Therapy with polytunnel gardening

The Chinese have long recognised the therapeutic benefits of gardens. Taoist masters observed the ability of trees to absorb negative forces, transforming negative energies into positive, hence the Chinese practice of sitting people under trees to benefit from these special magnetic forces. The Chinese also discovered that building a relationship with a tree nourished the blood and strengthened the nervous system.

Thomas Hardy, the author, has such a close relationship with trees that he could identify the different types of tree by simply hearing the rustle of the leaves! Being close to and understanding the world around you, brings many, many health benefits, the obvious ones are exercise, fresh air and smell. For example, walking burns 281 calories per hour, but weeding burns 330 calories per hour. It’s facts like this that have led to the garden often being described as the ‘green gym’, and it is a God send for those who hate running/walking machines and lycra.

Simple improvements

Exposure to a breeze of 5mph cools the body by 1/3 and increases blood circulation, which in turn stimulates mental activity, so being out doors is really good for you. In addition, we as humans beings, function best in air with a relative humidity of 45-55%. In a central heated house, the room humidity can be as low as 4%, that’s drier than Death Valley and the Sahara Desert! So there’s no wonder we feel better when we are outdoors.

Rain, rain any day.

When you’re gardening inside a polytunnel, you’re protected from the elements, rain, snow and wind but these forces of nature can have huge health and well being benefits. Petrichor is a great example, recently much more has been found out about this is oil that is found in the soil. Did you know Petrichoris is the smell you experience after it has rained. It’s a term that comes from ancient Greece, meaning ‘stone fluid’. Petrichor was recommended by Francis Bacon as both a rejuvenator and a remedy for countless ills. He proposed it as a tonic for women whom he urged to weed their gardens, especially in the Spring when, he claimed, the earth exuded its most energizing breath.

Gardens help with everyones health

A recent study by the Kings Fund found that gardening helps greatly in the treatment of people with mental health. They found significant reductions in the symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as improvements in emotional well being, improved social function, physical health and gardening even opened the door to opportunities of vocational development for those suffering long term mental illness.

Gardens and gardening can be used in the treatment of many physical and metal disabilities. The sense of touch and smell offer many, many benefits. We can improve the sensory pleasure of a garden by planting material that will rustle in the wind. You could use soft leaved plants which can be touched, not just viewed. Something as simple as the perfume of Roses and the fragrant bloom they create can motivate a people to spend more time in the garden.

The senses – sound in your garden

We can improve the sensory pleasure of a garden by planting material that will rustle in the wind. Different plants, at different times of the year will create their own unique aural signature. Leaves and plant structure play a major part in delivering a side of the garden that is often overlooked. Spending time alone in a garden can help people to reconnect with nature, as you become more aware of the birds, bees and butterflies that surround you.

The senses – colour in your garden

Creating a sensory feel to the garden can help us re-engage with under used senses, and as we get older stimulating sight becomes an ever more important part of maintaining your health. The way your garden works visually may need to change as you get older. Bold colours and strong contrast will be important, purples against yellows, whites against greens and oranges next to blues etc. These are all proven to boost the appreciation of colour and work particularly well with the visually impaired. It’s also important to use plants that provide year round interest. Plants with good autumn colours can add a whole new dimension to the garden experience, stimulating sight and encouraging people back outside when the weather may not be quite as hospitable.

The senses - smell in your garden

Our sense of smell also deteriorates with age, so careful consideration should be given to the power of smells within your garden space. For younger people the smell of some plants can be quite over-powering - Lilies are really good example of this, they are very popular with older people.

Fragrances elevate peoples mood, heightening feelings of well being and happiness. Olfactory stimulation has to be one of the greatest joys of gardening and something that everyone can get great pleasure from. A good example of fragrant planting would include Spring Lilacs and Lilly of the Valley. Summer brings Mock Orange and we can continue right through the Winter period with the Sweet Box. These are all old, well established plants that will stimulate memories of days gone by, remembering people, places and past events.

