Creating gardens and outdoor living spaces as havens for restoration of human health and wellness has been reflected throughout history right up to the present. Each generation seems to need this more than the last. Research reveals that contact with nature provides stress reduction, which in turn leads to improved health outcomes.
Research shows that spending time in your garden is likely to improve your wellbeing
Gardens designed for stress relief have four primary considerations: social support for garden users; provision of privacy and control; opportunity for physical activity and movement; and establishment of natural elements.
The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (Organization, 1946). This definition encompasses a holistic approach to our general health and wellbeing.
Access to nature can enhance wellness
Research from the fields of healthcare, psychology, design, public health, and other disciplines indicates that access to nature can enhance health and wellness. Annerstedt and Wahrborg (2011) propose three main kinds of public health effects related to nature: short-term recovery from stress or mental fatigue, faster physical recovery from illness, and long-term overall improvement on health and wellbeing. Wilson (1984) addressed the premise for using contact with nature in the treatment of diseases more than twenty-five years ago!
Short-term recovery from stress or mental fatigue has been well-studied, which agree that nature views are more effective in reducing psychological and physiological stress than urban views, and lead to more positive feelings in subjects (Hartig et al., 2003; Ulrich et al., 1991b).
Faster recovery from illness has also been documented. The best-known study included surgery patients in a hospital, some having a view of a tree from their bed, and others having a view of a brick wall. The patients with a view of a tree had shorter hospital stays, needed less severe pain medications, and received less negative comments from nurses (Ulrich, 1984).
Long-term overall improvement on health and wellbeing has also been well-documented, most recently by a ten-year study of vacant lot greening in Philadelphia, PA USA. In this statistically rigorous study, residents reported less stress and increased physical activity levels in neighborhoods where vacant lots were turned to community garden spaces. Reduced crime rates were also reported in these neighborhoods (Branas et al., 2011). Bonus!
Residential gardens allow us to switch off from the stresses of modern living, experience the beauty of nature, and be more fully present to the 'here and now'. Gardens, and outdoor living spaces in general, can be designed to enhance the positive effect they have on our wellbeing.
Discover what you love
Although there are several things you might incorporate into your garden, we are all different and different things help bring about our individual sense of peace and inner harmony. Water is a good example. A water feature that includes the sound of running water can be deeply relaxing to some, but can jangle the nerves of others. One person’s babbling brook can be another person’s leaky pipe! So, spend some time reflecting on what would be your perfect sanctuary space and what it would include.
When you visit places that you love and that put you put you at peace, where you find yourself breathing more deeply and wanting to dwell for longer, notice what it is about that space that encourages that sense of wellbeing. Is it the way the space is arranged, overall? Does it feel intimate and enclosed, or open and expansive with views of the horizon? What are the sights, smells and feelings that you experience?
Sit in your yard, relax and close your eyes. Bring to mind the most beautiful garden you can imagine. Spend some time in this space, looking around and enjoying the sights, scents and sounds. Then gently come back to the your yard and make a few notes or sketches of what you saw.
Create a feeling of 'being away'
Research has shown that one of the factors that contribute to the healing effect of a garden is the feeling of ‘being away’ or being transported to somewhere else. What element of a garden really transports you to your favorite vacation spot? Is it all the flowers? Is it a waterfall? Is it simply peace and quiet? Wouldn't you just love a place to "get away" where no passport is required?
As this is a space where you will naturally want to rest and be still, you’ll need some comfortable seating. What does that look like for you? Do you want a lounge chair to soak up the sun? Or upright seating to stare into a Koi pond?
Also think about what times of day you are likely to want to be in the space and where the sun is at those times.
Engage all the senses
Having elements that catch our attention provide a focus for our minds and distract us away from the incessant thinking that our brains default to. Not everyone finds water relaxing, but water can be fascinating, with the potential for movement, sound and reflections. I have heard water described as ‘a mirror for the sky’ and being near water can be deeply relaxing. A Koi pond with living plants can provide a myriad of delight for the senses: lush plants, floating flowers, gently swimming colorful fish, the occasional dragonfly and butterfly.
You might also like to include something that you use as an ‘object of concentration’ to meditate on, such as some form of sculpture, rocks or seashells. Plants provide color and an infinite variation of shapes and forms, but movement is also worth considering, such as grasses that sway in the breeze – it can be quite hypnotic.
Scent is an important element to consider too as being surrounded by the beautiful perfume of roses or flowering vines. However, if you are allergic to bees, you might want to keep this at a distance from where you sit.
Use plants that soothe you
This is very much where personal preference comes in. Would you like the feeling of a forest glade, a lush jungle, an English meadow, a Mediterranean grove, or a simple Sonoran Desert landscape? Cool toned whites, pinks, blues and purples have been found to have a calming and relaxing effect on people’s state of mind, so you may like to include more of these colors. It has been shown that green requires the least amount of effort for our eyes to see, so is naturally relaxing.
The Blue Mind
There’s a little something called The Blue Mind Theory by Wallace Nichols. There are books and YouTube videos that discuss why we as humans are drawn to be near the water, for both living and vacationing. So, water is typically a pretty important part of any healing garden. The choice comes in whether you want a waterfall, a babbling brook, or a fish pond – or all three! We would suggest sitting next to each one for a bit to discover what most puts you at ease and relaxes you.
Now that you are armed with some information, go sit down and design your own private paradise. And let us know if The Pond Gnome can be of service!