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How to Design a Therapy Garden

Create calm and boost well-being through the healing power of plants.

You know that peaceful, rejuvenated feeling you get from nurturing your plants? That's not just your imagination. Studies show that people who spend time connecting with nature can experience physical benefits like lower blood pressure, a decreased heart rate, and less body pain, as well as emotional benefits like increased self-esteem, less stress and anxiety, and a hopeful mood. That's why some hospitals, nursing homes, and wellness institutions have therapy gardens. These are often elaborate since they cater to many different needs, but harnessing the healing power of plants can be simple, too. You can easily create a therapy garden in your own backyard, where you or your loved ones can let Mother Nature work her magic. 

Here are a few pointers for designing a therapy garden.

1. Determine Your Goals

Before you start designing your therapy garden, consider what you hope to gain from it. Do you have a specific concern you'd like to address, or do you simply want refuge from the stress of everyday life? Are there mobility or sensory considerations to keep in mind? Once you've identified how you'd like your therapy garden to help you, then you can home in on what to include in it.

2. Select Your Type

Therapy gardens can be constructed in countless ways. However, there are two basic types: Restorative and rehabilitative (also known as active). You may decide you'd like elements of both in your therapy garden. That's okay, too—it's all about creating a space that works for you, or even multiple members of your family.

 Restorative therapy gardens focus on mental peace and restoration. They're the respite we all need sometimes—a spot to meditate, reflect, or read while out in the fresh air. You could model it like a Japanese zen garden, which encourages deep thought through a minimalist aesthetic, or keep it more boho, with a mix of fragrant flowers to release a calming aroma.

 Rehabilitative therapy gardens focus on enhancing physical well-being. They're designed to be as accessible as possible, to encourage interaction. It might, for example, feature wide paths so a person in a wheelchair can better tend to plants, or include shrubs that someone in recovery can take pride in shaping or maintaining.

Once you've determined your needs, it's time to get more specific.

3. Pick a Location

As with any garden, aim to find a sunny, flat spot with easy access to water. Try to create separation from your home and other parts of the yard, if possible, so that the therapy garden feels private and serene.

4. Consider What You'll Need

In addition to selecting plants that suit your needs, you'll want to plot your paths, think about focal points or accessories, and decide whether you'd like to attract even more nature to your garden. Consider whether you want to build any fences or walls to help create privacy.

 Plan for Seating

Seating is particularly important for restorative gardens, but can also offer a spot to rest in rehabilitative gardens. If seating is part of your vision, create a comfortable area to meditate, reflect, or simply take a break from work or the kids. This could be a hammock, rocking chair, wide bench, or even a few outdoor floor cushions. 

 Consider the Senses

Flowers are beautiful and smell good, but there are other ways to bring sensory experiences to a therapy garden. A water fountain can delight your eyes and ears, while simple string lights can soften the vibe at night. If subtle sounds relax your mind, perhaps you'd find it soothing to hear the rustle of tall grasses or a set of wind chimes dangling in the breeze. To keep it tranquil, avoid plants with thorns, burrs, or things that might feel or smell unpleasant.

 Welcome Wildlife 

Share your garden not just with people, but with animals, too. Opt for a bird feeder or grow plants that attract pollinators, like butterflies. Certain herbs, like echinacea, mint, and chamomile, are great for this. Consider growing bergamot (also known as bee balm), which produces pollinator-magnet blooms and can also be added into herbal tea. You can sip it in your therapy garden for a double-dose of positive energy.

5. Take Maintenance into Account

The last thing you want your therapy garden to become is a source of stress. When planning, make sure you select plants and structures you're comfortable maintaining for the long haul. If you're short on time or energy, opt for easy, low-maintenance plants. If part of your plan is to create privacy, shrubs are a great way to do that while keeping your garden-care routine relatively hands-off.

 Grow What You Love

This isn't a time to pick plants just because they're on sale at the garden center. Choose plants that make you happy, evoke fond memories (this is particularly great for folks with dementia), or draw you in through smell. If you're designing a rehabilitative garden, think about plants that might bring joy through the process of meaningful activity—like pruning roses. If you're designing for a child with autism, for example, they tend to love blooms in bright, bold colors.

• Set Yourself Up for Success

To keep your garden looking its best, give it a solid foundation that includes a soil specifically designed for garden plants, such as Miracle-Gro® All Purpose Garden Soil, which feeds plants while improving the growing environment when mixed with your in-ground soil. As the growing season progresses, add regular boosts of nutrition with a fertilizer like Miracle-Gro® Shake 'n Feed® All Purpose Plant Food, which helps your plants' roots grow nice and strong by keeping them well-fed for up to 3 months.

Now you have the framework to design a therapy garden that meets your or your family's unique needs. Before you know it, you'll be feeling that botanical euphoria that only comes from immersing yourself into the wonderful world of plants