Mark Rendell Garden Design Consultancy


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Garreg Gron
LL51 9UQ

t: 01766 530824

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Lecture Notes: Healing Garden Design


(script delivered to Thrive Social and Horticultural Therapy students in March 2006)

1. Introduction
My name is Mark Rendell. I’m a garden designer and gardener and run a small business called the growing company, based in Southampton. I became interested in the healing effects of our outdoor spaces ten years ago whilst studying Eastern Philosophy with American practitioner, William Spear. A part of my business is called “Wards Without Walls” – a campaign designed to raise awareness of the healing properties of the outdoor spaces around our hospitals, hospices and other care organisations. I run workshops and training events across the south of England on garden design related topics.

2. What is a Garden?
A garden is an artificial construct. It is an enclosure within which people can re-establish a relationship to nature, in their own terms. It is rather like the classroom’s relationship to the world at large – a place apart, where we learn about the deeper ways of the world before we emerge fully into it. Taking this metaphor a little further, we gardeners can see ourselves as students, eternal ones, with Mother Nature as our teacher and the deeper, underlying truths of our existence as the subject.

3. The Garden throughout history
In all cultures, gardens were essentially a desire to express our understanding of the relationship between Heaven and Earth – to help make sense of our (human) place in the scheme of things. They were expressions of the heavenly promise of paradise or the ideal relationship with Nature.
Chinese Gardens – artists, painters and philosophers were the first gardeners
Japanese / Zen Gardens – pursuit of a perfected nature – philosophy made explicit
Persian Gardens – havens of order in a chaotic world, represented their idea of paradise
Monastic Gardens – enclosed spaces, safe, protected, withdrawn – herbs for healing and nourishment.

“In the good old days, what we grew in the garden nourished and healed us. The garden, the soil, the earth took care of us, sheltered us and made us feel better. Mother Nature was the first healthcare worker.”

4. What is a healing garden?
All gardens have the capacity to heal (=make whole). A garden becomes a healing garden when it actively helps to restore some kind of balance or missing experience to the intended garden visitor. It could be finding a quiet space removed from ‘normal life’ to rejoin fragmented parts of ourselves, our thinking or our physical wellbeing. It could be to aid a specific healing process (for example, after surgery). Or it could be a set of experiences that help to stimulate our senses or reach lost or distant feelings for example, a garden for the inner child based on playfulness, a romantic garden, a garden emphasising touch for deaf and blind patients.

We actually need to do very little to our outdoor environments for the healing process to be activated and then built upon.

There are three common healing garden themes throughout history:
HEALTH – ‘Holism’ – connecting all parts of our selves - medicinal, healing (e.g. herb gardens)
REMOVAL – contemplation, reflection / space apart, philosophy, peace (e.g. a walled garden)
SENSUAL / ENGENDERING SPECIFIC FEELINGS – uplift, delight, pleasure, romance, mystery (e.g. fragrant, Zen gardens). I would also add a fourth one:
SKILL-BASED – horticultural activities, gardening, being physically active, focusing on external activities, creating pools of attention and end results (e.g. potting up seedlings, pruning shrubs, cleaning out a pond). Therapy is in the activity – educational, informative, achieving. Increasing skills and competencies. 

5. Some Findings
Hospital gardens help patients to get better faster and to feel better quicker. This can be seen in, for example, reduced lengths of stay, reduced stress and pain being reported, better rest and sleep and improvements in relations between patients and their carers.

Contact with nature can reduce tension and produce calmer states of mind. There are reports that hyperactive children become calmer in natural settings. Teachers have reported how activities with wildlife or animals can help children with learning difficulties to develop feelings of care, responsibility and self-worth.

A special school in Hampshire reported that, “Children who find classroom discipline impossible find outdoor activities less stressful: it allows them to release energy and tension in a relaxed, safe and controlled environment.” Other schools have looked at the way the design of the school grounds can reduce aggressive behaviour and bullying.

6. Wards Without Walls – some of my recent projects
Old Coldeast Hospital – garden for residents with severe sensory deprivation.
Petersfield Hospital – two gardens that support the care of the patients, staff and visitors.
Havant War Memorial Hospital – a small outdoor space brings nature closer to patients and provides a sheltered space with seating for staff, patients and families to meet. The emphasis is on well stocked, fragrant planting with year round interest.
Northam Tenants and Residents Association – an inner city courtyard garden below a series of high rise homes. Bright colours and soft textures balance the cold, concrete and brick landscape.
Locksway Road, Residential Unit, Portsmouth – planting plan for year round, sensory interest.
Godbey House, Hayling Island – a small outdoor room offers a choice between playing indoors or outdoors for the boys who live in the residential care unit, therapists increase choice in their work with the young people.
Thrive – a design for a small therapeutic garden space with multiple uses: an outdoor classroom for horticultural work, performance and meeting space, sensory experiences, exploration and rest.
Oak Meadow Community Centre – a small courtyard will be transformed this spring (2006) into an educational environment and sensory space for primary school children and other garden visitors.

7. How do you design a healing garden?
The most important skill for a garden designer is listening. Listen to the clients’ needs / desires / wishes (the things which have not yet materialised in their lives) and listen to the garden (identify its attributes, characteristics, gifts, assets, uniqueness). This is where the healing garden designer has an important role to play. He or she needs to straddle and close the divide between the needs of the garden user (or users) and the latent attributes of the outside space.

8. Checklist
A simple checklist may help to show the key considerations in the design process:
1. Understand the clients / garden users – what do they wish to do well or better? Where’s the imbalance or unmet need? How do they interact with the space already? This forms the basis for the Client’s Brief.
2. Understand the outdoor space – what’s its relationship to the building? What gifts does it bring? What challenges are there? How does the sun travel across the space? This forms the basis for the Site Survey.
3. Understand the importance of shapes, patterns and colours – they are expressions of energy and will influence the mood of the space and the experiences of the garden user. For example, circles help to restore balance and order in irregular shaped spaces. They are good shapes for healing environments. Squares introduce stability and security; flowing shapes are calming.
4. Consider how the senses will be activated through the choices of plants, materials, colours and other features (including lighting, colour schemes and water).
5.  How can the elements selected have multiple uses for added value or to be attractive to other garden users? Go the extra mile: the bench is a meeting place AND a focal point AND looks onto a view through another part of the garden AND includes features that encourage visitors to notice smaller details.
6. Consider health and safety and other building regulations for slopes and steps, water features and path widths, for example. But don’t confuse danger with risk – risk is an inherent part of play and encourages judgement and decision-making.
7. Involve the Client Group and other stakeholders in the development of the design – something important  might be missed otherwise! The clients will also have an increasing sense of ownership in the process this way and are likely to interact better with the space.
8. Don’t talk about gardens in terms of ‘low maintenance’ or ‘high maintenance’. Gardens are not cars or machinery! Talk, instead in terms of low or high levels of care and nurture. Gardening is an act of care and nurture – people can relate to this.
9. Think about water conservation, recycling organic matter and repairing or reusing old tools and equipment – tread lightly on the earth.
10. The long term outcomes of the interaction between your clients and their healing garden are not entirely predictable. They are likely to be more than you have intended – welcome this lack of certainty into your practice.

Good Luck!