I glimpsed some new gray hairs in the rear view mirror today as I glanced up to make sure I didn’t have food in my teeth before running in late to my weekly therapy session. My. Head. Is. Spinning. My care decisions mimic those in intense hospital situations – save the strong first; prioritize from there down to the cases that aren’t worth my effort because they likely won’t make it.

It’s triage. I’m in charge of 1,748 greenhouse grown seedlings, 4,000 direct seedings in the ground at a farm, multiple thousands of bees, 17 chickens, a dog, a cat, and (not least) 3 young children. Oh, and I also have a small family business with three new and simply incredible employees. The business part is like a toddler, it’s got strong legs and knows how to do a lot but is growing so fast that I have to keep my eyes on it at all times.

As our designer wrapped up for the weekend she said to me: ‘I must have done something right in my life to end up in a job where I get to wear slippers at work.’ Our work can be intense but somehow the slippers make it better. Slippers offer their own sort of sensory therapy – they are soft, warm, and hopefully nice to look at. Gardens can offer this sort of counterpoint to the stresses of our lives. Sometimes called healing, restorative or therapeutic, well-designed gardens are like a slipper to your hectic life, allowing your home, your yard, to fill you with those positive vibes.

There is a super long definition of ‘healing garden’ and the uses range as much as the definition. My favorite definition is that of the Restorative Garden:

Positive outcomes, including stress reduction, are derived through both passive and active nature connection and can take place indoors (via indoor plants, or from viewing nature through a window) and outdoors.

And it’s so, so true. Gardening really does reduce stress. I have so much other stuff to take care of but the days I dig deep, like in the dirt, I really come out feeling so much more relaxed. It’s different from talk therapy but it truly should be, like exercise, complementary to it. Basically, anything you do in nature can have multiple health benefits because humans are attracted to nature (we are, after all, a part of nature).

More recent research has identified enhanced immune functioning as a potential “central pathway” in explaining the connection between nature contact and positive health outcomes. Nature, in hospitals and elsewhere, plays a salutogenic role in both disease prevention and health promotion (Kuo, 2015).

Okay, okay, so gardens are good but what are design elements that make them especially good?

Safety – maintaining good sight lines while providing a feeling of enclosure (I can see out but you can’t see in).

Climate moderation – screening from wind, extreme heat/cold, bugs.

Nature engagement – plants, water, animals, fresh air.

A sense of control – user can find privacy, social engagement, easy entrances and exits.

Opportunities for exercise – a long looping pathway or open lawn.

The physical elements of a design that creates such a meaningful space should engage the senses. Consider the above five and then use the five senses to create this:

Take safety – we feel safe when we are seated with a decent view, while our backs are to a screen. Plant shrubs with scented flowers, tall grasses with soft plumes, or bright wildflowers to create enclosure and frame views.

Or climate moderation – my favorite perhaps, because it can be so hard. We have rain, snow, hail, winds, and searing heat. Plant tall, narrow leaved plants that sway in the winds to celebrate the inclement weather without worrying about damage to branches or leaves. My favorites are grasses which suffer neither from hail nor snow damage. They just bounce back every time and they make the best noise in light breezes and show such balletic drama in high winds. The tallest grasses can even provide shade. Plants, regardless of their height will moderate intense heat, simply by evapotranspiration (like nature’s Pepsi cool zone).

Nature engagement is a natural with plants but some elements we forget include: water, open dirt, and cracks and crevices. Small mammals, birds, and insects come to where there is water, food, and shelter. Plants with beautiful berries, butterfly attracting blooms, a birdbath, and crafted insectaries all add beauty and sensory interest for you and the birds.

A sense of control, though vague, really implies the basics like making sure your doors swing easily, that you have a good view of your yard from a window, and that your gates function. It goes beyond that to creating smaller areas within your garden so you and other users can find the space they need at that time, whether it be privacy or party. By creating small nooks with a bistro table and potted plants, larger gathering spaces such as patios and lawns, and using plants to direct views, you can provide spaces for solace and celebration. A crushed gravel path feels and sounds good underfoot; night blooming flowers and well-placed uplighting make for evening enjoyment that feels safe.

The simplest way to provide an opportunity for exercise is a looping pathway around your yard. This not only benefits the dog (they love to patrol borders), but it encourages exploration of all of your yard’s areas, and gives everyone a chance to walk around. Lawns are fantastic for social exercise like soccer, football, and cornhole as well. Plant lavender, sagebrush, hyssop, and scented geranium close enough to brush up against so the soothing scent can work its magic.

Is every garden a healing garden? To some extent, yes. Views of the outdoors heal. But to take it to the next level, try some of the above strategies and use plants that smell good, bloom in different seasons, feel nice to the touch, provide beauty from within the house, and invite wildlife, exploration, awe, and wonder.