Therapeutic Gardens

Therapeutic gardens are used to help people with chronic illness and disabilities in a variety of settings. Some of the places you may see a therapeutic garden include vocational rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes and hospitals, as well as botanical gardens, nurseries and prisons. The psychiatric and physical value of these gardenshas been noted throughout history. One of the first psychiatrists to note the positive effects of gardening on mental health patients was Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Definition of a Therapeutic Garden

A therapeutic garden, according to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, is “a plant-dominated environment purposefully designed to facilitate interaction with the healing elements of nature. Interactions can be passive or active depending on the garden design and users’ needs.” Some of the types of therapeutic gardens include sensory gardens, healing gardens, restorative gardens, enabling gardens and rehabilitation gardens.


Working in a garden offers many benefits. Some of these benefits include connecting with nature, social interaction, and learning new skills. Depending upon illness ordisability, horticulture therapy can help individuals to develop fine motor skills, deeper concentration, stamina, hand-eye coordination and a sense of independence and control. People of all skill levels can learn to grow and care for plants, and gardens can be designed so that they are accessible for everyone.

Research has supported the efforts of providing these gardens to a variety of individuals, such as those recovering from surgery. According to the University of Minnesota, “Roger Ulrich, a professor and director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A & M University, found that viewing natural scenes or elements fosters stress recovery by evoking positive feelings, reducing negative emotions, effectively holding attention / interest, and blocking or reducing stressful thoughts.

When viewing vegetation as opposed to urban scenes, test subjects exhibited lower alpha rates which are associated with being wakefully relaxed.”

Accessible Garden Design

Gardens that are designed for use in therapy must meet certain criteria in order to be designated as accessible. Planning a garden may be done in conjunction with a landscape architect or nurseryman who has knowledge of state and local regulations regarding accessibility. In addition to specific regulations, much more goes into the planning of these gardens. From plant selection to colors, textures, fragrance and sounds (and occasionally taste), the preparation may take months for a small garden to a year or more for larger projects.

Sensory Considerations and Equipment

During the planning phase of the garden, sensory considerations should be addressed. Primarily, who is the garden being designed for? Will it be for a specific population that has physical, mental or emotional challenges? For example, autistic individuals will require a well-organized garden that minimizes stimulation, whereas an individual in a wheelchair will need raised garden beds.

Individuals with sight impairment may benefit from chimes or bells strategically placed in the garden. The needs of the individuals using the space should be carefully considered before the building and planting phase begin.

In addition, the equipment that will be used in the everyday care of the garden needs to be geared toward a disabled population. For example, faucets should be the lever type, and tool sets should include modified equipment for the disabled.


A therapeutic garden can be used for a variety of activities. The garden may be used for residents or specific groups of individuals, as well as for members of a community. Classes may be offered that teach gardening techniques, such as plant propagation, container gardening and herb gardening. The garden may be used to attract birds and butterflies, which in turn could attract individuals from the community who are wildlife enthusiasts.

Some gardens may be used to teach a vocation, and the produce may be sold as well. The resulting income may be used to help make the garden a self-sustaining project.