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A Place for Healing

By: Sandra Nelson; Images Sandy DeFoe
Koi Pond at Children's Hospital of Atlanta - Scottish Rite

Entering the Koi Pond at Children’s Hospital of Atlanta – Scottish Rite

I have a young granddaughter who has recently spent quite a bit of time in and out of children’s hospitals.  The last time we saw her there, we visited the hospital’s outdoor green space several times.  Each time we went, whether it was a sunny or rainy day, my granddaughter visibly changed, becoming more engaged with the world around her.  She was more relaxed and obviously happier.  This was when I first understood the power of a Healing Garden.


A Therapeutic or Healing Garden is described as an outdoor area designed and planted to add to the physical and emotional wellness of individuals, their loved ones and their caregivers through exposure to and contact with nature.  Another description I love says that a therapeutic garden is an outdoor space to promote healing in “body, mind, and spirit.”

By these definitions and with what we now conclusively know about the role green space plays in our lives, it seems to me that almost any garden anywhere could be considered therapeutic. However, professional designers agree that there are a few elements that are necessary for a space to be considered a true Healing Garden.

Most importantly, healing spaces are designed to meet the specific needs of the population for which they are meant.  For example, a Healing Garden at a children’s hospital must meet the physical needs of the children as well as inspire creativity, curiosity and joy. There must be room for play and opportunities for tactile stimulation.  On the other hand, the design for a Healing Garden in a cancer treatment facility or a skilled nursing facility will have private areas for individual meditation and reflection as well as space for groups to gather. A garden for dementia patients will feature looped pathways with no dead ends that could confuse or frighten users. Each garden has exactly what its users need.

Alzheimer garden.

Plan for an Alzheimer garden designed by Dan Nelson


A second critical piece of a true Healing Garden is the complexity of the design.  A powerful plan features coherence, mystery and “soft fascination.” A strong sense of unity, often created by repeating patterns (fractals), gives a feeling of balance and brings peacefulness to its users.  Adding unexpected elements however, provides users with a sense that there is more to be discovered and experienced — that the first glance does not tell the whole story. This is the mystery of the garden.  At the same time, a well-designed Therapeutic Garden incorporates a variety of natural and constructed materials that both highlight and soothe the senses, giving the mind an opportunity to restore itself.  Although on the surface, Healing Gardens may appear to just be attractive green spaces, in reality every part is intentionally designed and placed for its effect. 

Quiet spot to reflect and hear the soothing sound of water.

A quiet spot to reflect and hear the soothing sound of water.


Finally, in order to provide a safe environment for its users, a Therapeutic Garden must be both easily maintainable and environmentally sound. While a well-kept garden promotes a sense of security vital to its users, a poorly maintained garden can not only present physical risks, but also cause mental distress.  A garden in disrepair will eventually be abandoned by its intended users. What the maintenance budget is and who will care for the garden therefore is part of the planning process so that the garden can fulfill its purpose over the long term.  When selecting  plant materials, designers work to choose ones that are known to thrive in the area since they will respond better to the conditions of their environment and will require less intensive upkeep. Using fewer pesticides and fertilizers helps to limit potential exposure to harmful substances. Those who design know that a Therapeutic garden seeks to heal, not hurt.


As life’s inevitable challenges are encountered, having the opportunity to spend time in a professionally designed Therapeutic Garden allows nature to do its part in healing the body and calming the soul. Having seen the power of nature myself,  I now understand why we must champion the access to healing spaces for all who are hurting.