Gardening as Relaxation Therapy

A view of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens
A view of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens

Why Gardens Make You Feel Good

“My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece”
Claude Monet


If you have ever owned or attended to a garden, then you certainly can relate to Monet’s quote above. The relaxing effects that nature exerts upon the senses, is a mystery beyond the grasp of modern science. No wonder that throughout the country horticultural therapy gardens, as they have been coined, are springing in one place after another. A scientific explanation could be that in natural, tranquil settings the brain shifts from beta to alpha waves, producing in the body feelings of peaceful serenity. It is also believed that when the brain sinks into the alpha wave stage; intuition, creativity and imagination are sharpened. It is no wonder wellness programs pair up with recording companies, and capitalize bountifully on the soothing effects of nature by arranging recordings of the sounds found in real natural settings.

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Gardens in Antiquity

Therapeutic gardens are defined as gardens created to promote the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those who enter. Nonetheless, this movement to create therapeutic gardens is not a novelty, for the very nature of a garden is naturally therapeutic. Ancient history is permeated by stories and tales that take place in or around gardens, helping us to further perceive that humans have always placed great value on such a commodity. However, gardens in antiquity were more park-like than their modern counterparts, since plant life depended on the waters of adjacent or near-by rivers for irrigation. For instance, the bible situates the Garden of Eden between the Tigris and Euphrates River. From there it starts its narrative on the beginnings of human history by placing Adam and Eve (the first human couple) in this paradise-like, sustainable garden. Chomping through the pages of history we come across many forms of gardens: temple gardens, burial gardens, meditation gardens, and palace gardens. One palace garden that comes to mind is the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon created by king Nebuchadnezzar to please his Midian home-sick wife. This multileveled garden was so strikingly beautiful, lush and exotic (according to Berossus, 290 B..), it parades among the seven wonders of the ancient world.

During the history of Roman civilization ornamental horticulture advanced, and the Persian garden (which style has influenced garden styles around the world, including the gardens at the Taj Majal) was introduced into Europe with great success. Egyptians also placed great value on gardens, and even painted garden scenes along tomb walls for the after-life enjoyment of the deceased. There is no question, gardens are ideal places for self-reflection and solace. In the New Testament, Jesus and his disciples were said to customarily visit the garden at the foot of Mount Olive in Jerusalem, the garden of Gethsemane. It was in this garden that Jesus fervently prayed to his Father for strength during his last night on earth.

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Gardens Today

Although the therapeutic effects of gardens have been known for most of human history, it has only been in the last three decades that horticulture therapy has evolved to become a discipline in its own right. According to the American Horticultural Association, therapeutic gardens are being built with increasing frequency in health care settings. In the forefront of the crusade, we have the health care organizations which are reinventing outdoor and interior spaces to enable patients to come in touch with nature by incorporating gardens into hospital settings. In windowless patient rooms, even a picture of an outdoor scene may be added to help reduce patient stress. Even in hospice care, when a patient is terminally ill, the therapeutic effects of a garden seem indispensable to making a patient’s last days as comforting as possible. In an article by Larry Beresford, Hospice Gardens Bring Patients Closer To Nature, explains: providing access to or views of gardens, hospice facilities are able to reinforce their aim of offering a comfortable, homelike setting that maximizes the quality of life for its patients.” It’s a trend that is gaining momentum with each passing year and congruent with the modern green movement.

It is a fascinating subject, and one that offers promises even in the realms of crime reduction. For example, according to the World Watch Institute there was a substantial reduction in recidivism (rearrests) for those inmates in Sandusky County Jail in Ohio that participated in prison gardening programs (18%), as opposed to those that didn’t participate (43%). Other similar inmate programs have arrived at the same optimistic conclusion after introducing gardening programs into their programs. Rikers Island for instance, experienced a 5-10 percent recidivism rate as opposed to 65 percent in their general inmate population. San Francisco County Jail saw a 24 percent recidivism rate, as opposed to 55 percent in the population of inmates that did not participate.

Fortunately, almost everyone can enjoy a stroll through a beautiful garden today, even if they don't own a piece of land of their own. Botanical gardens for example, are found in almost every nation, and are created for the enjoyment of people of all age groups. Some even have programs catering to children or to senior citizens, These parks are a treat to the senses, and are sanctuaries to be visited often.

