Richard Rogers wellbeing garden
Research shows that spending time in your garden is likely to improve your wellbeing. This article gives advice for how you can design your garden to make the most of the mental health benefits it can provide.

Written by Thrive trustee and garden designer Richard Rogers.

Gardens allow us to switch off from the stresses of modern living, experience the beauty of nature and be more fully present to the 'here and now'. Gardens can be designed to enhance the positive effect they have on our wellbeing, and here I give some of my tips for creating a wellbeing space within your own garden.

Although there are several things that I suggest here you might incorporate into your garden, we are all different and have different things which help us bring our own sense of peace and inner harmony. Water is a good example. A water feature that includes the sound of running water can be deeply relaxing to some, but can jangle the nerves of others. One person’s ‘bubbling stream’ can be another person’s leaky pipe! So spend some time reflecting on what would be your perfect sanctuary space.

When you visit places that you love, where you find yourself breathing more deeply and wanting to dwell for longer, notice what it is about that space that may be bringing you this sense of wellbeing.

  • Is it the way the space is arranged?
  • Does it feel intimate and enclosed or open and expansive with views of the horizon?
  • What are the sights, smells and feelings that you experience there?

Activity: Find a place where you can relax and close your eyes. Bring to mind the most beautiful garden you can imagine. This could be a garden you actually know, like somewhere from your childhood or it can be a completely imaginary place. Spend some time there looking around and enjoying the sights, scents and sounds as they are revealed to you. Then gently come back to the room and make a few notes or sketches of what you saw.

Researchers have shown that one of the factors that contribute to the healing effect of a garden is the feeling of ‘being away’ or being transported to somewhere else. There are many ways to do this, but the two I would suggest you explore are:

  1. If possible, divide the space in your garden so that you create separate areas. Perhaps one for dining and meeting family and friends, one for play etc. In addition, create a designated ‘wellbeing space’ which is where you go to relax and restore yourself. You can use hedges, shrubs, walls, fences/trellises to create this feeling of seclusion.
  2. Create a sense of journey to reach this part of the garden. This can be done in many ways, often by varying the direction of your paths or having to walk around or through other parts of the garden. You could create steps down to a sunken seating area if this feels right for you.

As this is a space where you will naturally want to rest and be still, you are probably going to want some sort of seating. Make this as comfortable for you as possible. You may want a seat with a back to lean against or cushions to sit on that you can access easily.

Another thing which can make an area feel comfortable to sit is placing shrubs or hedging behind where you are sitting. This makes us feel ‘protected’, as does having a view in front of us. Also think about what times of day you are likely to want to be in the space and where the sun is at those time. You may prefer a shady spot or to be there to greet the morning sun as it rises.

Wellbeing garden

Having elements that catch our attention provide a focus for our minds and distract us away from the incessant thinking that we are normally engaged in. As I mentioned earlier, not everyone finds water relaxing, but water can be fascinating, with the potential for movement, sound and reflections. I have heard water described as ‘a mirror for the sky’ and being near water can be deeply relaxing.

You might also like to include something that you use as an ‘object of concentration’ to meditate on, such as some form of sculpture, rocks or sea shells. Plants provide colour and an infinite variation of shapes and forms, but movement is also worth considering. I love the grass Stipa Tenuissims, or ‘pony tail grass’ as its fluffy seed heads seem to ‘dance’ in even the slightest of breezes. It can be quite hypnotic to sit and watch them.

Scent is an important element to consider too as being surrounded by the beautiful perfume of roses or, one of my favourites, Trachelospermum jasminoides, can be intoxicating.

This is very much where personal preference comes in, but as examples, would you like a feeling of a forest glade, a lush jungle, an English meadow or a Mediterranean grove? Cool toned whites, pinks, blues and purples have been found to have a calming and relaxing effect on people’s state of mind, so you may like to include more of these colours. It has been shown that green requires the least amount of effort for our eyes to see, so is naturally relaxing.

For more on some of the theory behind what makes gardens beneficial to our health you can read more on my website here. In 2019 I designed a show garden that aimed to highlight the benefits of gardens and mindfulness on our wellbeing, which you can see here.

You can change lives with gardening

Aaron Simon Kemp