Healing Gardens

By Mary Grauerholz on July 9, 2012

Take a walk through three health care landscapes that offer restorative properties for mind, body, soul—and the environment.


The new Methodist Women's Hospital healing garden designed by HDR is inspired by a butterfly theme. Photo courtesy of HDR Architecture, Inc.; © 2010 Ari Burling


The new Methodist Women's Hospital healing garden designed by HDR is inspired by a butterfly theme. Photo courtesy of HDR Architecture, Inc.; © 2010 Ari Burling


The new Methodist Women's Hospital healing garden designed by HDR is inspired by a butterfly theme. Photo courtesy of HDR Architecture, Inc.; © 2010 Ari Burling


The Life Enrichment Center in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, designed by Dirtworks provides a promenade under fragrant trees, raised planters, a spacious lawn and views to woodlands.


The Life Enrichment Center in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, designed by Dirtworks provides a promenade under fragrant trees, raised planters, a spacious lawn and views to woodlands.


The Life Enrichment Center in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, designed by Dirtworks provides a promenade under fragrant trees, raised planters, a spacious lawn and views to woodlands.


A rendering of a healing garden at the Johns Hopkins new children's medical center. Rendering courtesy of OLIN.


OLIN designed the healing gardens at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. Rendering courtesy of OLIN.


The Restorative gardens offer all types of plantings to awaken the senses.


The Nora Evans Restorative Garden in the Cleveland Botanical Garden designed by DirtWorks and Behnke Associates celebrates being in nature.


Dirtworks plan for the healing garden at the Life Enrichment Center in North Carolina.

Hospital settings traditionally have been plagued with anonymous exteriors and minimal landscaping. Then the research started coming in, with many studies concluding that simply viewing a natural landscape increases positive feelings, reduces stress, lessens postoperative complications, and lowers alpha rates, which are tied to wakeful relaxation. Hospitals have been responding, and healing gardens are springing up like fresh green tendrils, allowing medical settings to blossom into holistic healing environments.

David Kamp, founder and principal of the landscape architecture firm Dirtworks, PC, in New York City, believes in taking the philosophy a step further. Don’t just gaze at healing gardens, he says; revel in them: Wiggle your toes in the grass, touch a silky flower, meditate on a Zen garden, even hug a tree if the spirit moves you.

Kamp’s firm teamed up with Behnke Associates, a landscape architecture and planning firm in Cleveland, Ohio, to create the Elizabeth and Nona Evans Restorative Garden in the Cleveland Botanical Garden, located in the city’s cultural and medical heart. Kamp started the project with the intention to welcome everyone, whether they are afflicted with dementia, ambulatory problems, mental illness, or another serious condition or are perfectly healthy.

The garden, perched high on a hill, has three outdoor rooms. Kamp explains that one is bright and lively, one is serene, and the third is “sort of Goldilocks”—in between. “We wanted to celebrate being in nature,” he states. The loveliest part of all is what Kamp calls the “elements of delight and surprise” that encourage laughter, conversation, and daydreaming. From grass that can take the weight of wheelchairs (so that people can get their toes in the grass and exercise their lower bodies) to handrails inscribed with Braille poems, the garden is a welcoming, delightful space.

Creating a healing garden in a large setting takes not only creativity and intellect but also the courage to draw outside the lines. Here are three healing gardens whose designs are winning accolades for promoting health in body, mind, and spirit—and they do it with an extra dash of creativity.

Johns Hopkins Hospital Healing Garden, Baltimore, MD

Landscape Architects: OLIN, Philadelphia and Los Angeles (www.theonlinstudio.com)

Project: Entry courtyard and gardens

Creative flourish: Children’s garden that is based on Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince

When OLIN partner Susan Weiler and her team took on the Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center and the Sheikh Zayed Tower project at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, they knew they would have to go the extra mile. The hospital, which had undertaken a new patient care building, wanted a healing garden in the landscape as well as a visually appealing entrance courtyard that would serve as an entry and egress point for patients, families, and staff.

Today the hospital setting, including the entry court (the face of the complex), is a visually rich environment with plants chosen for their beauty and sensory pleasure. The OLIN team made sure the courtyard would be visible to patients in the new medical building. “Because so many patients can be there for long periods of time, it was very important for people to see these ever-changing colors and patterns even without the ability to leave the hospital,” Weiler says. “It’s very visual and sensory at the same time.”

The separate children’s garden, next to a courtyard between the hospital’s new building and the historic Phipps building, is a delight. Based on the adventures of Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, the space has volcanoes, stars, asteroids, and a “Birdgola,” a structure akin to a trellis with a flock of colorful birds that moves overhead from tracks. Plants with unusual features, colors, and textures give all the whimsy and delight that children crave.

