Healing gardens

For a while now, I’ve been interested in gardens as spaces for meditation and prayer, and in how we can intentionally design gardens for those purposes (especially church gardens, which we can then keep open to the general public, and provide them with a gentle invitation to these disciplines).

As I was meandering around the web this afternoon, I came across the slides for a lecture on “Healing Gardens in Hospitals” as part of a course in hospital architecture.  This was not exactly the same thing as I’d been thinking about, but nor was it unrelated, so I was interested enough to go through the slides and see these principles put forward (the headings are my own way of organising the material):

Spiritual considerations:

  • A connection to nature has been shown to have positive influence on health outcomes (physiological and psychological).
  • Plants with distinct seasonal changes can invite a range of responses and reflections.  Trees can provide metaphors of solidity, strength and permanence.  Annuals can provide metaphors of growth, budding, blooming, seeding, decay, death and transformation.  Perennials can provide metaphors of persistence and renewal.
  • If there is potential for a good view beyond the premises, seek to construct the garden to incorporate it.  People often find a wider view helps them focus less on their troubles, and find a wider perspective.

Practical considerations:

  • Well-designed gardens can become not just an adjunct to the hospital, but a place which is used for various types of therapy (an integral part of the treatment model).
  • The garden could also become a “needed retreat” for staff, helping them to manage the stress of their work.

Physical considerations:

  • Accessibility is key!  People of all ages and abilities need to be able to enter and move around the garden.  Paths should be solid, smooth and wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass.
  • The garden space could be used in ways that ranged from relatively passive to quite active.  The well-designed garden needs to cater for viewing from inside, sitting outside, rest/meditation/prayer (I guess they mean sitting quietly here!), gentle exercise, walking, eating, reading and paperwork, playing (referring particularly to children), sport, and.. even gardening.
  • Quiet is important.  Thought should be given to noise levels and screening of intruding noise, and the creation of natural sounds (water, birdsong, rustling leaves etc).
  • Levels of greenery are also important.  More vegetation helps to awaken the senses, calm the mind and reduce stress.  Planting design should be intricate, detailed, and appeal to all the senses.
  • Furniture should be comfortable and not cause strain, including when shared.
  • Our connection with nature can also be cognitive.  Plant labels can engage our attention and stimulate conversation.
  • Water can be helpful.  Views of still, reflective water and the sounds and views of moving water are engaging and soothing.  Water also attracts wildlife, adding to the diversity of the garden and providing a sense of the breadth and continuity of life.
  • Give thought to shelter appropriate to the climate, to make it possible to use the garden for as much of the year as possible.

Emotional considerations:

  • The psychological process by which a person is helped by being in a garden includes the journey itself, sensory awakening, personal centreing, and spiritual attunement.
  • The positive outcomes of a garden were strengthened if they were accompanied by social support and a sense of autonomy in one’s situation.  A well-designed garden can enhance the sense of autonomy of visitors to it by giving them a choice of spaces, seating and activities (this can be as simple as making sure that furniture can be easily moved, and providing spaces which are more open and more enclosed, more secluded/private and more social, more sunny and more shaded, etc).  Providing a range of options in the garden can also ensure that it invites exploration and does not become boring.  Opportunities to personalise or contribute to the garden in some way (eg decorating a tile for a wall) can help to build a sense of ownership as well.
  • The garden should match the culture of the people who use it (garden design, plants, detailing, furnishing etc).
  • Ambiguous or abstract features may be perceived as fearful or threatening (even if the designer had no such intent) and should be avoided.  What might be appropriate in other contexts may not be so appropriate here.  Art should be unambiguously positive.  The inclusion of inspiring statements etc can be beneficial (but should be carefully selected for the context).

There seems to me that there is a great deal here that we could carry over into thinking about our church gardens.  What if we intentionally designed our garden spaces to help people connect with God through nature?  What if we invited people to use those spaces in ways which complement and extend what we do inside our church buildings?  What if we took seriously issues of accessibility, providing for a range of activities, and the sensory experience of people in our gardens?  What if we found ways to build social support into how people engaged with our gardens?

And there are other questions, not touched on in this lecture but to which we might also want to give thought.  How can gardens become teaching resources?  (I remember a quiet afternoon when I was in college, in which we were given a series of meditative exercises as we walked through the Fitzroy gardens and reflected on what we encountered there.  It would not be difficult to do similar things on a smaller scale).  What other needs in our community can a garden meet?  Can our garden become part of wider conservation efforts?  And so on.

Brother Roger, who founded the community at Taizé, is reputed to have said that when the church becomes a house of prayer, the people will come running.  He has been shown to be right in the experience at Taizé, to which thousands of young people now flock every year.  What if we asked how our gardens could further our mission, and designed them for that?  The resources to help us do this better are out there; surely we should take them seriously!


2 comments on “Healing gardens

  1. Very interesting article, there’s a lot I’ve never considered concerning gardens. I only knew before that I feel calmer and more relaxed after walking through a garden 🙂

  2. I love gardens, cottage-y, casual, huge borders for cutting. One of my favorite pass times is garden tours, of which there are many here in our area. Inspiring. And lots of hard manual labor. I think a church garden is a perfect place for meditation, bird watching, appreciating God’s genius. Many church gardens that I’ve seen have lovely garden benches dedicated to a dearly loved pastor.

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