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Can gardens be therapeutic?

Gardens have become one of the hottest trends in the design of hospitals and assistant-living facilities.

The March issue of Scientific American has an interesting article that poses the question, “Can gardens promote healing?

The article’s author, science writer Deborah Franklin, discusses how gardens have become one of the hottest trends in the design of hospitals and assistant-living facilities. She then describes some of the science behind the trend. That science may not be definitive, but it’s thought provoking.

Writes Franklin:

A much cited study, published in 1984 in the journal Science by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich, now at Texas A&M University, was the first to use the standards of modern medical research — strict experimental controls and quantified health outcomes — to demonstrate that gazing at a garden can sometimes speed healing from surgery, infections and other ailments.

Ulrich and his team reviewed the medical records of people recovering from gallbladder surgery at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital. All other things being equal, patients with bedside windows looking out on leafy trees healed, on average, a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer postsurgical complications than patients who instead saw a brick wall. …

A retrospective study isn’t, of course, strong proof of anything, but Ulrich later conducted a more rigorous experiment:

In 1993 Ulrich and his colleagues at Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden randomly assigned 160 heart surgery patients in the intensive care unit to one of six conditions: simulated “window views” of a large nature photograph (an open, tree-lined stream or a shadowy forest scene); one of two abstract paintings; a white panel; or a blank wall. Surveys afterward confirmed that patients assigned the water and tree scene were less anxious and needed fewer doses of strong pain medicine than those who looked at the darker forest photograph, abstract art or no pictures at all.

Other research has shown, adds Franklin, that “just three to five minutes spent looking at views dominated by trees, flowers or water can begin to reduce anger, anxiety and pain and to induce relaxation, according to various studies of healthy people that measured physiological changes in blood pressure, muscle tension, or heart and brain electrical activity.”

Scientists and landscape architects are now trying to determine exactly what design elements are needed to create a “healing garden.” But, as Clare Cooper Marcus, an emeritus professor in landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, told Franklin, we need to keep this issue in perspective.

“Let’s be clear,” Marcus said, “Spending time interacting with nature in a well-designed garden won’t cure your cancer or heal a badly burned leg. But there is good evidence it can reduce your levels of pain and stress — and, by doing that, boost your immune system in ways that allow your own body and other treatments to help you heal.”

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 02/18/2012 - 07:49 am.

    Garden, gardening too, as healing but so much more…

    “Therapeutic” is probably the best word for the effect of gardens as healer, here applied to structured, balanced, quiet places designed for institutions.

    Add fountains; water flowing; dancing its own fantasy and suggest an enormous degree of peace in a fast-paced world.

    But the greater pleasure comes a step farther when possible…when the private gardener, sans gloves, can create her own.

    Once a long time ago in an older Minneapolis neighborhood close enough to busy Franklin avenue with the noise of traffic sometimes too audible, I had a neighbor, Mr. M, who was temporarily wheelchair-bound, but spent his summer tending his garden; hands and knees approach crawling slowly…by summer’s end, freed of the wheel chair.

    His was a backyard bordered by flowers, but to maintain a perfect green space was his prime achievement. Mr M was a fastidious one who would spend half-a-day one square of green grass at a time, slowly removing the weeds, crabgrass etc.

    Now my mad cat, half Siamese with all the strange vocal sounds so inherited, would stalk a stray Robin, emitting a high pitch whine on occasion in my neighbor’s green space. But Mr M never seemed to notice…gardener and cat creating/stalking the same green space but neither aware or visibly acknowledging the other.

    I assumed neighbor was too intent in his quiet gardening pursuit, nothing disturbed…even mad Cat stalking the same birds his wife diligently fed and thus drew into the drama.

    The two co-existed and I finally gave up trying to control cat’s predatory pleasures -essentially unsuccessful – although once found myself shaking the cat out the porch window by the tail; cat shaking the tail of the Robin..a threesome affair indeed.

    Robin was finally, safely released minus a couple tail feathers. Cat sulked for a week.

    Gardens, gardening itself…therapeutic? Probably yes, but there is something more…

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