The gardens at Mercy Medical Center's new Mary Catherine Bunting Center are designed to comfort those both inside and outside of the building. The three rooftop gardens are configured in a way to be viewed from rooms above and appear to flow into the Preston Gardens on the street level.

Two of the gardens can be accessed from the hospital floors. The largest of the gardens is off the maternity department and is designed to be used by anyone in the hospital. The smaller garden off the ninth-floor critical-care department gives families of patients there a quiet retreat. Here they can sit beneath the red maples and serviceberry and stroll by coral bells, Lenten roses and heartleaf bergenia.

"This is like a little oasis," says Dr. Kathy Helzlsouer, director of Mercy's Prevention and Research Center. "In the midst of a hospital to have that exposure of the garden is very calming. It helps to center people."

Therapeutic elements

Although certainly attractive, healing gardens are not just pretty landscaping.

"It's really a variety of things we do that make it a therapy garden," says Steven Kelly, the principal designer of the Mercy gardens who is also with Mahan Rykiel Associates. "We try to provide familiar plants and materials that people feel comfortable with."

The plants have been purposefully chosen to appeal to the senses of sight, hearing and smell. Trees will change to mark the seasons and give patients a sense of time. Pools and fountains offer soothing sounds and give patients the opportunity to touch cool and comforting water.

The design of the pathways and seating areas are also intentional. Kelly says the walkways must allow people the opportunity to stroll, yet not appear confusing or physically challenging.

Therapeutic gardens soothe not only anxious adults, but children as well. Johns Hopkins Hospital's Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children's Center, which opened in 2012, includes a healing garden inspired by the children's book, "The Little Prince." It was donated by Steve and Cheryl Wilhide in memory of their daughter, Sara, who had been a patient at the hospital and loved "The Little Prince" story.

Children who visit the small garden can run about in the grass, climb on fiberglass asteroids that light up at the touch, play beneath a trellis populated by colorful plastic birds and pretend to pump water from a fountain that resembles an old-fashioned pump. The garden's plants, selected for their visual interest, include Franklinia, smoketree, sunflowers, shooting stars and roses.

"There is a lot of awareness in healthcare that it takes more than medicine to help you get well," says Patrice Brylske, director of Child Life and Child Development Programs at the Hopkins Children's Center. "In order for children to feel safe and more in control, we need to give them opportunities to play just as they would be doing at home."

Weiler, the garden's designer, says she wanted to create an area to be both "calm and fun" and says those who enjoy it don't need to be familiar with "The Little Prince" story. "It's really meant to be imaginative and fun and get your mind off the things you don't want to think about when you're in the hospital," she says.

The children's garden is part of a larger courtyard that also includes a meditation garden. Here the mood changes from whimsical to contemplative with a fountain, soothing colors and fragrant plants.

Although the new therapeutic garden movement focuses on creating spaces that promote healing, Weiler says that in some respects that power is present in every garden.

"I've never known a garden that didn't make people feel better," she says.

Tips for making a healing garden

•Incorporate plants that appeal to the senses. Include plants with fragrance and those that change with the seasons.

•Add a water feature that creates sound and can be touched.

•Build pathways that are easy to navigate. Circles, such as a labyrinth, allow walking without the fear of getting lost.

•Add seating areas for socialization and others for private contemplation.

•Build beds that are easy to reach, and choose plants that are easy to maintain.