Plant a Healing Garden

Use plants and hardscape that appeal to the senses to create a healing garden in your backyard.

| March/April 2014

  • Spending time in nature can reduce stress, elevate mood and promote physical recovery.
    Photo by GAP Photos/Carole Drake
  • Create a therapeutic garden in your own backyard using plants with scents and colors that appeal to you.
    Photo by GAP Photos/Elke Borkowski
  • Lavender has small purple flowers that carry a delicate scent.
    Photo by GAP Photos/Juliette Wade

Nature can restore us, body and soul. Research shows that viewing a natural scene for a few minutes brings people real, observable health benefits such as lowered blood pressure, quicker recovery from illness and blissfully calm brain waves. So imagine how good you could feel in your own healing garden.

“A healing garden is an outdoor space uniquely designed to inspire good health, well-being and positive thought,” says Susan Combs-Bauer of BauerCombs & Associates, a Santa Fe, New Mexico-based landscape architecture firm. “It’s a feel-good place where you go to find solitude, reduce stress or feel a sense of joy.”

Working with spaces from small courtyards to urban parks, Combs-Bauer teaches how-to seminars that give landscaping professionals and homeowners alike a bag of tricks for creating their own nurturing landscape. Here, she lays out a handful of easy-to-follow principles for creating gardens that appeal to the senses.

Come to Your Senses

For Combs-Bauer, creating a healing garden means incorporating natural features that engage our senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and sometimes taste to soothe the soul. She brings in visual patterns, color, shapes and art; pleasing or stimulating textures; gentle sounds to block annoying ones; aromatic scents; and even tasty herbs and edible flowers.

Easy on the eyes: Combs-Bauer loves how color stimulates mood and positive emotions. Choose colors for your garden that support the emotions you hope to develop. Trying to de-stress? Use calming blues and greens. Healing from depression? Go for cheery pink and invigorating red. Seeking inspiration? Try creative yellow. “The best color for any healing garden is lots of purple,” Combs-Bauer says, because it encourages calm and contemplation. You can bring color into the garden through plants and flowers, as well as weatherproof art and sculptures, paint and stucco, gravel, paving materials, tinted concrete and so on.

Also consider calming patterns such as mosaics, spirals and meandering paths made with pebbles and naturally colored stones.

And don’t forget lighting. “The worst mistake is to overlight because it’s harsh and not delightful,” Combs-Bauer says. “Low-volume light is lovely.” Pay attention to the coverage area of a fixture, making sure the fixtures you choose cover the area you want to illuminate by checking their distance, pattern and intensity of illumination. “Buy a couple of fixtures and see what happens. Experiment,” she says. Solar lights are an excellent option.

Sound, not fury: “A healing garden is a contemplative and quiet space,” Combs-Bauer says. If you live in an area with lots of intrusive noise, your first goal is to block it. “A lot of people think vegetation will obscure intrusive sounds—that’s incorrect,” Combs-Bauer says. “You really need a wall, the thicker the better. It’s always nice to use both—vegetation with a wall or fencing.” As a general rule, the more solid the fence or wall, the better it will reflect sound. Stone, brick and stucco walls at least eight inches thick block sound the best.

After blocking outside noises, consider introducing calming ones. “Introduce a water feature with trickle sounds for a soft, whisper effect,” Combs-Bauer says. You might also consider adding audio such as classical or other soft music. “Hardwire or wireless systems are fairly easy to install. Personally, I prefer the convenience of the wireless controls that you can access while lounging.” For a low-cost option, hook up your MP3 player to a couple of portable speakers. For another pleasing sonic element, consider pea gravel or decomposed gravel: “It goes crunch, crunch when you walk,” she says. “I love that sound.”

Therapeutic touch: “Soft, smooth, rough, woolly or hairy, many different types of plants create all sorts of tactile inputs,” Combs-Bauer says. Engaging your sense of touch could mean putting in a vegetable garden or just planting soft, fuzzy plants such as lamb’s ears, pampas grass and white pine. “A lot of people get pure enjoyment out of petting lamb’s ears,” Combs-Bauer says. “It’s almost like having a dog or cat. And there’s the long needles of a pine tree.” Add textures to walk on, too. “Touch the earth with your feet. As a kid, I always remember running around in bare feet.”

Beyond common scents: Delightful aromas are some of the garden’s greatest joys. “Scents create thoughts and feelings within you,” Combs-Bauer says. Although certain scents are thought to stimulate certain emotions (for example, lavender is calming while rosemary is stimulating), the most important thing to consider is how aromas affect you. “Start with scents you like,” Combs-Bauer says. “Some people love to smell roses or lavender. For me, there’s nothing better than honeysuckle in the evening when its scent dissipates around you.”