Stimulation of the senses can be taken even further when you introduce herbs to a garden. It really doesn’t matter where the herbs are grown - at ground level, in raised beds or containers, anywhere that works within your garden space. Planting scented Thyme between paving stones is an easy way to add fragrance into your garden and as people walk over the stones, crushing the leaves of the Thyme plant will cause the it to emit its fragrance into the air.

The senses - taste in your garden

The garden is a great place to stimulate your taste buds. In addition to growing herbs for scent we may want to think about their use in drinks and salads. Many herbal flowers and leaves make wonderful teas – for example Lemon Verbena, Raspberry tea etc. Nastustiums, Marigold, Geraniums and Dandelions are all easy to grow and can be used to produce various spicy flavours in food.

Open your mind

Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York’s Central Park, said in 1865 ‘Nature employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it, tranquilises it and enlivens it’.

When we are relaxed, we a free to meditate, let our mind explore and reflect on the things we have done. Philosophers believe we expand our personalities through play, that ‘play’ can manifest itself in many ways in the garden. Nature can soothe away stress, giving gardens and gardening an important role in our lives. At the end of World War 1 it was said ‘a garden is a public service and having one a public duty. It’s man’s contribution to the community – it’s a mark of an upward looking civilization that men make beautiful gardens’. (This MUST also apply to women).

We know the garden will not cure all our ills but it will provide a simple, practical approach to life’s enrichment. Alfred Whitestead, the British 20th Century Philosopher claimed ‘…our minds should be given over permanently to the quest of satisfying a three fold urge – to lead lives of fulfillment, vitality and purpose’. Living well to live better.

Case Study

Swedish Agricultural University, Alnarp Campus

This is a horticultural therapeutic treatment centre for people diagnosed as having burnout disease for an extended period of time. The garden is complex, but central to the space is a concentrated treatment area called the Hardscape room. This space looks like a glass igloo but the effect and function is very similar to a polytunnel.

The aim of the Healing Garden at Alnarp is to investigate and monitor how participants behave in the garden space. What they like and dislike but above all whether and how quickly, they recover. The design and activities of the garden have developed around this central theme, with various theories from the associated academic bodies being tried and tested throughout the garden.

In terms of physical size, the garden is roughly two hectares with natural-like areas that offer restorative qualities, these are contrasted with traditional cultivation in form of plant beds and other activities that focus on a particular skills.

The design of the garden has been developed under the direction of landscape architect and Associated Professor Patrik Grahn. He has assembled a team of experts including landscape architects Sara Lundstrom, Ulrika A. Stigsdotter and Frederik Tauchnitz. They are supported by a number of horticultural therapists from around the world.

The day to day running of the garden involves two teams, a treatment team who care for the patients and a research team, who follow and evaluate the activites carried out during treatment and assess how well the design of the garden functions.

The Research Team - This team embraces a multidisciplinary approach, it consists of four landscape architects, two occupational therapists, two psychiatrists, one rehabilitation physician and one environmental psychologist. The landscape architects have over 20 years of research behind them, focusing on restorative rest and visual experiences, they collaborate with the other therapists to develop the activities of the garden. Between them they will look at how the garden is used and evaluate patients’ activity including pain, and other activities of daily life. There will be medical studies of the patients stress hormones, concentration capacity, mood and sense of coherence.

The Treatment Team - This consists of two horticultural therapists, one landscape architect, one occupational therapist and one anthroposophic medical pedagogue. A physiotherapist and psychotherapist will also be part of this team and every patient will have their own allocated doctor who has the dedicated responsibility for him/her.

The Participants - The people visiting the garden will not be referred to as patients. They are there to rehabilitate and an important part of that process is the strengthening of their own image, hence the use of the term participants rather than patients.