Your garden can be your special place for reading and relaxing.
Your garden can be your special place for reading and relaxing.

Creating Your Very Own Therapeutic Garden

But you don't have to wait until you visit the botanical garden of your town to reap the benefits of a beautiful, therapeutic garden, especially if you have a backyard. Why not start right now, even if you swear you didn't inherit your uncle's green thumb. Really, no one was born with a green thumb, gardening is a process that can be learned. Start by surveying your lot and seeing where you can improve your soil. Because some plants may like acidic soils, and some may like it more alkaline, you must find out what kind of soil you have. You can buy a soil tester at your local Lowes, it is cheap and easy to use, just stick in the ground and a needle will indicate if your soil is acidic or alkaline. You can then find out what kind of plants adapt best to your particular soil, or make adjustments if you want to bring in a certain kind of plant, Making sure your soil is in the proper condition to sustain plants is essential if you want your plants to thrive. When you purchase plants, check out their zoning to make sure that they grow well in your zone, You can usually find this information on the tags attached to the pots at the time of purchase, along with other important information. Choose plants for their textures, colors and fragrances, making sure the plants you choose are appealing to you, and not only to your neighbors. This is your sanctuary and your very own special place in the universe. As a person that practices what I preach, I can say that the true therapeutic benefits come from attending to your garden. The act of digging, planting, and watering, are as relaxing, and even more so, than just sitting and contemplating your garden. Here are some tips that will help you jump start your very own therapeutic garden.

  • Make sure that a hose is connected close by for easy access when it is time to water your plants, The best time to water plants are early morning, and late afternoon, when the sun is at a low point in the sky.
  • Plant low and high, You can use hanging baskets to raise plants above eye level, and planting pots can be placed on the ground all around your garden or on a garden table as a center piece. Ferns make beautiful basket residents, so do succulents and of course, vines.
  • Find out your style, and create a garden that's unique to your décor tastes. For instance, if you love Roman architecture, or consider yourself a neo-classical person, then adding statues to your garden will give you that Romanesque feel. Trellises, and pergolas can add beauty to your garden, while providing shady areas in which to catch up with your favorite book.

Make sure plants that need plenty of daylight are placed by windows.
Make sure plants that need plenty of daylight are placed by windows.

Bringing Nature Indoors

But, how can a person without the space for a garden benefit from the positive effects of horticultural therapy? The good thing about plants is that their hundreds of varieties that can thrive indoors. Bringing plant life into your home not only makes you feel good, but it livens up your space adding vibrancy to your décor, amplifying the “feel good” vibes. No matter the space, you can create your very own indoor garden retreat. Here are some tips

  • Look for plants that are fully grown with lush leaves to create an immediate impact on your home environment.

  • If you are a first time gardener though, bring plants that are easy to maintain. Succulents are a good choice for beginners, since they require very little maintenance. Ferns are lush and beautiful and most do well indoors. Sansevieria is another plant that looks great indoors and doubles as an air purifier. Golden Pathos is another luxuriant vine-like plant that grows and thrives on hanging baskets. Chrysanthemums will bring blooms into your space, along with geraniums, and desert flower.

  • Do your homework first, and find out which plants need direct sunlight and keep those by windows. Find out about their growth pattern, and see which one will eventually need to be repotted into bigger pots.

  • For an even greater therapeutic effect, you can incorporate the soothing sounds of running water by adding water features to your home, such as; table top or wall fountains.

  • A nature sound cd can make your indoor garden come alive with the sound of chirping birds, and other interesting critter sounds.

  • Whatever you do, use the time spent amidst your garden sanctuary for self-reflection and inner renewal. Read, have a cup of coffee or tea, breath deep, and relax. We all need to kick stress to the curb, and nothing like a garden to give us a hand.

  • Lastly, share your love of gardening with others by inviting them to share some time with you under the shady myrtle.


    Reference Sources

    Baker P. (2012, April). Young Inmates Doing Thyme in the Prison Garden │ Juvenile… Retrieved June 4, 2015.

    Gilbert, E. (2013, April 5). Urban Garden programs Reach out to inmates and At-Risk Populations. Retrieved June 4, 2015.

    Beresford, Larry. “Hospice Gardens Bring Patients Closer to Nature.” Hospice Garden Bring patients Closer to Nature. Environments for Aging. 13 Apr.2015 Web. 04 June 2015

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