Extension News

Therapeutic Gardens Yield Better Physical, Mental and Emotional Health

Therapeutic Garden


DES MOINES, Iowa -- Patients, families and staff at the Center for Rehabilitative Medicine at Mercy Capitol Hospital are reaping the benefits of therapeutic gardening thanks to recreation therapist Joyce Ellens and Iowa State University Extension. The Center for Rehabilitative Medicine works with people who have sustained a stroke, spinal cord injury, amputation or traumatic brain injury to achieve their highest level of independence.


Ellens, who is part of the team at the rehabilitation unit, took an idea to create a shady courtyard a step further. Adjacent to the unit is a small, 12 by 24-foot courtyard, enclosed on four sides but open to the sky. The space was unattractive and seldom used and it was too hot to sit there on most days because of a lack of shade. Ellens saw more possibilities than just making some shade. “There is so much research about improved patient outcomes if patients can even see a garden from a window. I just knew we could improve the space with some direction,” Ellens said.


Ellens contacted the Partnering Landscape and Community Enhancements (PLaCE) program at the ISU College of Design for help. She met program coordinator Susan Erickson, a landscape architect who has an interest in therapeutic gardens at healthcare facilities. Gardens are an often overlooked element in modern medicine, Erickson said. However, “…somehow we all know that we feel better after we’ve gone for a walk out in nature.” In fact, well designed landscapes contribute to better physical, emotional and mental health of patients, she said.


Erickson said therapeutic gardens also are beneficial to staff members and visitors. Outdoor gardens are a valuable stress relief tool for staff and provide a more pleasing work environment. Gardens provide family members with a space in which to relax, she said.


Erickson prepared a short report with conceptual design ideas for the courtyard as well as guidelines on the principles of therapeutic gardens. According to Ellens, the report was instrumental in gaining support and momentum, allowing her to prove the value of this therapeutic garden.


Joe Munford, a carpenter for Mercy Capitol, assisted Ellens with implementation of the project. He built an overhead trellis structure, several planter boxes, a storage bench, and harmonizing improvements for two walls. These finely crafted items make the courtyard warm and welcoming and have transformed the space entirely, Erickson said.


After construction, the courtyard was ready for plants and horticulture programming. Ellens was enthusiastic but lacked direction since her own plant knowledge was minimal. She again worked with Erickson, who created a report with seasonal planting suggestions, ISU Extension publications, plant-related programming ideas and even a few recipes.


The courtyard therapeutic garden has been in use by patients, families and staff through the spring and summer seasons of 2007. Everyone enjoyed tulips, crocus and daffodils blooming in early spring, Ellens said. Flowers graced the courtyard in May and June and vegetables and herbs were stars of the courtyard scene in July and August. Patients have been involved in garden activities throughout the season. The dining room looks over the garden so all ambulatory patients can enjoy visual aspects of the garden even if they are not able to go out physically.


Ellens has incorporated aspects of garden care and maintenance into recreation therapy activities. Planting seedlings, watering plants and even harvesting vegetables and preparing them to eat have added a new and enjoyable dimension to her patients’ activities, she said. One recent day they even made Lemon Thyme cookies, using herbs from the courtyard garden.


According to Ellens, feedback from patients, families and staff about the garden has been overwhelmingly positive.


Erickson is available for information and to provide technical assistance for developing therapeutic gardens to design professionals and to the healthcare community.


Those interested in investigating the possibilities for therapeutic gardens in healthcare facilities, residential care facilities, schools and other public places should contact Erickson at (515) 294-1790 or susaneri@iastate.edu. Additional information about the PLaCE program is available at www.design.iastate.edu/place.php. ISU Extension publications about therapeutic gardens can be ordered or downloaded at www.extension.iastate.edu/store/.




Contacts :

Susan Erickson, Institute for Design Research and Outreach, (515) 294-1790, susaneri@iastate.edu

Joyce Ellens, Center for Rehabilitative Medicine, Mercy Capitol Hospital, Des Moines, (515) 643-0469, jellens@mercydesmoines.org

Sandra Oberbroeckling, Landscape Architecture, (515) 294-3721, soberbr@iastate.edu


Del Marks, Communications and Marketing, (515) 294-9807, delmarks@iastate.edu


Two high resolution photos are available for use with this news release. They are before and after views of the courtyard therapeutic garden at Mercy Capitol Hospital:

GardenBefore.jpg [1.6 MB]

GardenAfter.jpg [600 K}