Virginia Thorndike strolls through the garden in front of her Monkton home each morning, carefully observing the ways the flowers have changed from the previous day.
She sums up the feeling that overcomes her: "Gratitude."
Thorndike designed her garden as a spiritual retreat, positioning plants in ways that draw on ancient religious practices. Laid out in a half circle, the garden is bisected by a waterfall that ends in a pond at the base of a hill.
Stones frame a yin-yang circle populated by Hoogendorn hollies. The watercourse is the yin-yang line and mugo pines are the symbol's dots. Thorndike also applied the principles of feng shui to her garden, overlaying another circle and selecting plants with colors that represent elements of the earth.
"I did well in geometry in 10th grade," she jokes. But she adds seriously, "This garden is a very comprehensive creation done as an homage to spirit."
Thorndike's garden reflects her unique vision of spirituality, but the concept of therapeutic or healing gardens has become increasingly common at healthcare facilities in the past several years. Mercy Medical Center, Baltimore Washington Medical Center, Kennedy Krieger Institute, Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Rehabilitation and Orthopaedic Institute (formerly Kernan Hospital) all have healing gardens.
"Hospitals more and more have begun to understand that … people do heal faster when they have visual access to plants and gardens," says Susan Weiler, a partner in the OLIN landscape architecture firm and designer of several gardens at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The realization follows a number of scientific studies that have shown people heal faster when they can see or interact with gardens, says Naomi Sachs, founder and director of Therapeutic Landscapes Network, an online resource for those interested in therapeutic gardens. "Now a lot of healthcare facilities are buying into it," she says. "Some are even using it as part of their marketing."
And homeowners have begun to take note and explore ways to create their own therapeutic gardens, Sachs says.
"Most people who are aging want to age in place," she says. "We're having to think about ways to provide gardens in people's homes that are restorative and accessible."
Form follows function
The designs and purposes of healing gardens vary. Architect Lydia Kimball, a principal in the firm Mahan Rykiel Associates, designed a garden at Kennedy Krieger to help patients learning to use wheelchairs and walkers. She incorporated a number of surfaces into the garden, including gravel, concrete, cobblestones and grass.
"You get all the benefits of being outside and you get the even more important practice of learning to use the wheelchair on concrete and grass," she says.
But the garden isn't just for the patients. The half-acre space, which features ornamental cherry trees, fountains, benches and areas for quiet contemplation, gives Kennedy Krieger's workers and patients' families a place to rest and recharge.
"It is intended for people to be out there and run around and enjoy the outdoors," Kimball says.
At the University of Maryland Rehabilitation and Orthopaedic Institute, the garden is designed to heal the body as well as the spirit. As the garden at Kennedy Krieger does, it provides different surfaces to help patients who are learning to use wheelchairs or walkers.
The garden also includes raised beds that allow patients who are interested in gardening to tend to the plants. Familiar plants, such as black-eyed Susans, azaleas, lemongrass and basil, encourage speech therapy patients to describe the plants they see.
The garden also offers a spiritual retreat for patients who may face many months of hospitalization. "It provides them an area to visit with their families and help them relax," says Lori Patria, director of therapy services at the hospital. "It's a refuge."
At University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center's Tate Cancer Center patients undergoing chemotherapy can look out at a garden with hillside views, a stream and reflecting pool. Patients and their families can also stroll along a brick pathway in which encouraging messages have been inscribed at the bequests of donors.
"We've gotten a lot of positive feedback from it," says hospital spokesman Kevin Cservek.