Garden Designers Roundtable: Healing Gardens – A Tale About What Makes a Garden Healing

October 26, 2010

Here is the thing. I cringed when I realized that I had inadvertently signed up to post about Healing Gardens. What do I know about “Healing gardens”? Little. Except that most I see make me wince. It’s the overworked themes, twee fiddily-ness, garden junk, and green nooks that are often tortuously carved out of places that weren’t meant to be, that bug me most.  I am ever surprised by a truly inspiring ‘official’  “Healing Garden”.

Last month, I met a man who once had a client who was the heiress to a plastic empire. He told me this story:

This client, in her later years, suffered a stroke. At around 80 years of age, she was not one to accept anything less than 100% recovery. While she had healed to be back to nearly 90% of her original function she simply was not satisfied and believed that two things would restore the final 10%. First she partook of treatments from the famed local Maharishi Ayurveda Center (famed because the likes of George Harrison, Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Julia Roberts and  George Hamilton have been rumored to have made visits).  And second, she must sit with her dogs in the ‘Healing Garden’ of one Clara Endicott Sears.

Never mind that in the mid eighties (at the time of this story)  Clara Endicott Sears had been dead for over 20 years and only the faintest of remnants of her garden still existed.

the cloisters at the pergolas garden of clara endicott sears

Seems the Plastics Heiress and Clara were of subsequent generations.  Clara was friends with the Plastics Heiress’s parents.  Childhood visits to the ‘Healing Garden’ stuck and in later years a firm belief persisted that a visit to this place would provide health.

All of this has me wondering ever more about Healing Gardens.  What makes them truly healing?  Is it because they are sited near a hospital, or a recovery center?  Or because they have themes about the cycles of life or religious symbolism? That they are handicap accessible? I think not.

the pergolas

A true healing garden has an indescribable sense of place.   It holds enough magic, mysticism and memory to make an 80 year old stroke victim jump a stone wall and trespass in order to sit in its ruinous state.

Now, blessedly, I have on my hands, the restoration of this particular place.  I am still trying to understand its appeal and meaning.   Yes, it has twee statuary (and some less so), it has some sort of symbolism in the layout (though I am yet to fully understand it), it has extraordinary vistas, and even an auspicious location, but I am beginning to think that the secret of its spirit is most likely found in the original purpose of Ayurveda.

It is a garden that is  not just content to improve the health of one individual, but is also designed to help create a healthy society.  It is a belief that each truly healthy individual contributes to producing a disease-free and peaceful, well-adjusted community, society and world.  I think Clara believed this deeply.  I think that true health can be had in a garden.  Which has me thinking that perhaps every garden, if looked at the right way, is a healing garden.

Make sure your check out more Garden Designers Roundtable-ers and their posts about Healing Gardens.

Naomi Sachs : Therapeutic Landscapes Network : Beacon, NY


Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Jenny Petersen : J Petersen Garden Design : Austin TX


Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

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  1. Debbie says:

    Rochelle, What more could a garden strive for than to be healing to at least one person. But sometimes it does take seeing a garden through the eyes of someone else to appreciate it. I went to meet a new client a few weeks ago, and from initial conversations I knew the woman drew great satisfaction from her garden and her time spent in her garden. I had no idea what to expect but as soon as I drove into the driveway it was obvious the garden was a mess. It looked like no one had touched it for years! I was surprised to say the least and honestly didn’t know what I would say if she asked me what I thought.

    As we walked through the garden and she lovingly spoke about how she’d gotten this plant from her mother or that one as a gift from a friend, I began to see the garden through her eyes. The overgrown mess I’d initially seen was actually a collection of friends for her. The chaos I had originally seen in her garden nurtured her soul in a way that I’ve never seen with any other garden and gardener.

  2. “It is a garden that is not just content to improve the health of one individual, but is also designed to help create a healthy society.” What a profoundly true statement! I have a friend who’s an avid gardener who says that “Gardening–creating beauty–is not just a luxury. When you create beauty in the world, you make it that much more difficult for others to be violent and tear it down. Beauty is a necessity. So I keep gardening.”

    Thanks for your insightful thoughts, Rochelle!

  3. Naomi Sachs says:

    Great, thought-provoking post, Rochelle! I couldn’t agree with you more that so many “healing gardens,” even those designed as such, just don’t really measure up. It’s something I bump up against over and over. And I think you’re right that the most successful gardens, and landscapes, contribute not just to individuals but to a healthy society. I’ll be following your progress with the Ayurveda garden. Sounds like a wonderful project.

  4. Robert Webber says:

    Rochelle, what a great story and what a fabulous task you have on your hands.
    I am sure that you are right that every garden has the potential to be healing.
    We just need to be open to the healing process.
    Or have our eyes opened to the healing process!
    Thanks for sharing this with us.
    Best Wishes

  5. Pam/Digging says:

    What a great last line. You are so right!

  6. Jennifer says:

    I do believe that every garden is a healing garden as it can mean so many things to so many people. it is really whatever our souls need at that very moment and can draw from a place to feel better.

    Great post.
    Best wishes,

  7. Genevieve says:

    What a lovely story… It’s true, you can feel the magic and the peace in some gardens, and less so in others… The photos you shared certainly captured that extra something… I would love to recuperate there were I in need of such. Thanks for sharing this story.

  8. Ivette says:

    Great post, Rochelle! And Pam, I agree, that last line – “Make sure your check out more Garden Designers Roundtable-ers and their posts about Healing Gardens.” really resonated with me, too. 😉

    I was also initially ambivalent about the topic, but I realized that the idea of a garden as a healing space is at the very center of why I DO what I do, even though I never really thought of it in those terms. ALL gardens should be charged with not only keeping the individual balanced and healthy, but the society as well – as you pointed out. Cities that give over space and funds for public parks and gardens are healthier cities! What an incredible journey you are about to embark on – I have a feeling it’s going to be one of those projects that changes and enriches a work process. Congrats! I love that! Wonderful post. I would love to design a garden that would make an 80 yr old stroke victim climb a fence to see it again! Wonderful story.

  9. Hi Rochelle,
    Inspiring story about healing in the garden! I can imagine the 80 year old woman climbing the fence! What a sight to behold. Gardens are magnetic fields!

  10. I think you’ve touched on a couple of interesting points here, Rochelle. One, that any garden can be meaningful to an individual, and two, that gardening as a healthy interaction with nature is important for our social environment. I think this “double meaning” gives credence to the concept of gardening as a form of art. Other creative endeavors, such as music, painting, dance, etc, also enrich the lives of the individual performer/creator, the observer, and society as a whole regardless of their style/genre/cost. Thank you!

  11. Monique says:

    Rochelle, thank you for such an honest and pure stance on the idea of a healing garden. My gut tells me you will do an outstanding job with this renovation because you are approaching it with a clear position of questioning and in that there is reverence. Healing gardens are magic and they take many forms. The spirit of nature is allowed to emanate through the design intent – the “art” – as one commenter stated. Each plant has its own energy and vibration, each statue (even the “twee” one maybe 🙂 will speak in the garden. I am with you, all gardens can be healing when they are ambitious enough to truly use design and horticulture to blend with the character of the site while inviting in human interaction…we are after all…each of us in need of a little healing!

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