Review: “Gardening as a Therapeutic Resource”  (Raeline Nobles at the 2023 Texas Master Gardener Association Annual Conference)

By Nora Fellows, Bexar County Master Gardener    

September 2023  

Henrico Master Gardeners (part of Virginia Cooperative Extension) assist with a healing garden at St. Joseph’s Villa for children on the autism spectrum.

Raeline Nobles’ excellent presentation on “Gardening as a Therapeutic Resource” was full of information and ideas for using gardening to enhance well-being. During this information-packed, one-hour presentation she also offered practical advice for starting, designing, developing, and implementing such a garden.

Ms. Nobles began with an overview of therapeutic gardening by defining two broad categories:  Therapeutic Gardens and Healing Gardens.  You have probably heard both terms used, often interchangeably, although there are slight differences between the two. 

Therapeutic Gardening is most often associated with institutional settings such as a hospital and are usually centered around a specific condition or disease.  Often, they are professionally designed and maintained.  An example of this type of garden might be one designed to enhance or improve outcome measures in persons with dementia or perhaps recovering from surgery. 

The second broad category is a Healing Garden.  These gardens tend to be less disease-centric and are designed not just for a certain group (such as hospital patients) but also for family, staff, and visitors. These gardens promote a holistic approach with an emphasis on general well-being.  Both types of gardens can be found at hospitals, long-term care and rehabilitation centers, schools, prisons, shelters, businesses, and private homes.

Ms. Nobles’ presentation focused on the Healing Garden model.  The potential advantages of Healing Gardens were discussed, as well as who can benefit. Spoiler-alert: Everyone!      

     Potential Benefits:

  • Evoke positive feelings (calm, safety, solace).
  • Reduce feelings of anger, sadness, and anxiety.
  • Promote physical activity and improve physical condition.
  • Increase self-efficacy.
  • Speed recovery time from illnesses, injuries, and surgeries.
  • Reduce need for pain medications.
  • Improve cognitive functioning.

Following this discussion, Ms. Nobles transitioned to the practical application of designing and implementing a Healing Garden.  In other words – “How can Master Gardeners use their knowledge and skills to help others enhance their well-being?”

She discussed the considerable logistics involved in designing and implementing a Healing Garden in a private or public setting.  In many ways, it includes factors involved in designing a traditional garden such as budget, location, size, and maintenance. But, designing a Healing Garden requires additional considerations.  For instance, Ms. Nobles suggested an exploration of the greater purpose of the garden.  Is it a legacy garden? Or perhaps a sensory or meditative garden?  Will it be used by just one person or many?  Are there special conditions of users or visitors to the garden that must be considered?  How about physical access? And of course, are there any unique safety issues?               

The therapeutic art of Healing Gardens was discussed with an emphasis on actively listening to the needs of people who will be the beneficiaries of the garden.  She provided a useful handout titled “Conversation Starters and Ideas That Work” to help get the process going as well as additional resources at the end of her presentation.

Some ideas to help you create a Healing Garden:

  • Can’t get outside?  Make a garden area in the house or a garden on a mobile cart that can be moved inside or outside.
  • Provide a sitting space in a shady or sunny area of the garden (depending on the season).
  • Use a collection of plants in pots on a patio area.
  • Provide a water feature to invite wildlife into the garden.
  • Use plants with flowers and/or unique leaves.
  • Use plants that smell good and feel good (such as Lamb’s Ear).
  • Provide music in the garden!
  • Take photos of the garden during development and then seasonally to enhance memories.

Therapeutic and Healing Gardens can benefit anyone.  They may be specially designed for just one person or for many.  They may be targeted to a specific condition such as a sensory garden for dementia or designed to promote a more generalized response such as a meditative garden.  As Master Gardeners, our love of gardening can be used as a tool to provide solace, hope, growth, and inspiration to others in times of need.

Additional Resources:

Texas A&M Today Article- The Positive Effects of Gardening on Mental Health