How therapy gardens can inspire our “forever home” landscapes
When homeowner Sally Lillie had spinal cord surgery in 2021, she set two important goals for her recovery.
“I wanted to be able to walk three miles per day and to garden again,” Lillie shared.
For many people, gardens are a big part of what makes their house a home. And studies show that immersing ourselves in nature is good for us. Plants have the power to lower our heart rate and blood pressure, which improve our mood and memory. We sleep better. We feel happier. We feel connected to the greater rhythm of the world.
But Lillie quickly discovered that her yard was not set up to help her achieve her goal of nurturing a pretty garden.
After surgery, Lillie couldn’t get outside for six weeks because every entrance to her home had stairs. A year after surgery, she still finds stairs challenging to navigate. Her gardens are down on the ground, surrounded by turf, making them difficult to access. And don’t even get her started on accessing the hose!
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for creating a “forever home” landscape, there are ways to rethink our yards, so people in different stages of life can easily experience nature and enjoy their homes for more years.
Raise your garden plants up
When things are on the ground, we often overlook them, observed Emmanuel Didier, principal and creative director of Didier Design Studio, the landscape architects behind the sensory gardens at Denver Art Museum and Denver Botanic Gardens.
“If you put jewels on the ground, people would think they didn’t matter,” Didier mused.
“By raising and displaying things, you add value and meaning to them. Elevating things can be a catalyst for having people notice and perceive them in a different way.”
In home landscapes, raising plants up makes them easier to touch and explore. Suddenly, your homeowner is eye level with the ladybug on the leaf, the fresh scent of herbs or the swaying seedheads of ornamental grasses.
Just as important, you’re making your homes inclusive–whether a homeowner is visually impaired, is weary from illness and is unable to bend, or has limited mobility.
So, what are ways to elevate plants, so people can experience their outdoor space anew?
- Plant tall flowers up front and along pathways, rather than short plants.
- Embrace raised garden beds. Think in options–different heights for children, adults who are sitting and adults who are standing. Ideally, the beds are narrow, so they’re easy to reach across. (Four feet is a common width.)
- Create green walls, such as plant pockets with drip irrigation.
- Get creative with climbing vines. Gazing at a fence is not inspiring! But vines and foliage can transform vertical surfaces into sensory experiences.
- Use planters in meaningful places. Bigger planters tend to be better for our Colorado winters. (Plant roots are less likely to freeze with more soil volume.)
Erin Lovely, a horticultural therapist at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, said patients who return to their homes after care often want to grow food. In traditional landscapes, veggie beds are tucked away in back corners, and they typically aren’t easy to get to!
Raise those beds up and bring them forward, she suggested. Make them prominent features that are accessible from patios or pathways.
Think about the materials you use too, added Pat Giarritano, a master gardener who co-leads Colorado Center for the Blind’s demonstration garden. While stone walls are beautiful, they can house yellowjacket wasps. He suggested smooth raised beds for a care-free experience.
Smooth doesn’t need to be boring, though! Get creative with easy-to-maintain materials, from composite wood decking to boulders. What’s important is to keep things low maintenance.
Create a destination in the landscape
Didier suggests finding a magic spot that “will draw people away from their windows and invite them into the landscape.” It could be a bench, a small structure, or a tabletop water feature or bird bath–a place for reflection.
“Make the path to get there, as well as the destination, a journey of discovery,” Didier added. Walking aside plants swaying in the wind, seeing the first crocuses emerging in the spring, or finding peace in the sanctuary of a tree after a rainstorm can give people the sense they’re discovering something for the first time, which creates a stronger emotional connection to their home.
Get to know how the garden space will be used
“When you build gardens for the people who’ll use them, they’ll get used,” said Angie Andrade, associate director of therapeutic horticulture at Denver Botanic Gardens.
If you’re designing homes for families with children, then turf-grass lawns, whimsical gardens and varied pathway textures may be ideal for stimulating young minds. If you’re building or retrofitting homes for aging adults or people with limited mobility, then smooth, compact surfaces are better—along with alternatives to stairs.
You don’t have to use concrete, added Lovely of Craig Hospital. Pavers, crushed fines and composite wood deck materials typically work well too. The key is to find materials that are flat or can compress down for easy rolling.
And consider how the materials will work in the winter—will the surface need to be shoveled? Let an ease-of-use mindset guide your material choices, so you’re balancing function with aesthetics. (Avoid rounded materials and uneven paths, like mulch, pea gravel or turf. They inhibit mobility.)
To make it easier to explore the yard, plan on pathways that are three-feet wide. Have more room? Four-feet wide pathways are better for walking side by side with someone.
Of course, if you’re designing homes for small urban lots, these paths could take up half the yard! Instead, think about creating narrower paths with “bump out” areas where someone could easily turn around or rest.
Create smarter outdoor spaces
One way to do this is to make hose bibs easier to access. Place the water source close to where it will be used on a patio or pathway. Avoid setting it in a patch of gravel or rocks.
“Homebuilders put hose bibs out of the way, but then they’re hard to access,” observed Lovely. “We’re constantly problem solving and brainstorming how patients can move garden beds and water sources closer to patios and other hard surfaces.”
At Craig Hospital, they place electrical outlets in garden seating areas–a tip that translates well to home landscapes. People can enjoy their gardens, even if they’re using a ventilator for breathing support or waiting for a critical call and their phone isn’t charged.
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And perhaps the best way to create smarter landscapes is to take inspiration from mother nature herself.
Are there spots that naturally offer shade on Colorado’s scorching summer days? Are there sunny areas that provide warmth and comfort on chilly fall afternoons?
Didier says it helps to listen to the land first.
“Be aware of what you have that’s special and sacred before you disturb anything, whether it’s beautiful, or it’s providing shade, or it’s creating a focal point. You can preserve what’s already interesting, and if you pay attention, improve on what’s not working.”