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The impact of gardens on our wellbeing

Melissa Morton Garden Designer. Garden art and sculpture to enhance wellbeing

Gardens and their importance in improving our wellbeing

Happy New Year! I hope you all had a peaceful, healthy and happy time despite this Christmas and New Year being so very different. I planned this blog about the connection between our wellbeing and gardens before we were plunged into national lockdown a couple of weeks ago – and it feels more timely than ever.

In amongst all this uncertainty I think we know that we’re going to carry on spending a lot more time at home and that our gardens are going to carry on being places where we can find peace and lift our spirits.


Garden Designer, Ilkley Skipton Otley Menston Bingley

The very real connection between gardens, green spaces and wellbeing

Travelling home in May 2006 after four days in hospital when my son was born, I found myself quite emotional seeing the blossom on the trees. It had only taken four days in hospital for me to feel quite disconnected from our outdoor world.  From my hospital bed, the glimpse view through the window showed no greenery, just hospital walls.

That memory stayed with me and a few years later when studying Landscape Architecture, I learned how patients who had views of leafy trees and green spaces recovered better than those who didn’t. This Scientific American article explains in very easy to understand terms and has some fascinating research results and observations. It’s well worth reading if you want to delve into the science behind the connection between green spaces and wellbeing.

The article cites the research carried out at a hospital in Pennsylvania into patients recovering from gallbladder surgery. Those who had views of leafy trees from their beds, healed on average one day faster than patients who had a view of a wall. They also needed less pain medication and had fewer surgical complications.

Gardens and wellbeing and mental health. Place to sit. Adirondack chairs. Planting design

I also loved the research that examined how people from different age groups want and need different things from their gardens. Although the article focuses on hospitals and care home gardens, I’m sure some of the observations ring true for many of us and our gardens.

In particular, I loved the story of the elderly people living in a care home. After a morning of looking at the pond and lawn in the back garden they would move their chairs to the front so that they could chat to passers-by and be part of the community.

The research shows that even as little as 3-5 minutes spent looking at views with trees, flowers, water and green space can lower anger, anxiety and pain levels whilst increasing feelings of relaxation. This was measured by blood pressure, muscle tension and heart and brain activity. That’s quite staggering. As is the fact that just looking at a picture of a landscape or the colour green is enough to promote feelings of calm.

How does wellbeing feature in my garden designs?

2020 has definitely been a challenge for everyone! What’s been interesting is how so many people, forced to spend much more time at home due to Covid 19 and lockdown, now value their gardens and local green, outdoor spaces for much needed solace.

But how can we make our gardens places of peace and tranquillity, a space where we can rest our brains and nourish our souls?

What are the design features that will help promote these feelings of wellbeing?

I want to highlight two gardens and design ideas that promote feelings of wellbeing that often feature in gardens that I design.

Gardens that stimulate all our senses

My background as a colour scientist means that I love creating a garden that incorporates intelligent and informed use of colour. I know how different colours and colour combinations can impact our mood, emotions, sense of space and so on. I’ve even written a couple of blogs about it, if you want to know more about tone, hue and saturation, here’s one of the blogs.

But we have five senses and gardens provide the perfect space to stimulate or soothe them all.

Sound – the soothing sound of a water feature or fountain is perfect for creating a sense of calm and softening background noise.

Touch – from soft grass to solid Yorkshire paving stone, a change in texture underfoot creates interest while a variety of plants, shrubs, trees and surfaces keeps a garden interesting.

Smell – the unforgettable scent of a rose in bloom, lavender and herbs such as Rosemary combine to create a beautiful garden scent.

Taste – there’s something special about eating food grown in your garden! Whether it’s rhubarb and apples that end up in a crumble, berries that become jam or pumpkins ready for Halloween and soup. And then there’s the herb garden, peppermint for tea, garlic, rosemary, thyme and garlic for cooking.

Sight – As well as creating borders with colourful impact, I love introducing different levels and points of interest that draw the eye. For example, meandering paths that guide you through a garden to trees and shrubs of differing heights and shapes. Climbers that draw the eye up a wall or pergola, then there are the views to be screened and vistas to be framed.

This garden in Steeton is a perfect example of a garden that engages all the senses. A blank canvas, I designed a garden scheme full of shape and structure, giving the eyes different views and textures to take in, including raised beds, pergolas, feature walls, planting and a water feature. The kitchen garden and culinary herbs were high on my clients’ wish list, keen to start growing (and eating) their own produce. What could be better than sitting in your garden eating food you’ve grown yourself?

Sitting amongst the plants

The second feature I want to highlight is seating, especially surrounded by lots of lovely green foliage. Creating space for seating areas is often high on client wish lists, with socialising and relaxing top of their reasons for doing so. But there is also this perspective from Jekka McVicar in Country Living, which I love.

“Standing in a garden feels uncomfortable, whereas sitting settles you in amongst the plants. It gives you space and creates a little hideaway which allows you to appreciate the plants so much more.”

Below, this curvy themed garden in Ilkley is a great example of creating a place to relax. My clients already had a pair of Adirondeck chairs in a corner of their garden.  The garden didn’t require re-landscaping as such, they were happy with the general layout and levels.  The garden renovation focussed on a complete overhaul of the planting. The planting design involved removing most of the existing plants, reshaping the borders and lawn.

Ruth and Andy wanted a beautiful, spot to sit with a glass of wine in the evening and enjoy being surrounded by the colourful, scented planting scheme dominated by clematis and roses. I also brought lighting into the garden, with globe lights echoing the curvy theme, casting a gentle glow across the garden and creating a pretty view from the house as well as from the Adirondack chairs.

Designing a garden with wellbeing in mind

The thing about designing a garden with wellbeing in mind is that firstly, it’s not a tick box exercise. It is something that I naturally weave into my garden designs. It’s also something that can be introduced into gardens and outdoor spaces of all shapes and sizes.

The important thing is to introduce plenty of green and structure whilst engaging all the senses. It is a huge subject and one that I may well come back to, but it felt like a good time, as we say goodbye to one difficult year and move into a slightly unknown 2021, that we keep exploring different ways to promote a better sense of wellbeing – mental, emotional and physical.

I am also keeping a close eye on the scientific research, keen to understand which garden design features in particular promote mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. I’ll be interested to see the output from the RHS National Centre for Horticultural Science and Learning at RHS Garden Wisley, and its gardens – for wellbeing, wildlife and World Food.

Photo credits: Heidi Marfitt Photography & Ian Lamond Photography

Further Reading

Gardening for wellbeing: a scientist’s view, Prof Alistair Griffiths (2019)

How hospital gardens help patients heal, Hospital gardens turn out to have medical benefits (2012)

Five garden tweaks that will improve your mental health and wellbeing (2017)

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