Creating Your Garden

With these principles in mind, start thinking about design. To start, try visiting other gardens, parks or even restaurant courtyards. “Find out what makes you happy and comfortable; what you like and don’t like,” Combs-Bauer says. Get specific about your wishes for this space: “Is it a feeling you want? Is it an area you want to look at; take care of or not take care of; or garden in? Do you want to sit and relax and contemplate?” Consider whether you wish to be digging in the earth, actively caring for plants, or observing nature and relaxing. Do you like the comfort and privacy of being surrounded by walls and vegetation, or do you like open vistas and long views? Your answers will help shape the space and fill it, too.

Start with the hardscape: Resist the urge to choose your plants first—they’re the “icing on the cake,” Combs-Bauer says. Think of the garden as an outdoor room. You can’t furnish it until you know the layout and dimensions. Carefully consider where to place elements such as seating, privacy walls, shade structures or shade plants, pathways, water features, a fire pit or a sculpture. In arid environments, hardscape such as stone patios or wide pathways is more ecologically responsible than thirsty lawns, as long as you use local materials.

Here comes the sun…and wind: Don’t forget the natural elements as you plan your space. Shadows limit plants you can use. Whether you like to bask in the sun or relax in the shade will determine where you create a shade structure or plant a tall tree. For these reasons, “you really need to know your sun angles for each season,” Combs-Bauer says. “Before you build the garden, follow the sun. Be patient. Just watch where it’s shining and map it on paper.” And don’t forget the wind. “Figure out where the prevailing winds come from and block them with trees, structures such as fences or walls, or both.”

Focal points: After you’ve determined the general structure of your garden, consider what the focal point of your garden will be. Every garden should have one focal point that draws your eye and holds your attention. “Use a planter full of plants, a piece of artwork such as a sculpture, a fountain, a colored wall with a hole in it, or a purple chair,” Combs-Bauer says.

Think about coordinating the indoors with the outdoors. “I once planted a big rose bush that was the same coral color as the large sofa inside by the window, so when you looked outside, it blended the two together.”

Get help with plants: “There are wonderful people at the local nurseries who know their stuff,” Combs-Bauer says. “It’s free advice. And they know the microclimates around your town.” Whether you want to grow your own food or herbs, plant easygoing perennials that require little work, or hope to create a scented paradise, let your local nursery experts guide you in your plant selection.

5 Favorite Plants for a Soothing Garden

Lavender: Small purple flowers carry a delicate, soothing scent.

Coreopsis: Cheery flowers vary from yellow and orange to maroon.

Rosemary: Lovely to look at and stimulating to smell, this lush, dark green herb is also useful in the kitchen.

Honeysuckle: Treat yourself to that fabulous fragrance.

White pine: Planted as a backdrop, this evergreen softens the sunshine with filtered shade.

Garden Therapy

Researchers have demonstrated that spending time in nature, and in a healing garden in particular, reduces stress, elevates mood, and promotes physical and psychological recovery.

In one hospital study, 95 percent of those surveyed said that after spending time outdoors they felt their moods improve from depressed, stressed and anxious to more calm and balanced.

In the same study, more than 66 percent credited visual stimulation from trees, flowers, colors, seasonal change and greenery with improving their outlook. More than half cited other sensory stimuli such as birdsong or a water fountain (sound), and fresh air and natural fragrances (aroma).

Four recent studies found that gazing on a natural scene and hearing natural sounds may reduce acute pain.

Taking individual responsibility for even one houseplant can improve quality of life and various indicators of future health, according to a study of older adults.

Charles C. Poling is a freelance writer based in New Mexico.
12/8/2017 8:28:14 AM

I love this article because I have proven to myself the truth of the healing properties of a planned medicinal garden. I suffer with RA and have found just standing in it helps the pain. The smells, the herbs, the color, and even the touch of the earth (dirt) can sooth me. I believe some people are more in tune to this healing than others. I first noticed it in me at the ripe old age of 7. Now I have noticed only 1 out of my 5 grandchildren goes there for its benefits that he is unaware of at the age of 6. His delight at the smell of a Peppermint plant brought the words, “Gahmee, we should Google how to make gum! C’mon, let’s go!” Jody Bode Minneapolis, MN

4/23/2014 4:46:18 PM

Loved the article! As a mental health professional myself, I can attest to the fact that many of the suggestions touched on in the article can have healing benefits. All of the senses can be instrumental in enhancing positive outcomes in overall health, but are far too often overlooked as beneficial. There is no doubt that caring for a garden, or even just spending time in one, can have long-reaching positive effects. One of my favorite garden plants for its lovely sight, variety of uses and delicate scent is Lavender. Here’s a link to one of my favorite varieties:

4/23/2014 3:47:55 PM

Loved the article! As a mental health professional myself, I can attest to the fact that many of the suggestions touched on in the article can have healing benefits. All of the senses can be instrumental in enhancing positive outcomes in overall health, but are far too often overlooked as beneficial. There is no doubt that caring for a garden, or even just spending time in one, can have long-reaching positive effects. One of my favorite garden plants for its lovely sight, variety of uses and delicate scent is Lavender. Here’s a link to one of my favorite varieties:



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