Therapy gardens at homes and hospitals sprout up as their healing qualities are understood

Healing gardens at Mary Catherine Bunting Center, Mercy Medical Center.
Healing gardens at Mary Catherine Bunting Center, Mercy Medical Center. (Patrick Ross)

Virginia Thorndike strolls through the garden in front of her Monkton home each morning, carefully observing the ways the flowers have changed from the previous day.

She sums up the feeling that overcomes her: "Gratitude."


Thorndike designed her garden as a spiritual retreat, positioning plants in ways that draw on ancient religious practices. Laid out in a half circle, the garden is bisected by a waterfall that ends in a pond at the base of a hill.

Stones frame a yin-yang circle populated by Hoogendorn hollies. The watercourse is the yin-yang line and mugo pines are the symbol's dots. Thorndike also applied the principles of feng shui to her garden, overlaying another circle and selecting plants with colors that represent elements of the earth.


"I did well in geometry in 10th grade," she jokes. But she adds seriously, "This garden is a very comprehensive creation done as an homage to spirit."

Thorndike's garden reflects her unique vision of spirituality, but the concept of therapeutic or healing gardens has become increasingly common at healthcare facilities in the past several years. Mercy Medical Center, Baltimore Washington Medical Center, Kennedy Krieger Institute, Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Rehabilitation and Orthopaedic Institute (formerly Kernan Hospital) all have healing gardens.

"Hospitals more and more have begun to understand that … people do heal faster when they have visual access to plants and gardens," says Susan Weiler, a partner in the OLIN landscape architecture firm and designer of several gardens at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The realization follows a number of scientific studies that have shown people heal faster when they can see or interact with gardens, says Naomi Sachs, founder and director of Therapeutic Landscapes Network, an online resource for those interested in therapeutic gardens. "Now a lot of healthcare facilities are buying into it," she says. "Some are even using it as part of their marketing."


And homeowners have begun to take note and explore ways to create their own therapeutic gardens, Sachs says.

"Most people who are aging want to age in place," she says. "We're having to think about ways to provide gardens in people's homes that are restorative and accessible."

Form follows function

The designs and purposes of healing gardens vary. Architect Lydia Kimball, a principal in the firm Mahan Rykiel Associates, designed a garden at Kennedy Krieger to help patients learning to use wheelchairs and walkers. She incorporated a number of surfaces into the garden, including gravel, concrete, cobblestones and grass.

"You get all the benefits of being outside and you get the even more important practice of learning to use the wheelchair on concrete and grass," she says.

But the garden isn't just for the patients. The half-acre space, which features ornamental cherry trees, fountains, benches and areas for quiet contemplation, gives Kennedy Krieger's workers and patients' families a place to rest and recharge.

"It is intended for people to be out there and run around and enjoy the outdoors," Kimball says.

At the University of Maryland Rehabilitation and Orthopaedic Institute, the garden is designed to heal the body as well as the spirit. As the garden at Kennedy Krieger does, it provides different surfaces to help patients who are learning to use wheelchairs or walkers.

The garden also includes raised beds that allow patients who are interested in gardening to tend to the plants. Familiar plants, such as black-eyed Susans, azaleas, lemongrass and basil, encourage speech therapy patients to describe the plants they see.

The garden also offers a spiritual retreat for patients who may face many months of hospitalization. "It provides them an area to visit with their families and help them relax," says Lori Patria, director of therapy services at the hospital. "It's a refuge."

At University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center's Tate Cancer Center patients undergoing chemotherapy can look out at a garden with hillside views, a stream and reflecting pool. Patients and their families can also stroll along a brick pathway in which encouraging messages have been inscribed at the bequests of donors.

"We've gotten a lot of positive feedback from it," says hospital spokesman Kevin Cservek.

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.