Each participant will have been referred to the Healing Garden from hospitals, social insurance companies, insurance companies and the industrial health service. All of the people referred to the garden must have some type of illness that has been triggered or severely aggravated by stress. This illness may have been diagnosed as fatigue depression, STFR (stress-triggered fatigue reactions), burnout syndrome and/or pain in the back or head. They must have all stated that they would gladly work with gardening.

The first few months - This treatment lasts several months, the participants will work and spend time with the horticultural therapists in the garden every day, about 4 hours per day.

There will be a comparison group composed of people with the same illnesses – stress related burnout issues/symptoms, they will receive the usual levels of care and treatment using conventional therapy.

The design of the garden - When designing a healing garden it is critically important that the designers understand the group of people for whom they are designing. Those afflicted with fatigue depression, STFR or burnout syndrome are usually between 25-45 years old. When a person is over 45, their susceptibility to stress tends to diminish. Women are more likely to be affected, particularly those in caring professions such as nurses and teachers. The most common symptoms of burnout diseases are a general feeling of being rushed and stressed, along with fatigue, irritability and an inability to concentrate. They often suffer from severe pain concentrated to the back and the back of the head, but it can manifest itself elsewhere in the body. When people are suffering from this disease they become hyper-sensitive - even the slightest change in smell can affect mood, concentration etc. And these small changes will lead to sadness and despair. The sufferers often become isolated, unable to communicate with even close family and friends, leading to many people reporting a ‘personality change’.

At this point the suffers are having a significant crisis of confidence about everything that they do – their work, their own personality – communication and reflection often become heavily distorted and lead to long periods of sick leave that only perpetuate the cycle. So the garden needs to have places where sad, distressed and upset people can be calmed own and restored. The garden has to exert extremely low level demands upon the individuals that are within it, ensuring that the people feel this is a manageable space where they are comfortable spending time. Each person will have their own individual plan, developed by working closely with their doctor, this will start with very simple suggestions, such as spending time in the garden space, exploring what is planted – the smells, colours and textures. It will then progress to picking fruit, tasting things, restorative exercise and meditation before the activity is slowly increased.

There are a multitude of sensory stimulations within the Healing Garden, one of the most effective is water. The sounds of water, the speed at which it moves and the heights from which it falls present a feast of sensory experiences. Colour and shape are also explored in many different ways. This garden has to communicate with people on many, many levels, research has shown there are 8 types or rooms that deliver the full range of senses across a garden:-

1 serene – a peaceful, silent and caring room

2 wild – a room facilitating fascination with wild nature

3 rich in species – a room offering a variety of species of animals and plants

4 space – a room facilitating a restful feeling of entering another world; a coherent whole

5 the common – a green, open space allowing vistas and visits

6 the pleasure garden –an enclosed, safe and secluded place

7 festive – a meeting place of festivity and pleasure

8 culture –a historical place facilitating fascination with the course of time

The solution - These garden rooms must not be abstract, unfamiliar or challenging. They need to feel familiar, yet interesting. The garden at Alnarp will be removed from it’s surroundings by a three-meter tall, strictly pruned hedge. The work demanding areas of the garden are found at the entrance, thereafter you enter more pastoral fruit and crops before finally discovering the wild landscapes.

There is the possibility of adding descriptions for each of the 8 rooms if required at a later stage.

Describing the garden and its effectiveness is not easy. Looking at the visual aesthetics, sensory stimulation and layout ignores the important ethereal elements and atmosphere of the spaces. The team at Alnarp firmly believe that every garden is constantly evolving, they embrace all feedback, revising and reworking rooms where necessary. They regularly monitor and measure the individual responses and fine-tune the planting in response to that feedback.

There are many things that affect the overall impression of a garden, not least the time of day and season of the year. These both have profound effects on the way people interact with the space. It is hoped that the Healing Garden at Alnarp will, from the outset, convey a serene feeling of beauty and peacefulness to all visitors, both ill and healthy.

Further reading about this can be found in the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, Experiencing a Garden: A Healing Garden for People Suffering from Burnout Diseases – Ulrika A Stigsdotter and Patrik Grahn