If you can only plant one thing, plant a tree

White oak. Photo by Henry Domke,

White oak. Photo by Henry Domke,

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: Trees, Please!

American Basswood by Henry Domke

Photo of American Basswood by Henry Domke,

Here’s a simple but effective exercise: Go sit down.
Okay, a couple more details: First, at high noon, go sit somewhere in full sun for a minute or two (you actually don’t have to sit; this exercise can be accomplished standing as well). Now get up and go do the same thing (sit or stand for a minute or two) under a big shade tree. Notice anything different? Feel cooler? Feel a sense of ahhhhhhh? Now that you’re in the shade, maybe you don’t even want to get up!

Ever notice how, in the summer, all of the parking spaces near trees, even if they offer the skimpiest of shade patches, are taken? And how the shady park benches are always full? And so on. I like trees at all times of the year, but I am especially grateful for them in high summer. And particularly for healing gardens, whether public or private, where physical and emotional comfort are paramount, trees are a necessity. Sure, an umbrella or other shade structure can suffice, but they only do one thing, whereas a tree multitasks so nicely. In addition to giving shade, trees provide vertical and seasonal interest, wildlife habitat, and broader environmental benefits.

A few fun tree facts (these from the SavATree website):

  • The shade and wind buffering provided by trees reduces annual heating and cooling costs by 2.1 billion dollars.
  • One tree can absorb as much carbon in a year as a car produces while driving 26,000 miles.
  • A single tree produces ca. 260 lbs of oxygen a year. That means two mature trees can supply enough oxygen annually to support a family of four.
  • Over the course of its life, a single tree can absorb one ton of carbon dioxide.

As part of New York City’s Million Trees NYC campaign, posters with pictures of and facts about trees were spread throughout the city, especially in subways. I wasn’t able to get a decent picture of any of them, but here are excerpts from two that seem especially appropriate to the subject of restorative landscapes:

Zen Masters
Trees do more than you think. They promote relaxation and fitness, enhance our emotional and mental health, and even encourage us to drive a little slower.

Exercise Partners
Trees do more than you think. While protecting us from the sun, they encourage outdoor play and exercise – helping in our fight against obesity.

NYC is definitely on to something, and they are putting a lot of money into this effort. This from their website:

Why plant a million trees?

Trees enrich and improve our environment and dramatically increase the overall quality of life in New York City. The benefits provided by trees are numerous and diverse, making it important to quantify their value to our city and its residents. The primary benefits provided by New York City’s urban forest come in three key areas:

  • Environmental Benefits: Urban trees help offset climate change, capture rainfall, remove dust and other pollutants from the air, lower summer air temperature, reduce our use of fossil fuels, and provide habitat for wildlife.
  • Economic Benefits: Trees provide $5.60 in benefits for every dollar spent on tree planting and care, increase property values, and appeal to community and business investment.
  • Health and Lifestyle Benefits: There is growing evidence that trees help reduce air pollutants that can trigger asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Green spaces also encourage physical activity – a healthy habit for any New Yorker.

So if you’re designing you’re own residential garden, or a public park, or a garden for a hospital or nursing home, remember your trees. They are an investment that will give back for generations to come!