Gardens and healing: the theory behind the sense

Originally published in The Church Times, May 2018 

We all know it: Being in a garden, or a natural green space, makes us ‘feel better’. I regularly go to my favourite green spaces, habitually seeking something that make me feel ‘more me’. And even if I can’t get outside, a memory of a warm summer’s day in my childhood garden with the bees buzzing drunkenly by while the breeze shifted the leaves in the copper beach, is sometimes enough to lift my mood and heal my soul.

But is there wisdom and true knowledge beyond this common human experience? Do gardens really heal?

Firstly, let’s not be so quick to dispense with our emotional experiences of the garden. The chemist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi wrote that humans are not merely outside observers of our universe but part of it, and if we wish to understand the physical world there is true knowledge to be found in our experiences of being here. The philosopher Fiona Ellis recently wrote that it is indeed in the ‘ambiguities of human experience’ that knowledge seeking should begin. So, what of that experience that gardens give us – can science tell us anything that can bolster our deep instinct to go there to find health?

Our modern medical health care system can trace its roots back to the monastic communities of the Middle Ages many of which built gardens for the ill. For the monks, enclosed gardens were seen as important for the healing of the patients. Indeed, hospital and hospice architecture today often uses natural spaces and gardens deliberating in their design.

Over the last forty years, there has been a growing body of evidence presenting the healing effects of nature at a psychological and physiological level. The idea of a ‘therapeutic landscape’ was first coined by medical geographers who recognised places which had a reputation for facilitating healing in body, mind or spirit.

Studies have shown that it is at the neurological level that gardens can promote healing. For example, when people are stressed and distracted as a result of modern life, gardens bring about positive changes by shifting our mind into a more meditative mode of thinking. Research into recovery times have shown that looking out of a window at a natural scene helped patients to recuperate more quickly than having an artificial environment. And if you can actually get your hands dirty, then the healing benefits only increase: recent work has linked gardening and health improvement particularly in those with dementia and those who have symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the research linking healing and gardens is not just focussed on the psychological benefits. A long term study in Japan looking at the physical effects of ‘forest bathing’ (i.e. spending time near trees) and found that spending time with trees had a measureable impact on the human immune system, linked to the inhalation of chemicals naturally released by the trees.

The body of evidence supporting the physiological and physiological impact of gardening is growing. Not only is this a satisfying metaphor, but it gives a firm foundation for the Green Health Awards. Churches lie at the heart of communities across the country, and there is real potential that church green spaces might be developed into a myriad of garden oases with the potential to make a tangible difference to the health of the church and the community it seeks to serve.