Finding ‘a sustained level of comfort and solace’ in nature

[caption id="attachment_33461" align="alignright" width="360" caption="A wall in the healing garden at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital"][/caption]

“Nature is but another name for health....” --Henry David Thoreau

The idea of healing through nature is not a new one. Patient rooms in ancient medical centers opened into courtyards filled with the lush scents of rose, lavender, and sage. Flittering butterflies and singing birds helped to soothe spirits weakened by illness and depression.

As the modern business of health care has shifted its focus to fiscal efficiency, however, we have slowly lost this potent ally for our own well-being. Sterile labs, cold patient rooms, and concrete parking lots have become the norm. Though we might disagree on the best health care system for our nation, our most human needs are undeniable — chief among them the desire for comfort through our suffering.

A growing movement in landscape architecture seeks to integrate today’s medicine with the age-old healing power of nature, reintroducing us to a shared space through which we can come together, offer compassion, and heal in the most powerful ways.

Enter Sandra Reed, chief landscape architect for Green Valley Consulting Engineers in Santa Rosa. This Harvard-educated professional discovered quite by accident that getting her hands into the soil and touching and smelling plants had incredible transformative powers.

After a very personal loss, Ms. Reed found that thriving plants brought her “a sustained level of comfort and solace” she could find nowhere else. Inspired by her experience, Ms. Reed has designed and implemented several therapeutic gardens at local healing centers, including Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, Petaluma Valley Hospital, and Hospice of Sonoma County.

“Medical staff and patients all experience different types of stress,” Ms. Reed says. “Many of these people tell me that stepping into a healing garden helps them through their day. They need stroll for only a few minutes in a type of walking meditation, capturing glimpses of various plants, to be refreshed.”

The engaging and beautiful designs of healing gardens have been shown to encourage positive thoughts, reduce hospital stays, increase physical activity, eliminate stress, and foster a sense of community. Such places help people to focus on the mind, body, and spirit rather than the symptoms of disease.

In addition to these staff and patient benefits, healing gardens also support family and friends coping with their own experiences of ill loved ones. “An extended family once shared their experience of the healing garden at Santa Rosa hospital,” Ms. Reed describes.

“It had transformed their experience of a very tragic day — given them a soothing place to be together, where they could share private moments outside surrounded by other living things.”

Imagine the difference of sitting in a serene courtyard rather than under the fluorescent lights of a chaotic waiting room and you begin to see the potential that healing gardens have to support us through the universal experience of sickness and loss.

Experienced landscape architects work with their clients to meet the unique needs of a medical center. Because Ms. Reed appreciates so many different types of gardens, she works to “find inspiration that will reflect the place, fit the weather, and be soothing.” Integral design details often include colorful plants that attract birds and butterflies, water features, solitary and shared seating, walking paths, terraced vistas, nighttime lighting, and shelters for use in varying weather, among many others.

Therapeutic gardens and other natural spaces make available to us the immense power and healing grace of our natural world. Instead of trying to elevate one medical modality over another, this movement is part of a larger trend in holistic well-being, one that intends to give us access to the full range of this planet’s incredible healing potential—from the most advanced medical treatment to the simplest blade of grass rippling on a hopeful wind.

“A garden, by its very nature, is a healing environment,” Ms. Reed says. “Walking, resting, breathing — taking in sounds and scents in a peaceful outdoor place — these all contribute to a sense of well being. And when this is coupled with the visual sensation of something beautiful, I think magical things happen.”


Sandra Ms. Reed has more than 25 years of experience in landscape design and implementation. Ms. Reed is committed to incorporating art into everyday landscapes and to employing sustainable design principles. For more information on Ms. Reed or Green Valley Consulting Engineers, please visit: www.gvalley.com.