5 Types of Therapeutic Gardens to Heal the Body and Soul

Therapeutic gardens have piqued the interest of many in the medical profession in recent years. Medical doctors, physical therapists, neurologists, and psychologists are becoming increasingly aware of the many benefits of interacting with nature through gardens and gardening activities.

What Are Therapeutic Gardens?

A therapeutic or healing garden is a designated outdoor garden space that is designed to improve our mental and physical well-being. They are used to benefit not only the person recovering from an illness but also their family, friends, and caregivers.

These plant-based areas are designed to encourage a calming interaction with nature by both patients and their loved ones.

Healing gardens are found outside hospitals, convalescent facilities, treatment centers, nursing homes, and even prisons. The plants and walking paths are specifically designed to provide the benefits of physical activity along with contemplative moments.

The Five Types of Therapeutic Gardens

Not every therapeutic garden design has the same goal in mind. Designs may incorporate either an active, hands-on approach or a more passive, contemplative environment. The International Journal of Architectural Research classifies healing gardens into the following five categories:

  1. Healing
  2. Enabling
  3. Meditative
  4. Rehabilitative
  5. Restorative

We’ll take a closer look at each category. 

1. Healing Gardens

A healing garden uses horticultural therapy to enhance the overall healing process. These gardens incorporate fragrant and colorful plants and water features that encourage physical, mental, and emotional healing in both patients and visitors. 

elderly Alzheimer patient working in vegetable garden with therapist

Some facilities may employ a horticulturist specializing in garden therapy. The therapist assists patients in meeting healing goals by participating in garden activities. In addition, the therapist will document the impact of planned activities on the healing process.

However, not all healing gardens employ planned activities. Instead, some simply allow nature to take its course as patients are exposed to the sensory stimulus of the garden setting. 

For example, a healing garden can help Alzheimer’s patients and those suffering from similar brain function disorders. Pleasant memories are stimulated through all five senses increasing the patient’s overall well-being.

2. Enabling Gardens

Enabling therapeutic gardens focus more on the physical recovery and condition of patients. An enabling garden may even include professional training for work in the horticultural industry after recovery.

man training a worker in the garden

Physical gardening activities improve confidence and restore mental balance as well as provide strength and coordination. Routine garden tasks instill a feeling of usefulness and accomplishment after a severe injury or traumatic event. 

3. Meditative Gardens

Meditative gardens often contain therapeutic garden plants that are beautiful and attract birds, butterflies, or other peaceful wildlife for the observant visitor to enjoy. These gardens encourage quiet, stress-reducing environments where difficult life events can be processed at leisure.

Meditative gardens are designed to rejuvenate and restore emotional and psychological balance. Carefully planned paths and solitary alcoves supply privacy for those in need of undisturbed meditation. Such gardens are beneficial for veterans suffering from PTSD or victims of violence or loss.

collage of three meditation garden ideas - a japanses garden, butterfly garden and small shelter overlooking a pond

4. Rehabilitative Gardens

The benefits of the various types of healing gardens overlap. Rehabilitative gardens are unique in that they are not only for the healing of the gardeners but also for the environment. 

In areas where natural or man-made factors have damaged soil or created potential erosion issues, a rehabilitative garden can help bring communities together for both social and environmental healing. Therapeutic garden plants can include natural species as well as more traditional garden occupants. 

Rehabilitative gardens bring nature and humans together in unique communion and harmony with their natural surroundings. Gardening creates a greater sense of unity for those who cooperate for the success of the whole. 

5. Restorative Gardens

Restorative gardens are planned around the idea of relieving stress and restoring calm to shattered nerves after traumatic events. Those suffering from PTSD can find a place of quiet, undisturbed sanctuary in a restorative healing garden.

For example, take a look at the Walter Reed Sensory Garden below, located in Arlington, Virginia.

A virtual tour of Arlington County’s Walter Reed Community Center Sensory Garden

Again, a therapeutic garden need not be part of a health facility. For example, communities have created healing gardens as a place for quiet meditation for recently returned veterans.

A quiet garden can also help restore contentment and comfort in communities that have suffered from a natural disaster or an act of unexpected violence.

Restorative gardens are designed to create easy walks or private repose areas as visitors seek physical and mental healing. Users can enjoy calming, natural plant and animal life as often as they desire. Some restorative gardens offer voluntary participation programs as well, as each person finds their own healing pace.

Some healing benefits of restorative or other horticultural therapy include:

  • Increased muscle strength
  • Improved coordination
  • Improved balance
  • Greater endurance
  • Greater Problem solving skills
  • Increased social skills
  • Increased ability to follow directions

Common Elements of Design in Therapeutic Gardens

cobblestone path with colorful blooming gardens on either side

All therapeutic gardens share some common elements. Any person or community interested in designing a healing garden for their community or healthcare facility will need to become familiar with the therapeutic garden design features that will meet their goals. 

 Here are a few essential elements to consider:

  • An easily defined perimeter that redirects the visitor’s attention to elements within the garden area.
  • A profusion of human interaction possibilities. Intense colors, eye-drawing displays, easily defined paths that draw individuals into the garden setting.
  • Intentional plant placement that creates recognizable, comforting patterns and pleasant memories.
  • Sensory stimulating plant selections that include visually pleasing, touchable, and fragrant stimulation for both meditative visitors and garden participants.
  • Scheduled activities. Many healing gardens create ongoing therapeutic opportunities through planned activities with a professional therapist. Though not absolutely necessary, these activities are the key to consistent success for some patients
  • Accessibility for all. Wide pathways and easily accessible garden beds for those who are physically limited or healing. A landscape architect or professional nursery worker with knowledge of applicable regulations should be consulted when planning a therapeutic garden.

A Short History of Therapeutic Gardens

Therapeutic gardening can be traced back to ancient times. 2000 BC Mesopotamia is known for its use of horticulture as a calming influence on the senses. Persians also began combining the many stimulants of garden plants with the “music” of running water to create a feast for the senses.

relaxing fountain surrounded by luxh greenery

In more recent history, Dr. Benjamin Rush, who has been recognized as the 19th century “Father of American Psychology,” documented the positive effects of working in the garden for those with mental disabilities.

After World War 2, horticulture therapy became even more popular for recovering veterans. In addition, the medical community recognized gardening and garden settings as beneficial for physical and psychological healing overall. 

Since that time, horticultural therapy has become accepted practice for physical and psychological healing. Garden therapy encompasses therapeutic healing, vocational rehabilitation, and community settings. 

Therapists are trained in various techniques to assist patients in recovering lost skills and creating new ones. This natural healing field continues to develop as its impact on the many facets of healing comes to light.


Therapeutic gardening is an ever-developing option for those who value nature’s ability to stimulate and shorten healing time. In addition, both the medical and social community is coming to recognize the need to include outdoor exposure and activities for the health of the body and soul. 

For those interested in bringing this option to their community, take a look at some of the most popular healing gardens for a little inspiration. We’ve compiled a YouTube playlist of Our Favorite Healing Gardens with ten amazing online garden tours.

The garden tours are a great example of what can be accomplished with a little help from some talented gardeners and dedicated volunteers. Every person in the community benefits from participating in or visiting a local therapeutic garden. So why not take some time to visit one of these healing gardens today!

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