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Healing garden 1
In this article we look at attention restoration theory and invite you to reflect on the healing nature of gardens.

The concept of a healing garden has attracted interest from a great range of professions and areas of academia. Garden designers have become more interested in recent years. In this day and age, thinking about the healing properties of gardens is likely to be within the design process for almost all gardens and public green spaces.

Occupational therapists, psychologists and even sociologists have in recent times focused their thoughts and research on the question 'why does nature appear to promote recovery and provide resilience to ill health?' It is a complicated question and it is very likely that multiple factors are in play. As gardeners we will have likely pondered why the garden is so alluring, joyful or calming and will have our own answers to this question.

When looking at the research there are 2 strong contenders to answer this question:

  • Attention restoration theory, which suggests that time in nature restores mental fatigue
  • Psycho-evolutionary models that suggest green environments like gardens trigger emotional responses through brain chemistry

Most practitioners using gardens for health and wellbeing suggest that in their opinion perhaps both are happening. When training at Thrive we tend to focus more on the attention restoration model. This is because researchers have been able to identify components of green environment that appear to support the recovery from the mental fatigue that many of us in the modern world experience.

Through reading this we invite you to reflect on your own garden and other gardens you like, and think about how it does or doesn’t provide restoration or healing.

  • Exploring the garden for the restorative components will in itself provide healing for mental fatigue
  • The psycho-evolutionary value of spending time in gardens will likely see improved brain chemistry, improving mood and even behaviour
  • Planning to improve your garden over time will provide focus on the future, giving hope and purpose
  • As you explore the garden you will likely slow down and be distracted from other thoughts that could be negative
  • You could ask them to list 3 to 5 things they like and 3 to 5 things they don’t, or ways the gardens makes them feel good
  • You could ask them to draw pictures of plants that are in bloom
  • You could ask them to list or draw the different wildlife in the garden, all things that likely add to the restorative components
  • This is quite a conceptual way of thinking about garden so it could be difficult for children, particularly younger ones
  • As a relatively passive activity in itself you could do this from a seated position
  • Taking photos of the garden across the seasons would help you explore these theories across a whole year
Healing garden 2

Below are 4 common features that have been linked through research with natural environments and gardens that provide restoration.

  1. Being away - Time away from usual stresses of life and ‘getting away from it all’
  2. Extent - Provides enough content and structure to occupy the mind
  3. Fascination - Passive interaction, catching and holding your attention without effort
  4. Compatibility - Ease of opportunity to spend time in green space and for special populations its accessibility for the user, their needs and desires. Use is supported, encouraged or demanded by the setting

Taken from ‘Assessing the restorative components of environment’ Herzog et al 2002.

You can have a look at a garden or park and decide how you think it may provide restoration. We have given some examples but this isn’t an exact science and we all have our own preferences.

Being away

When we think about 'being away', different green spaces will be able to do this in different ways. That feeling will depend on your own experiences. For example, an urban garden in London will feel noisy to someone from a rural village but to a Londoner it could well seem quiet and calm. Ideally you are often looking for a garden to block out the built or man-made environment. Screening using plants can help achieve this.

The transition into the space could be important as well. Walled gardens with their entrances can provide a sense of being away. Unusual or exotic plants could support this too, as could wildlife. Think about how you move across the space and how you might view it from a seated position.

Extent

Extent is the bigger picture. Are their enough different sensory elements to occupy our minds? Colour, varied greens and soft colours are often considered the most calming.

Is there movement and interesting structure and form? Can you detect scents or sounds of nature? Biodiversity (lots of different forms of life) may well support 'extent', as could the garden having different rooms or styles of horticulture.

Fascination

Is there enough in your green space to grab your attention? Are there some striking features or sensory elements? If extent is the big picture then fascination is the close up.

Compatibility

In research, this often refers to the availability of nature and green spaces for different people. When we think about gardening for health and wellbeing we would think about how the garden can support engagement. How gardens or parks do this depends on the person. For some it is about physical access, good pathways and raised beds. For others it might be cognitive about making sense of the space or finding your way around a park.

It could also be sensorial, for example for people with sight loss, a permanent noise such as a water feature can help that person to know where they are in the garden. It could even be an emotional connection. Does it feel like our type of space? Does it have familiar elements to the garden? Do the features connect us to our own identity, family, friends or culture.?

Using this structure to explore a garden or park makes for a great activity in itself and you may come away with ideas of how to improve the spaces you observe. Some ideas maybe easy to change, such as moving a bench so you look away from buildings. Others may need planning and some extra resources, such as an archway to add an extra transition.

As you explore you may find that one or two elements within the garden support more than one of the components of attention restoration theory. There is definitely an overlap between the components but without any structure, it can be difficult to plan and make improvement to a garden that will ultimately provide more restoration and allow gardens to heal.

You can change lives with gardening

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Emma M painting plot with vol Charlie Garner 2019