In the Garden:
New England
October, 2005
Regional Report

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When backlit by the sun or swaying in the breeze, ornamental grasses are mesmerizing.

A Natural High

As a child whenever I was sick with a cold (and weather permitting), my mother would park me out in the backyard on a lounge chair in the sun and fresh air. Sometimes she read to me, sometimes I slept. I understood that it was part of the treatment for getting better. I took it for granted that outside air was healthier for me than inside air. I still do. That's why I love to garden: it gets me outside, and I always feel better afterwards.

Connecting with nature is restorative for many of us, and there's more and more research to back this up. Studies have shown that patients recover from surgery better when they have a view of trees rather than of a brick wall. Office workers who have windows with views of nature report more satisfaction with their lives and better health than those without such views. Residents in public housing projects develop a stronger sense of community when they have outdoor green spaces with trees to rest beneath.

Not only does nature help us "feel" better, it seems to help us "think" better, too. Studies have shown that walking outdoors among plants can increase a person's ability to perform challenging mental tasks. Children in low-income urban housing are able to concentrate better when they move to housing with more outdoor vegetation.

I'll bet that if studies went further and compared the effects of different plants, certain plants would evoke more of a feeling of well being than others. Ornamental grasses, for example, have an immense power to put me at ease. I couldn't live without them and their fuzzy or feathery flower heads ... I love the way they shimmer when backlit by the sun and sway in the slightest breeze. I notice that they are often predominant in healing gardens and alongside benches and buildings in public spaces, so others must feel the same way.

Inviting Contemplation
The healing power of gardens is so well accepted now that there are even different types of healing gardens: alzheimer's gardens, hospice gardens, and gardens for children coping with serious illness. While they each have some features particular to the population they serve, certain design elements are common to many of them, and these are things to keep in mind if you'd like to create a contemplative space in your garden.

1. The layout should be uncluttered so the mind doesn't feel overwhelmed by busyness. That's what we're trying to escape!
2. An area of lawn is restful to look at and sit upon.
3. Include comfortable seating.
4. Place a focal point within view of the seating area.
5. Incorporate a water feature within view of the seating area.
6. Use lots of cool colors (blues, greens), which are more calming than hot ones. At the very least, avoid colors that clash.
7. Choose some plants that sway and rustle and create a sense of movement, such as ornamental grasses, bamboo, and weeping plants.

Our need for nature even makes its way into the design of indoor spaces. One of the most curious examples is the indoor shopping mall, with its large trees, changes in elevation, water features, comfortable retreats, and a "big sky" atmosphere created by skylights and high ceilings. I read that this is supposed to be the modern equivalent of the African savannah, where, some believe, our ancestors toiled and our need for nature was imprinted on us.

Funny, I've never noticed the resemblance before. That must be why my daughter feels shopping is such an uplifting experience!


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