How to design gardens for health and wellbeing

designing gardens for health and wellbeing

Can we design gardens for health and wellbeing? Love your garden and it will love you back!

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”
Audrey Hepburn

I grew up in the a leafy Oxfordshire village with parents who were both very keen gardeners.

Things like having a buddleia smothered in butterflies in summer, the scent of sweet Peas around the house and fresh produce with our evening meal seemed normal, so it wasn’t until years later that I fully appreciated a) how lucky I was b) the incredible power of plants and outdoor space.

As most gardeners will tell you, being out in the garden – often in all weathers – simply makes them ‘feel good’. But is there evidence to back this up and how can a garden be designed to maximise this ‘feel good factor’?

The awareness that gardens are good for both your mental and physical health appears to be growing. A recent edition of Gardener’s World was entirely devoted to the health and wellbeing benefits of gardens and the RHS is soon to be opening a health and wellbeing garden at its flagship Wisley site. The NHS are in the process of establishing ‘social prescribing’ which could see doctors recommending outdoor activities like gardening to help people improve and maintain their health.

The love of nature

The benefits of gardens can be categorised as either ‘active’ – actually gardening, or ‘passive’ – simply being in a garden or around greenspace.

Nature calls to something very deep in us. ‘Biophilia’ – the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Studies on the emotional and physiological effects of environmental aesthetics, have showed that patients recovering from an operation in hospital who had a bedside window view of trees had shorter hospital stays, fewer post-surgical complications and needed less medication than those who had a view of a wall. Just looking at plants can have beneficial effects on us both emotionally and physically according to some studies.

There is scientific evidence that time in nature can affect our brain chemistry and help relieve stress. Researchers have investigated how nature can reduce stress by creating a ‘positive distraction’ from the normal focussed attention we need to get things done and which creates mental fatigue. The term ‘soft fascination’ has been coined for this restorative state and can be produced by any sort of ‘nearby nature’ – every type of garden, whether big or small, acres wide or a roof top, country park or hanging basket can offer us a sense of peace and harmony.

Trees have been found to be particularly important – time spent in a forest environment is soothing, forges a connection to nature, reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, increases concentration and improves mood. In Japan the practice of Shinrin-yoko, or ‘forest bathing’ has been promoted by local government and become a popular practice.

Trees and plants emit a chemical compound known as phytoncides, which affect the biochemistry of our bodies and strengthen our immune systems.

Gardening is good for us

The desire to interact with, manage and tend nature – what is known as ‘Hortophilia’ –  is also deeply instilled in us. We would not have survived as a species unless we learnt how to work with our natural surroundings – for food, shelter, and medicines

Emotionally we benefit from interacting with plants. Often mental health issues can result from obsessing about our own problems and view of the World which can become quite self-destructive. Tending to plants awakens the nurturing instinct in us and can restore a sense of hope and meaning. Gardening can create a sense of achievement and self-esteem as we see the results of our efforts in the healthy growth of our plants.

There are a huge range of physical benefits including:

  • cardio vascular fitness
  • flexibility, strength and dexterity
  • simple exposure to the sun brings positives; for instance, sunlight can increase vitamin D levels and lower blood pressure
  • improved balance and reduce susceptibility to falls
  • reduced pain and help with recovery from surgery or other medical interventions
  • long-term reductions in health problems such as heart disease, cancer and musculoskeletal conditions have been linked to increasing people’s exposure to, and use of, green spaces

Gardens help us to feel more alive

Ultimately I believe that we are drawn into the garden because it feeds the soul. Gardens can give us a sense of belonging to something, partly because we’ve invested our time in it, but also because, on deeper level, they remind us that we connected to nature and not separate from it.

When I step out into the garden, breath in the cool morning air, become aware of the open sky, feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, hear the birds singing in the trees and start to take in the beauty of the garden itself, I instantly start to feel more present and relaxed. As I wander through the garden, taking in the sights and smells, I love seeing what has changed since my last visit – new shoots emerging, buds forming, flowers opening.  I Love seeing the life of plants unfolding and connecting to the whole cycle of life: birth – maturity – death – decay. I enjoy creating compost as much as I do seeing new seedlings emerge in spring!

How to design gardens for health and wellbeing

People may not always be able to articulate why they like some gardens more than others or know much about design, but when they are in a well-designed garden they FEEL IT!

Whilst everyone has their own tastes and preferences and garden designers are skilled at tuning into them,  there are several aspects that are worth considering when designing a garden to enhance its affect on our wellbeing. 

Create an interesting route and division of space

Create a sense of journey and discovery. Layout a route through the garden that does not allow you to see all the garden at once, but reveals new views and experiences as you move through the space. Introduce features, focal points and different materials to grab the attention and create emotional connection with the garden. This helps to reduce the habitual thinking which the mind naturally wants

Create something of beauty

By creating a beautiful garden that inspires and engages us, we can forget some of the everyday stresses of life. A well designed and healthy garden can take us ‘out of ourselves’ and evoke simple feeling of gratitude for our immediate surroundings.

Engage all the senses

Scent can be very powerful, often evoking strong memories or simply stopping you in your tracks as you appreciate the beautiful aroma that hangs in the air around some plants. One of my favourite shrubs is Viburnum Burkwoodii – its scent is simply divine. Other plants have contribute aroma through their leaves. Herbs are of course a classic example and can be planted to both look and smell good. If they are planted near paths they may release their scent when you brush past them or you can just pick a few leaves and squeeze them  to release even more of their essential oils.

Grow a variety of plants for texture, form and movement. Some plants, such as Stachys byzantina (Lambs Ear), are very tactile and are especially valuable for someone who may have poor eyesight or for children to relate to the plants in a very immediate way.

Grasses and the more airy perennials waft around in the wind and brings us closer to this natural element. Some grasses, especially when planted en mass may make a sound when the wind rushes through them.

Think about attracting wildlife

Still or running water adds a very special element to the garden. Having any form of water also dramatically increases the biodiversity in the garden. Don’t be too hasty in the autumn to cut back plants that have finished flowering as the seed heads not only provide food for birds but can also add structural interest over the winter months.

Think about colour

Cool toned Whites, pinks, blues and purples have been found to have a calming and relaxing effect on people’s state of mind, so incorporate those colours into your garden planting. It has been shown that Green requires the least amount of adaptation in the eye for us to see it and so is naturally relaxing.

Useful links:

An ecotherapy garden – one of our award winning projects where we applied many of these principles for how to design gardens for health and wellbeing


Thrive specialise in providing ‘Social and Therapeutic Horticulture’ and use gardening to change the lives of those living with disability or ill health.

Project Nurture

Royal Horticultural Society





  1. Dear Richard
    It would be good to connect with you to share experiences and ideas
    I look forward to hearing from you

    Kind regards

  2. I just added this web page to my bookmarks. I really like reading your posts. Thank you!

  3. Thank you so much for your beautiful article. I thoroughly agree with everything you have said.

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