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Natural Awakenings South Jersey

How Nature Activates A Healing Response

Jan 03, 2014 06:25PM ● By Linda Sechrist

Jeanette Glennon-Morrissey

Something nearly indescribable happens within us when we spend time in nature’s unplanned spaces. Fortunately, individuals who design our built environments are reawakening to how nature’s lush greenery and undeniably captivating shapes can activate a healing response. According to the American Society of Landscape Architects, gardens, which were dismissed as unimportant to medical treatment for much of the 20th century, are now back in style and featured in the designs of many new hospitals and rehabilitation centers.

In a recent survey of 100 directors and architects of assisted-living residences, 82 percent agreed that the design of outdoor space should be one of the most important considerations in the design. “We’ve been accruing evidence since 1984 to support what we’ve intuitively known for many years—nature is healing. When we are under stress and we look out onto a garden with trees and plants, there is physiological evidence that it reduces our blood pressure, lowers our heart rate and improves the immune system,” says Clare Cooper Marcus, co-author of Therapeutic Landscapes: An Evidence-Based Approach to Designing Healing Gardens and Restorative Outdoor Spaces.

Professor Emerita of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of California Berkeley, Marcus notes that the earliest hospitals in the Western world were infirmaries in monastic communities where herbs and prayer were the focus of healing and a cloistered garden was an essential part of the environment. She also refers to today’s healing gardens, many of them created in the last 10 years, as a mix of good and not so good. “It’s become a bit of a fad and marketing device. For example, a hospital that installs a chaise lounge and two potted plants, calls it a garden. Naomi Sachs and I wrote our book to provide pragmatic guidelines regarding what constitutes a healing garden and why it should be designed with everyone—patients, visitors and staff—in mind,” explains Marcus.

The focused study of the book includes guidelines for designing healthcare facilities to meet the specific needs of patient populations such as children and veterans. It also includes proven approaches on how to design spaces to reduce stress, support recovery, help patients regain impaired abilities and encourage emotional equilibrium.

Magee Rehabilitation Hospital

At Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, in Philadelphia, where horticultural therapy services have been provided to patients for more than 30 years, Jeannette Glennon-Morrissey, a Registered Horticultural Therapist, has seen patients benefit from time spent in the rooftop greenhouse. “Horticultural therapy has been around since the 1800s when Dr. Benjamin Rush emphasized farming and gardening—giving mentally ill patients productive tasks in gardens and farms—as curative. In 1879 the Friends Hospital built its first greenhouse to enhance its commitment to the art and science of horticulture,” says Glennon- Morrissey, who is overjoyed any time she sees a patient’s response when they are exposed to the earth and living things. “While we are task-oriented and set goals for patients in horticultural therapy, I feel deeply fulfilled whenever I connect them to the earth. Some individuals gain more self-confidence while others feel some connection to a higher power,” she comments.

The Benefits of Horticultural Therapy

Under the guidance of a horticultural therapist, individuals who have suffered a brain injury or a stroke, find that the greenhouse environment is not only far less intimidating but also filled with sensory stimulation that can improve cognitive sequencing skills. “Being able to stay on tasks builds brain function,” advises Glennon- Morrissey.

Horticultural therapy provides emotional and psychological benefits. The responsibilities and accomplishments that are part of the gardening experience provide patients with a sense of satisfaction and improved self-esteem. Nurturing a plant redirects their focus of pain and offers a sense of pride. Tending a plant or garden helps relieve the pressures and stresses of everyday life. Socialization during groups and discussing their plant/horticulture projects with others helps normalize a patient’s day.

An introduction to horticulture as a leisure activity can also aid in the patient’s process of reintegration back into the community. Patients are introduced to how they may garden at home, with accessible tools or raised beds. At home they may join garden organizations or initiate accessible community gardens. “It feels so rewarding when patients call or email me, after their discharge, to tell me about their gardening activities,” comments Morrisey, who notes that the rooftop greenhouse 1:1 patient time can also include art therapy, therapeutic recreation, speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, patient leisure activities and others.


Based on Marcus’ research regarding what works in gardens meant for medical benefits, an article in Scientific American, “Nature that Nurtures”, offered a checklist that includes keeping it green, real, interesting and engaging for multiple senses as well as providing easy entries to well-thought-out water features. “Fountains that sound like dripping faucets, buzzing helicopters or urinals do not relax anyone, and neither does the strong smell of algae,” says Marcus.

When the well-known American naturalist, Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, wrote about his Walden Woods Project in Concord, Massachusetts, he concluded that, “Nature is another word for health” and that all of nature was his tonic. While gardens are not curative, the mind-body benefits to health are a blessing not only in medical facilities such as cancer centers and hospitals but also where they are found in public spaces.

Linda Sechrist is the senior staff writer for Natural Awakenings. Visit for interviews and other articles.

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