A picture of a sign in a garden that says, "Welcome to the healing garden."

Last summer I visited an old friend: the Botanical Gardens in the south of Buffalo. I’d had a tough year, with multiple loved ones suffering a variety of serious illnesses, and I needed a respite from the stress. My son and his girlfriend, knowing I’m a Master Gardener, suggested we visit the Botanical Gardens and I readily agreed. 

After wandering around the familiar rooms with their dazzling colors and earthy smells, I picked up a brochure that talked about a part of the gardens I hadn’t visited before, the Healing Garden. I had long been aware of the therapeutic effect working in the garden has had on me, but a separate, formal garden devoted to healing?

Weren’t all gardens “healing” gardens?

As it turns out, a great deal of research is underway into the connection between nature and healing. Many hospitals (including Mercy Hospital, one of the sponsors of the healing garden mentioned above) now realize that nature is an important factor in reducing patient as well as staff stress. They have begun to specifically design green spaces to improve health outcomes. 

When I began my own research into this trend, I learned that therapeutic gardens, healing gardens, medicinal gardens, herb gardens, and meditation gardens are all based on the same premise, i.e. nature as healer, but are often designed differently with a particular purpose in mind. 

Therapeutic landscapes or gardens are designed to meet the needs of a specific patient population. Our Master Gardener Demonstration Garden, for example, has a therapeutic garden designed specifically for autistic children. Other therapeutic gardens focus on “cut flowers,” used to help nursing home patients design flower arrangements they can keep in their rooms. The purpose of these gardens is the active and deliberate involvement of the patients.

Healing and meditation gardens, on the other hand, aim for passive involvement. They are places where anyone can come to take in the benefits of a soothing natural space. Veterans Affairs and the military, for example, are now seeking the advice of horticultural therapists to address Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Studies show that after a stressful event, images of nature have a calming effect. Healing and meditation gardens tend to combine elements found in nature: green vegetation, flowers, and water.

Medicinal and herb gardens focus on the qualities of certain plants integral to the development of modern medicine. The National Library of Medicine at NIH, for example, has a medicinal garden right on its grounds. Begun in 1976, the garden now features nearly 100 varieties of herbs, many of which have found new appreciation from doctors and herbalists alike.

The Healing Garden I visited at the Buffalo Botanical Garden seemed to combine the best of healing and medicinal gardens. Tucked in a back corner of the property, I wandered alone among the bee balm, hyssop, and St. John’s Wort. The Secret Garden, a classic book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, immediately came to mind. I thought about the little orphaned heroine of the book and how having a secret green space of her own improved the quality of her life. 

Gardens, with their natural rhythms of birth, life and death, have inspired many writers to examine the deep spiritual connection we have with nature, and to view our own mortality differently. As a gardener, I spend many hours nurturing my plants, but I left the healing garden in Buffalo with a new appreciation for how gardens nurture me. I plan to create my own healing garden at home. I’ll keep you posted on its progress.

Do you have a garden? I would love to hear your own stories of nature and nurture. Add a comment or write to me! Your email address is seen only by me and will not be made public.

Moxie Gardiner is a writer and gardener who grew up on the West Side of Buffalo, NY. In a previous life she was a journalist, magazine editor, speech writer, and policy wonk. Back in the day she made three solo parachute jumps, flew in an F-15 fighter jet, and crawled through mud pits at the Jungle Operations Training Course in Panama. She now meditates and practices yoga. She is almost ready to publish her first novel, set in Buffalo.You can find more of her blogs at https://moxiegardiner.com/