Cleve West's Bupa Sensory Garden, created for London's 2008 Chelsea Flower Show, was designed for the benefit of people suffering from dementia and other memory issues. Almost 90 types of plantings, placed at various heights and depths, fill the garden.

Cleve West's Bupa Sensory Garden, created for London's 2008 Chelsea Flower Show, was designed for the benefit of people suffering from dementia and other memory issues. Almost 90 types of plantings, placed at various heights and depths, fill the garden.

Credit: Derek St. Romaine

The concept of "healing gardens" flourished in ancient Egypt, Persia, and the Orient as well as in medieval Europe. From the 18th century forward, however, proponents of modern medicine put science on a pedestal and let the gardens go to seed. Now, nature is emerging from the shadow of technology, and gardens are returning to what proponents say is a more balanced role in progressive healthcare.

"The evidence is clear that people are calmed by the lush green of nature," says Clare Cooper Marcus, professor emerita of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley's College of Environmental Design and a leading voice in the therapeutic garden movement.

Gardens have sprouted at hospitals, long-term care facilities, and nursing homes across the United States as well as abroad. There are magical play spaces for sick children and their siblings. Shaded refuges comfort cancer patients and burn victims. Outdoor rooms accommodate the frail elderly with sturdy benches, gentle inclines, and looping pathways to guide those with dementia or Alzheimer's disease safely back to the starting point.

Such gardens increasingly are understood not only as passive refuges for stressed families and staff but also as active environments for physical therapy. Whether contributing to improved patient mood or providing subtle exercise, these healing spaces also are encouraging collaborative design. Medical practitioners, horticulturalists, and landscape architects are finding common ground.

Cleve West's Bupa Sensory Garden, created for London's 2008 Chelsea Flower Show, was designed for the benefit of people suffering from dementia and other memory issues. Paths tracing figure eights avoid potentially confusing dead ends and keep visitors close to the variety of flora.

Cleve West's Bupa Sensory Garden, created for London's 2008 Chelsea Flower Show, was designed for the benefit of people suffering from dementia and other memory issues. Paths tracing figure eights avoid potentially confusing dead ends and keep visitors close to the variety of flora.

Credit: Derek St. Romaine

"The most successful gardens are those where the designer works on a team with the medical staff who will be using the garden with their patients or encouraging their patients to go outside," says Marcus, who is working on a sequel to her definitive book, Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations (1999; John Wiley & Sons), co-edited with Marni Barnes.

The modern garden therapy movement rests on the terra firma of research by Roger Ulrich, director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University's College of Architecture. His seminal 1984 study—"View Through a Window May Influence Recovery From Surgery," published in Science—showed, among other things, how hospitalized patients who could see foliage through a window fared better than patients who saw only a brick wall.

If Ulrich documented what the gardeners and the sages of ancient Persia knew—that nature does nurture—a researcher at the Therapeutic Landscape Research Initiative at Iowa State University in Ames has spent the past year perusing the latest studies for information designers can use, such as the importance of daylight. As Susan Erickson, director of the American Society of Landscape Architects–funded program, says, "Sunlight helps people with their sleep cycles."

Cleve West's Bupa Sensory Garden, created for London's 2008 Chelsea Flower Show, was designed for the benefit of people suffering from dementia and other memory issues. Seating areas offer a respite for those wishing to tarry a little longer.

Cleve West's Bupa Sensory Garden, created for London's 2008 Chelsea Flower Show, was designed for the benefit of people suffering from dementia and other memory issues. Seating areas offer a respite for those wishing to tarry a little longer.

Credit: DEREK ST. ROMAINE

In May, the healing garden movement got a boost from the Royal Horticultural Society's trendsetting Chelsea Flower Show. London jurors awarded a gold medal to the Bupa Sensory Garden, created for dementia patients; the design also garnered a People's Choice Award from the BBC. Immediately, a plant list and video clips made their way to the internet. Never have the globes of alliums looked more touchable, the iris more old-fashioned, or the heavenly bamboo more purposeful than in this lush and fragrant memory lane.