It seems like just yesterday we had winter’s end in sight, looking for the first signs of buds on trees and the promise of spring. Planning ahead for implementing a healing garden into a project is like preparing a garden in autumn for a bounty of beautiful blooms in the springtime. The vision prepares the way for the diligent planning, execution, and optimum utilization of a healing space for the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.

Nature heals in its own way, and no matter what description of it is spoken, scientific study theorized upon, or research written, our primordial inner being reaches out towards it beyond words.

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Today’s political and financial worlds, along with national healthcare insurance and reform questions, are raising concerns about an uncertain future in the healthcare industry. The long-range planning challenges facing healthcare facilities are many. The business case for spending healthcare dollars on tangible physical outcomes is easier to make than for spending on those not as easily perceived.

Many healing gardens put on paper and budgeted for are often value engineered out of a project. Although it may save dollars upfront, in the long run, what is the true cost to the welfare of the facility, staff, and patients?

Visiting and talking with healthcare facilities that have true healing gardens can be inspiring. Learning about the benefits of true healing gardens firsthand from staff and patients who use them can lead you to understand why in today’s healthcare facilities we can’t do without them.

Healing gardens are not a new concept. They stretch back to ancient times. Modern medicine, however, found it easier to focus on treating patients with medications for their physical conditions. Often, mental and spiritual ties to healing were neglected.

Slowly over the past few decades, research and rediscovery have illuminated the need for healing gardens once again. Medical facilities embracing healing gardens, both exterior and interior, are finding they provide many benefits when well maintained and can be used for many different purposes.

Although many healthcare facilities are incorporating “healing gardens,” many lack the “healing” aspect. A sea of mulch with a couple of trees, some planting beds with a solitary walkway, and bench should just be the start and not the end result.

Creating a true healing garden can restore us, in even some small way, from the “bumps, bruises, and breaks” life sends our way. True healing gardens must also be therapeutic and contain those elements that make it so.

Restricted hours to the garden, admittance only with a key, or one with an entrance impossible to find dissuades use of it. Other barriers such as poor seating choices or locations can find a garden empty or little used. But what of the well-thought-out healing garden?

For a patient, it may be a brief time to forget their illness and enjoy the blue jay calling overhead or the scent of spring blossoms. Hospital staff members can sit together and let go of stress as they laugh in a calming environment.

A physical therapist can help a patient regain use of a hand by repotting plants or other garden activity. Sitting on a bench, worried family members are able to enjoy a peaceful moment as they watch water droplets dance on a leaf.

A gathering space can be used for small performances for patients and staff, or a place for a fundraising luncheon or other function.

All of these add to the garden’s benefits. Where do you start if you’re a facility that wants to plan a healing garden and plan wisely?

To begin planning a healing garden, form a team that has the good of all at heart. Include members from the healthcare institution, including administration, therapists, key stakeholders, and those who will maintain the garden.

Working with the landscape architect, architect, interior designer, and other consultants who have valuable knowledge in their fields of expertise will ensure a successful outcome. One of the members should have a certificate in healthcare garden design. This person can guide the team, and keep the drive and focus going in the right direction.

Team members need to be able to visualize the future garden and see its worth for the agreed upon uses, such as therapy, place of respite, exercise class, and fundraising. Interested members of the community can also add great insight to the team, ask questions, and offer solutions that might be critical down the road.

It’s important to start thinking early on of possible locations for the garden. Walking the potential sites will show you so much more than drawings or photos. Sounds, smells, unpleasant noise, and any “wind tunnel” effect can’t be felt on paper or seen from a conference room.

By physically walking through potential sites, you may find that strange cutout between two buildings is so easily accessible that it is the right spot. Once potential locations are determined, there’s a myriad of questions the garden design team need to answer.

The team needs to develop a master plan by answering the questions of who, when, why, and where. Who will use the garden and why? Will it be used year-round? Do the walkways need to be heated in winter? Where is the best location? Will trees and some sort of shelter give protection from sun or other elements throughout the year? What kind of lighting will be provided for night use? Do the planned users of the garden have any particular requirements?

For example, physical therapy patients may need to have planters at different heights so they can plant bulbs or water plants. A senior-living facility may need to provide more handrails and shaded areas so residents can more easily walk from a bench to a bed of yellow flowers surrounding a bird bath. Gardens for dementia patients may want more “memory cues” and a more thorough selection of plants to prevent injury.

These and many more questions need to be
considered carefully. The master plan also will provide insight, such as future buildings, renovation work, and building demolition—all of which can have a huge impact down the road. Planning will ensure that a garden with plenty of natural sunlight and plantings that thrive doesn’t wither away slowly in the heavy shade of a new building addition.

Cost planning is also key. To ensure its success, the cost of the garden should include annual maintenance for several years consisting of plant and furnishings replacement, tools and equipment, water/irrigation, lighting, garden ornament/artwork, maintenance staff, etc. An ongoing donor fund or other fundraising benefiting the garden may be considered to offset times of budget constraints so the garden won’t become neglected and abandoned.

Funding to restore a neglected garden may be prohibitive so advance planning is imperative. Through careful planning for the garden’s future, it will be a source of beauty, peace, and joy: a beneficial place of healing on many levels for years to come.

Evidence-based design research has proven nature heals. Incorporating a truly healing garden space created and maintained for year-round use where possible is paramount in planning for all types of health facilities.

It’s more than creating a pretty place outside. It’s a commitment to wellbeing that every facility should be making and include as a priority in their long-range planning.

For those of us who have always wielded a trowel in one hand and sketched an idea for a garden in the other, learning everything about creating the ideal garden for each individual healthcare facility—their needs, their wants, their dreams—is essential. Creating those spaces celebrates life for all of us. Now go outside, take a walk, and enjoy the beauty of spring.


Natalie Symon, Associate, IIDA, EDAC, LEED AP BD+C, is an Interior Designer at CBLH Design. She holds a Certificate of Merit in Healthcare Garden Design. Reach her at