What makes this a healing space?” Recognizing that many people find comfort through their faith during times of recovery or grief, I was pleased to see that the chapel was made a key part of the garden and that access to the outdoor space could be enhanced by opening these larger, statelier doors.

The sounds of falling water and New Age music filled the space–something I found to be quite pleasant. A bubbling spring fed an elevated runnel from the east end. Integrated within a seat wall, the runnel allowed room for individuals to sit beside the flowing water, providing an opportunity for them to personally engage with its flow. Needless to say, my kids welcomed the chance to play in the water. Understanding that many people find peace in watching others, I thought about how the innocence of a kid at play within this space could be viewed as an instrument for healing, as there are few things quite so therapeutic as the sound of honest laughter coming from a child fully engaged at play. Weirs and infinity edges also helped diversify the way water created white noise within the space.

Music emanated from faux stones positioned in under-planted, stone mulch planting beds along the back side of a series of concrete peninsulas. Considering the modern level of refinement found elsewhere on the site, I was a bit taken back by the use of these stones to deliver the tranquil sounds. Integrating some form of speaker system into the surrounding gabion walls, which were clad in small laser-cut metal fauna, would have been nice as the music could have been softly projected beyond the space offering passers-by a taste of the serenity that could be found within.

Although the Estrella healing garden possesses elements found in other more notable healing spaces, I believe it lacked refinement. The bench peninsulas could have been smaller and oriented so that the seating was facing east and west. Smaller concrete pads would make more room for plant material and would have realigned the benches so that they wouldn’t be facing a wall of windows. More seating options, including movable chairs, would be beneficial as they would allow people to easily position themselves as desired. Plant material–specifically ground cover–would have softened the space by hiding the disproportionate amount of river rock mulch as well as enhance the level of privacy, encourage wildlife, and keep the space cooler.

Elsie McCarthy Sensory Garden

Photo of Elsie McCarthy Sensory Garden by Brice Bradley

Now we were off to Glendale to visit the Elsie McCarthy Sensory Garden. Overall, it was a nice yet simple space that appeared to be municipally managed as it seems to have degraded a bit since its opening. As you make your way toward the garden from the parking lot, you come upon a pedestal-mounted, bronze scale model of the site; I found it to be a welcome addition as it is an admirable way to expand the maps accessibility to people with disabilities­­–particularly those with visual impairments.

Shortly after entering the garden, you arrive at what I found to be one of the most fascinating things I saw that day – a tile-clad sculpture entitled Seeing Beyond by artists Joan Baron and Robert Miley. As you approach the piece, you are drawn in by the sound of dripping water from within. As I stood there, I found myself–much like a child–wanting to interact with the water; fortunately, the artists provided opportunists like me with opportunities to physically engage with the art by way of creatively crafted openings on each of the sculpture’s four sides.

As I mentioned earlier, the overall layout of the site was relatively simple; although it wasn’t something I found overly inspiring, I can appreciate the simple, circulatory approach to the design. I found getting back where I started to be very straightforward and in no time I was unable to see the main entry. Encompassing the space was a crushed-gravel ellipse walk. While I made my way around the site, I welcomed the crackling resonance of displaced gravel beneath my feet–something I find inherently relaxing. It would have been nice to have a few benches along the perimeter for those inclined to people watch or simply rest.

At the four nodes of the ellipse were distinctive elements–each tied to water–whether it be a water-based feature or flowing, paving patterns. On the outside of the ellipse was a continuous planting bed comprised of natural massings of regional trees and shrubs. Within the ellipse lay two tree-lined walks dissecting the space into four equal lawn panels. Where the two walks intersected at the heart of the garden stood a small plaza with a bronze dome water feature–about a foot tall–representing the center of a flower. On the perimeter of the plaza stood four stone blocks, each etched with unique finger labyrinths.

I left the garden feeling somewhat indifferent about the space; albeit winter, I felt that it–much like Banner Estrella–lacked a significant amount of supporting plant material near the pathways to engage the senses. In the spring and summer this space might light up with a push of greenery that stimulates the senses, but shouldn’t a sensory garden successfully work to enhance the senses year round? Additionally, I tend to look at lawn in the desert as a bit of an oxymoron, especially a warm season grass that is dormant during cooler times of the year when people are more inclined to enjoy the outdoors. Using a different turf type or possibly over seeding during the winter would brighten this space up, creating an inviting area in which to have a picnic or just to walk shoeless in the cool grass.