Although the gardens were designed as a healing resource for patients, sustainable systems that are not overtly visible quietly support the gardens as integral components throughout the site; these include the use of durable, long-lasting materials and stormwater harvesting systems. “But most importantly,” Weiler says, “it’s about sustaining life.”

The landscape architect credits Johns Hopkins for the wisdom of taking a holistic approach to the health of patients and their families, staff members, and even the community. “From a landscape architectural view, for a long time it was frustrating to work with hospitals because they didn’t care about the exterior,” Weiler notes. “They can’t be faulted. But hospitals are taking a very different attitude today about staff health and community health. When the bigger institutions are the trailblazers, it’s important to acknowledge it.”

Life Enrichment Center, Kings Mountain, NC

Landscape Architects: DirtWorks, PC, in partnership with Michael Rubin Architects (www.dirtworks.us / www.michaelrubinarchitects.com)

Project: Healing gardens for adult daycare center

Creative flourish: Bird feeders and vegetable gardens that involve clients in activities

When Dirtworks partner David Kamp met with the staff of the Life Enrichment Center (LEC), a respected adult daycare center in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, he was awed by their optimism and involvement. “They have a beautiful philosophy of care,” Kamp says. “They wanted us to take that philosophy outdoors.”

The project required Dirtworks to create an outdoor setting that assists and extends the programs at the LEC. The garden has three areas, all different in size and spirit: a park, a casual farm, and a back porch—the staple of Southern living. Kamp notes, “We wanted these spaces to welcome everyone.”

Kamp and his team were thinking of a full range of clients, not only those with cognitive challenges and other mental and physical disabilities but also those with more common age-related problems such as failing eyesight. So when clients move from another area of the building to the back porch, for example, they go from indoor light to a comfortably diffused light; skylights, ceiling fans, and a raised fireplace make the space airy and open while offering views of the entire garden.

The farm space provides a promenade under fragrant trees, offering raised planters and trellises as well as a lawn that accommodates wheelchairs. Beyond is the park, with a spacious lawn, native grasses, and woodland plantings; generous seating areas along a winding path are open to views of the woodlands.

Clients periodically check bird feeders in the garden. Tending the feeders and picking vegetables and flowers accomplish more than emotional and physical healing—the tasks improve hand-eye coordination and stamina. “And it’s fun!” Kamp exclaims. It is also environmentally sound: To support both individual and environmental health, the 1.15-acre site offers a number of sustainable components, including an integrated pest management program and an organic garden.

Last fall, Kamp visited the LEC and witnessed the success of the project. Clients were practicing for the Special Olympics with a bean toss, races, and other activities in a spacious but confined area. “It was so wonderful,” Kamp concludes. “It was so heartwarming to see individuals who have some level of incapacitation but are so free. They were all a team, laughing and having a marvelous time. It brought tears to my eyes.”

Methodist Women’s Hospital, Omaha, NB

Landscape Architects: HDR Architecture, Inc., with offices worldwide (www.hdrinc.com)

Project: Healing garden

Creative flourish: Butterfly theme that reinforces the bond between women and nature

Perched in an upscale suburban area in Omaha, Nebraska, the new Methodist Women’s Hospital has situated a beautiful garden between the hospital’s main entrance and an adjoining medical office complex. The garden, almost as big as a football field, also provides views from the emergency department, waiting areas, and several patient rooms.

The beauty of the design is its butterfly theme, a graceful oasis inspired by the butterfly and by Inanna, the goddess of love and fertility during the Mesopotamian Empire. Brad Young, a senior landscape architect in HDR Architecture’s Omaha office and the project’s team leader, says he and his colleagues didn’t realize the uncanny connections when they began.

“We started with the idea that the butterfly is feminine—it’s pretty,” Young explains. “Then we got into metamorphosis and the whole transformation theme.” Butterflies also reoccur throughout mythology. The Greeks thought butterflies were extensions of the soul, and the Celts once believed that women got pregnant from swallowing butterflies. The garden celebrates all of these connections. Separate sections are devoted to public and private spaces as well as special children’s areas. Seating areas and a pathway system that follows a butterfly’s veined wing pattern are woven throughout; in the middle, a labyrinth connects all the elements.

The project fulfilled Young in ways he didn’t quite expect. “It’s really fulfilling,” he states. “You can design something that looks pretty, but it’s not the same as designing a healing garden. Then you really have a sense that you’re helping somebody to get through a tough time, to enjoy nature and relax.”