Walking a garden path has long been known to soothe the soul.
Today, we are exploring that idea in more depth. Can a garden be designed with healing in mind? I think so.
We’ve already looked at several garden designs and themes. We’ve learned about scent gardens, sensory gardens, and tranquil gardens. Each of these can help us deal with emotional hurt and trauma. But how do they help us? How can we create a garden space that helps us deal with life’s difficulties? Let’s find out.
How gardens help us heal
Traumatic events can take many forms. Assault, betrayal, death, illness, and the mind-numbing exhaustion that comes from dealing with a global pandemic all have one thing in common: they create a sense of helplessness. According to trauma expert Robert Stolorow, trauma creates a “dreadful sense of estrangement and isolation” that leaves us feeling disconnected and out of control.
Gardening helps us deal with that sense of helplessness because we have some level of control. There is little risk. Like a beloved pet, our garden plants accept us exactly as we are, without judgment. They don’t hurt us. Gardens offer the possibility of a better future, even if that future is nothing more than a germinating seed.
Spending time in a garden brings us back in touch with natural cycles. No matter what we have gone through, spring bulbs bloom, summer squash grows, and the seasons advance as they always do. This helps ease our natural fight/flight/freeze response. The sights, smells, textures, and sounds of a garden reassure us on a lizard-brain level.
The act of gardening resets us physically. Bending, pulling, breathing, reaching—blood flows to our brains, our muscles, helping us think more clearly and sleep more deeply. We are more in the moment when gardening. Time passes unnoticed. We are in the zone, in a flow state, fully engaged in the right now, experiencing ourselves doing something positive instead of experiencing pain and loss.
And these claims are not just my opinion. Recent research has demonstrated that gardening has powerful therapeutic effects. Known in the psychology world as horticulture therapy, caring for plants reconnects us with ourselves, our communities, and nature. It is believed that planting seeds and caring for plants parallels our healing. There is even a professional association dedicated to this type of therapy. According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, “horticultural therapy helps improve memory, cognitive abilities, task initiation, language skills, and socialization. In physical rehabilitation, horticultural therapy can help strengthen muscles and improve coordination, balance, and endurance. In vocational horticultural therapy settings, people learn to work independently, problem solve, and follow directions.” Horticultural therapy is frequently used in prisons, mental hospitals, rehabilitation facilities and retirement homes to improve healing and recovery.
Building a healing garden
You may have nothing more than a window sill or balcony, like me. You may have a huge yard. Odds are, you’re probably somewhere in between. Whatever your starting point, how can you create a space that will help you through difficult times?
First, any act of gardening will be a step in the right direction. Second, there is no Right Answer when designing a garden to help you heal emotionally. Whatever helps you is the best design.
My healing garden design
This post was inspired by a garden design that popped into my head while writing my gardening as therapy post. Let me share it with you, if I may. Imagine standing on the edge of a space in a rage, distraught and exhausted. Ready to lash out or give up, your feelings are mirrored by the plants closest to you: sharp thorns, ominous colors, looming trees, darkly shaded nooks and crannies. And a hard, rigid path.
A few steps down that path, things begin to change. It's a little brighter, the colors are somewhat softer, and you hear a gentle rustle. The path becomes less rigid, and it beckons.
The crunch of gravel under your feet is echoed by a gentle wind chime. A few shade-loving flowers brighten the way. A sweet aroma is carried on the breeze. A soft leaf brushes your hand, and you come around a bend.
The path is now soft and mossy. The view in front of you is a small woodland clearing with a patch of blue sky overhead. A bench invites you to set a spell. Birds flutter and splash in a nearby birdbath. Cascading flowers and fragrant herbs remind you that life isn’t always bad.
Don’t you feel better? I know I do.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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