Plants have the power to heal. So does the act of gardening. Researchers have provided solid evidence and sound arguments for the healing power of horticulture, and clients and customers are paying attention.

For individuals who are challenged by physical or emotional trauma, a visit to a healing garden can ease the struggle or even aid in recovery. Physical participation in gardening can improve one’s mobility and relieve stress and the stiffness of arthritis. So when your client asks for advice on a therapeutic garden, be prepared to ask questions. What’s the challenge? What’s the goal?

Be prepared, too, with knowledge of the sorts of gardens that are appropriate for therapeutic purposes.

Types of healing gardens

In spring, the Buehler Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden is alive with colorful bulbs and annuals planted in beds that are easy for wheelchairbound visitors to enjoy.

Not all “healing” or therapeutic gardens are the same. They can be designed for specific populations, and for different purposes. Some may allow active participation, encouraging visitors, often with guidance, to don some gloves, grab the tools and dig in. Others are intended to soothe with soft colors and gentle fragrances. Still others can help children learn and, in extreme cases, help them to recover from trauma.

If you’re designing or supplying plants for a therapeutic garden, here are types to consider.

1. Alzheimer’s treatment

Patients with Alzheimer’s disease or with other forms of dementia benefit greatly from visits to the garden. Sights and smells of familiar plants can trigger pleasant memories and provide topics of conversation to share with family and staff.

Pathways should be level, of course, and ideally should be designed in a conformation without dead ends, always leading the patient back to the beginning of the path. Along the walkway, a water feature or sculpture will serve as a sort of landmark, helping to orient and guide the patient.

Comfortable but supportive seating should be included, as well as ornamentation that may trigger memories and conversation, such as antiques or a display of common household items.

Plants in cool or pastel colors add a soothing effect; interesting textures and habits may create as well as recall treasured memories.

2. Children’s gardens

These may function as educational and therapeutic settings, providing children both a learning lab and a creative respite from trauma. Hardscape installations should be scaled to a child’s reach, with spaces and seating set aside for adults who accompany their young charges. Entrances should be welcoming, whimsical, colorful and encouraging, leading to a safe, naturally enclosed area that will discourage wandering off.

Hands-on displays can be stocked with child-proportioned tools, bins of potting medium, small containers, and ornamental and vegetable plants. Raised beds with easy-to-read and colorfully illustrated signage help to engage children.

If there’s room, a meandering path can lead visitors through a tour of garden types as well as small installations – such as safe climbing bridges, natural slides, caves and tunnels, and shelters – that keep adventurous children physically active.

Permanent plantings should offer color and texture as well as fragrance, giving kids a chance to experience plants on many different sensory – and educational – levels.

The Heritage Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden features an even, circular path, delineated with brick and concrete, that surrounds a raised water feature incorporating lush, richly textured plants.

3. Enabling gardens

For those whose physical abilities are limited, gardening can still be enjoyed. Accessibility is key, requiring wide, smooth, obstacle-free pathways that allow room for wheelchairs to navigate and maneuver.

Raised beds give visitors an opportunity to touch and smell plants without requiring them to bend to ground level. Likewise, vertical installations elevate plants to the visitors’ eyeline and soften the surrounding hardscape elements.

If visitors desire to participate in gardening activities, adapted tools can be provided. Unique, benchlike raised beds that allow wheelchairs to roll underneath give better access, and pulleys attached to hanging baskets allow the gardener to raise and lower the lightweight container for planting and maintenance.

Plants of all varieties may be included for visitors of all ages, abilities and gardening experience.

4. Hospital and nursing home gardens

Created for both patients and visitors (and often for personnel), these gardens encourage a connection with nature and a brief escape from the trappings of medical intervention. They can be located from hospital grounds to rooftops, but ease of access and safety onsite are critical. A shaded transition from the building to the garden, such as a canopy, protects visitors from heat and glare, and a covered seating area allows patients to view gardens without risking sun exposure.

Sunscreens, planted trellises and taller hedges help to define the area as well as to protect visitors from wind and noise. Walking paths should be smooth and flat, as well as wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. A well-organized route through the garden will help patients and residents to remain oriented; oftentimes the transition from indoors to the garden can be confusing. Paths also should be clearly and easily identified, with handrails, and should define the boundaries between plantings and public areas.

Plenty of comfortable and supportive seating – head rests, arm rests, back support – will encourage patients to visit often.

Richly colored plants help patients with visual challenges to identify discrete gardens spaces; interesting textures (no thorns!) and fragrances add to their natural experience. The garden should include plantings near windows for those patients and residents who are unable to leave the building.

5. Meditation gardens

Often located at houses of worship, these gardens also may be sited on private property, on hospital grounds, at funeral homes or even in public parks. They are intended to help visitors relax, unwind, let go of stress and be “in the moment.” Sited in its own niche, free from the noise of traffic and out of the way of crowds, a meditation garden is an oasis.

The layout should be simple, without elaborate geometry – unless, of course, the client requests an overall theme that would help visitors to focus, such as a Celtic knot or a Zen circle. Whatever the specific layout, the goal is to create a space of peace and quiet, suitable for reflection.

It should be easy to access and offer suitable seating that allows a visitor to remain for a while without battling the discomfort and distraction of a hard, cold structure.

Water features that are designed to trickle gently or flow smoothly offer a positive, soothing focal point.

Color is important, and plants with cooler tones – blues, purples, lots of lush green – help to set the stage for relaxation. Fragrance also may be incorporated, but should not be strong enough to distract.

6. Sensory gardens for the visually impaired

Rich, lush gardens filled with sound, texture and fragrance welcome those whose vision is impaired. Paths throughout should be simple and angular, and seating should be recessed in turnouts so that obstacles are removed. Textured surfaces can signal a change in direction or entrance into a separate part of the garden; provided the surface is relatively flat, the change from pavers or brick to concrete to stable earth may help to orient the visitor and identify a part of the garden.

Hanging baskets, such as these at the Buehler Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden, bring color, texture and fragrance to eye level in an enabling garden, eliminating the requirement for visitors using walkers or crutches to bend to ground level.

Plants with scents are welcome, and fragrances can be strong or subtle, but if possible, similar scents should be sited together. A mixture of competing fragrances can be confusing, not to mention unpleasant. Dramatic textures and plant forms add to the experience of visitors with limited vision. Similarly, vivid colors and contrasts will stand out.

Sound in the garden can be created by wind chimes and ornaments, trickling water features or fountains, or even swishing grasses. Each of these, including dramatic plant colors and larger garden ornaments, will act as landmarks.