Having spent a number of summers in Tucson as a kid, I know exactly how warm a garden in this part of the country can get. It wouldn’t surprise me to know that this space remains relatively vacant in the summer from mid-morning until sunset. The fact that the bronze map was shaded–presumably to prevent it from getting too hot to the touch–indicates that during the heat of day this space is unbearable. As the trees mature, you will see an increase in the amount of available shade, but it’s still pretty hot in the shade when temperatures are pushing 100 degrees or more.

It is understood that desert environments possess a unique set of design constraints that prevent some best-practice approaches found in other successful man-made healing spaces from being fully realized. All in all, I believe the size of space, ease of access, and visibility within the space were good but I felt that it lacked a regional distinctiveness and believe that this space, if placed in a cooler part of the county, would have proven to be more successful.

Banner Good Samaritan healing garden

Banner Good Samaritan healing garden, photo by Brice Bradley

Our final destination was the healing garden at Banner Good Samaritan Health Center. Accessing the space required us to enter the facility as the garden was internal to the campus. As you make your way to the main entry, you walk past the recently renovated Sunken Garden. I found this space to be more inspiring than the healing garden as the contrasting plant palate was simple yet bold. Yucca in full bloom against the ornamental grasses was a welcome site, although I could see that the shadow patterns from the surrounding buildings prevented a portion of the yucca from reaching full bloom; I could only imagine how it would have looked if all of it was in bloom simultaneously.

Water was the central focus of the space–much like an oasis. I enjoyed the primary-colored mosaic tiling on the main water feature; the sound of the water hitting the river rock below was simple yet soothing. A portion of the garden was enclosed–accessible by doors within the building. At the center of this section of the garden gurgled a short column of water from within an area covered in river rock–much like a spring. Surrounding the spring were trees and the yucca–grass mix. A guardrail separated the landscape from the patio, which was lined with a few benches and movable tables and chairs; it was clear that the landscape was meant for viewing only, which was unfortunate as it would have been nice to see some form of circulation route implemented that would allow users the opportunity to more actively engage with the space.

The fully enclosed healing garden was nice with mature plant material; water features; and plenty of movable tables, chairs, and curving seat walls, thus providing a multitude of seating options. I had a conversation with an employee regarding our purpose for being there, and she commented that the water elements were more extensive at one time but had now been reduced to three isolated features. Much like the water element I commented on in the Sunken Garden, these were designed to be looked at as they were located up and out of the way where little hands could not get at them. I believe providing an opportunity to touch the water would have been a nice way to enhance a user’s ability to engage with the space.

As I walked through the garden I noticed a number of pigeons, and pockets of bird droppings were prevalent throughout the space, which left me with an impression that this space wasn’t maintained as well as it could be. The employee I visited with acknowledged that this was an ongoing issue but that it has improved. Additionally, I found a couple areas where plant material with sharp needles was easily accessible to kids. Although I support providing children opportunities to explore differences in plant material through touch, in this environment I believe that buffering the sharper plants with softer ones would have been a safer option.

So, what made each of these gardens healing spaces? Having had a little over a month to think about this I have come to the conclusion that it’s not up to me to decide but the end users–those seeking a moment of release from an unexpected diagnosis or the loss of a loved one or simply those desiring to get outside and enjoy the day. As a design professional, it’s easy to be critical of other people’s work–finding things I wouldn’t have done based on my education and past experiences. I suppose that is the downside of being in this industry as we rarely can enter a space and not pick it apart. As I progressed through the writing of this article, I began to think about my purpose for visiting these spaces, and what I discovered was that if I want to have a continued impact on the lives of those seeking peace through nature, I need to be constantly seeking ways to sharpen my proficiency. I presume many of you reading this feel the same way. If iron sharpens iron, a cooperative approach to progressing the effectiveness of therapeutic spaces needs to be fostered. What I discovered in Arizona is that designing healing gardens in a desert environment is a niche within a niche, and I look forward to seeing how they will evolve as we continue to educate ourselves on nature’s healing qualities.