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Healing Gardens

A garden with flowers and plants, and calming water features, is invaluable in the effort to heal and de-stress all year.

Renowned Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh painted his famous “Iris” series at the Asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole, in Saint-Remy, France, in the spring of 1889. He admitted himself and was diagnosed with a form of epilepsy.

Allowed to roam the asylum’s grounds, Van Gogh began painting almost immediately. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh wrote: ” … you will see that considering my life is spent mostly in the garden, it is not so unhappy.”

Later, he wrote: “For one’s health it is necessary to work in the garden and see the flowers growing.”

Research is now proving what van Gogh – and any gardener – knows to be true: Plants and gardens are good for us. Access to a well-designed outdoor garden area – and an indoor area in some cases – has been shown in scientific studies to reduce pain, improve well-being and speed recovery in a health care setting. Not only do gardens improve the health of patients, but they reduce the stress of staff, and families and caregivers, dramatically lower the cost of care.

In the United States, some medical centers have created healing environments that nurture the spirit while treating the body. The desire is to flip the cold, impersonal atmosphere that often pervades health care facilities. The calming effect of an area with the proper plants, seating and water features creates an atmosphere that is consoling, relaxing and therapeutic for patients, family members and staff.

A Case Study

In 2005, Forever Gardens of Crystal Lake designed a healing garden for Crete Area Medical Center in Nebraska, the first hospital in the state to house such a garden. It includes an indoor space with a soothing fountain and seating, which leads to the outdoor garden area with a babbling brook and more places to sit. The hospital shared many stories of the positive impact the garden has had on the hospital and the community:

  • A cancer patient waiting for treatment was very agitated and upset during her wait. A nurse took her out to the healing garden to wait, and when they checked on her in five minutes, she was sound asleep.
  • When a young girl was killed in a tragic accident during a picnic in the local park, the community would meet in the healing garden for counseling her friends and classmates. They come back often, years later.
  • One of the doctors would use the healing garden often before and after performing stressful surgery.
  • The staff, after caring for terminally ill patients, and after a particularly stressful day, find comfort just sitting in the garden for a few moments.
  • Even in winter, people are seen with their winter coats on, sitting in the garden for a break.

The popularity of the garden spread so quickly that several hospitals and health care facilities across Nebraska now feature healing gardens.

History of Healing Through Gardens

Evidence of healing gardens can first be found during the Middle Ages in Europe, and monasteries were the first restorative gardens to appear in the West. Patients’ cells bordered a courtyard that offered sunlight, a lawn and seasonal plants with a place to walk and sit. The emergence of scientific medicine in the 17th century and Romanticism in the 18th century brought attention to sanitation, fresh air and a new appreciation for the effects of nature.

Changes in the treatment of psychiatric patients also occurred around the end of the 18th century – from physical punishment to psychological security – and the institutions were planned with outdoor areas, created to provide comforting experiences. The gardens evoked positive feelings and reduced negative, stressful emotions. Grounds maintenance, gardening and farming became part of a patient’s therapy.

These comforting gardens in institutions took a downturn in the 20th century with the technological advances in medical science. Hospitals became multistory medical complexes because of advances in high-rise construction and the advent of elevators.

Emphasis changed from a patient’s experience with the environment toward saving steps for physicians and nurses, and by the 1970s, the only outdoor experience was the walk from the parking lot to the building.

Fortunately, in recent years, hospitals, hospices and other treatment centers have returned to the importance of therapeutic outdoor spaces.

Centegra Health System, for example, has a healing garden at its McHenry location called the Cheri Amore Garden of Hope. Likewise, the Pepper Family Hospice Home in Barrington boasts a large outdoor healing garden for patients and families. Family Alliance in Woodstock’s award-winning Courtyard and Memory Garden is the result of its horticultural therapy program for seniors.

Plant Your Own Garden

You do not have to leave your home to experience the effects of a healing garden – you can have the same effect right in your own backyard. Your outdoor space is truly an extension of your living space. Spending time in a beautifully landscaped area on your property can make all the difference in the world after a long and difficult day.

Sculpture, sound, water, a profusion of flowers and comfortable seating can be created in a small area, or an entire backyard.

Certain trees whose foliage moves easily and creates noise in a slight breeze can be comforting. The correct arrangement of plants is important with texture, form, certain colors and scents to add to the beauty and feeling of the garden.

The sound of moving water with a water feature can create a profound sense of comfort and peace while in the garden. No matter what size the space is, the correct combination of these features can be created, to make your very own peaceful oasis in your own backyard.

Janness Abraham is the owner of Forever Gardens, 4509 Ripon Rd. in Crystal Lake. For more, call 815-459-3877 or visit

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