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.

Water. Photo by Joan Vorderbruggen



Of nature’s elements, water is perhaps the most profound and cross-culturally recognized healer. Lisa was immediately drawn to the water in our garden, a small pond with a tiny trickle down a stack of limestone.
The pond’s waterfall is a lullaby to my ears…. One day I noticed that there were ripples in the pond.  In the garden, there is change.  Sometimes when you’re ill, you don’t see changes fast enough.

Lupine. Photo by Joan Vorderbruggen


Lisa commented on the variety and change that occurred in the garden. She noticed how specific flowers bloomed for a particular week, only to be replaced by another type of blossom the following week.
[The garden was] an abundant feast to my eyes, to which I could never take all of it in within a visit.

Photo by Joan Vorderbruggen

Sensory variability

Besides the visual treat, Lisa spoke of the soothing garden sounds, such as the waterfall or wind chimes.  She noticed the scent of lemon thyme planted along a path, and she relayed the rejuvenating sense of touch.
The feeling of the wind and warmth of summer brought me back to the basics of staying in my skin – of keeping me from disassociating myself from my body (as one can during medical treatment).



Lisa noticed that I had made an effort to mimic nature’s patterns – whether it was a path that resembled a dry river bed, or the way I stacked rocks to look like they had settled there naturally.
You took time to plan it all, but to the observer, it looks natural.  The garden didn’t have to be perfect in the sense that it appears artificial.  It’s all real.

Photo by Joan Vorderbruggen


Playfulness brings life and sprit to a place, and Lisa pointed out several instances of this within the garden, captured through movement, light, squirrels and birds.
I was attracted to the birds in the pond – their hysterical antics while taking a bath would bring laughter, even when I was in a lot of pain…I am reminded that I can laugh – things can still be funny.  



Paths in particular can be alluring, especially when they don’t reveal everything at once.  Around the corner, behind the bush, the mystery of what lies ahead is the very thing that draws us in.
The different paths allow your mind to wander in different ways.
Paths always symbolize a journey, and that’s encouraging.  Even just seeing the paths would help – I’d walk them with my eyes, too tired to venture on foot.

The Elements of Biophilic Design are the intentional vehicles that designers can use to facilitate healing. Healing occurs when people are allowed to slow down, breath, observe, and be genuine with the surroundings and themselves.  This can lead further to stress reduction, and it can also recharge one’s emotional and physical self to move forward:
By taking the time to sit, it gave me the energy to go back home and to be a mom and a wife. 


The Elements of Biophilic Design also provide for a direct link to the natural environment, where we can take time to ponder our existence within the natural world. Lisa told me of her feelings of peace; coming from the times she could sit and contemplate a tiny detail on a single flower, or the spot of light reflecting on a stalk of a plant.
Each visit and encounter is distinctly different, in all the times I have sought the shelter of the garden, the experience is never duplicated.  In the garden I come to see life, growth, and predictable gentle deaths.  In its fullness the garden is a happy place.  

Milkweed seeds

Lisa shared with me that the time in the garden reduced her pain and stress level. As I write this, it is the end of summer, 2014.  For right now, Lisa’s tumor is gone and her cancer is considered stable.  She cautiously credits time in the garden as a possible reason for the good news:
The garden allows you to take deeper breaths – to breath.  Maybe just getting rid of stress helped heal the cancer.

Joan Vorderbruggen, AIA, is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at North Dakota State University. “Architect and academic, nature girl and gardener, Joan’s interests lie in the human/nature connection and how that can support well-being and healing in architecture and design.”