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Designing a healing garden

Create a soothing and restorative garden space with tips from garden designer Robert Myers

Now, more than ever, we're appreciating just how important gardens are to our physical and mental wellbeing. Robert Myers talks us through some of the principles for designing healing or restorative spaces in our own gardens.

Celebrating modern day nursing

With what seems now like remarkable timing, we were designing a show garden for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2020, with sponsors The Burdett Trust, to celebrate modern day nursing and commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale. This courtyard garden, designed for an imaginary new hospital, would reflect the idea that the shortest road to recovery leads through a garden.

Uplifting sensory spaces

We had also explored ideas relating to healing gardens when we designed a prospective garden for Parkinson’s UK for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2017. Titled ‘Dancing in the Garden’, the design featured a contemplative and uplifting space that appealed to all the senses – with plants and sculptures that danced in the breeze, scented flowers and moving water to catch the light and create tranquil sound. Visitors could walk barefoot through shallow pools and over pebble paths as they moved through the garden beneath trees.

© RCA

It’s in our nature

Scientific research is now backing up what garden designers have long understood about specific garden elements that encourage recovery from physical and mental fatigue. Evolutionary biology even influences our responses to landscapes. People prefer views that are reminiscent of the savannas where humans evolved. Throughout human history, trees and water have signalled an oasis, while flowering plants have been a sign of possible food.

© Alex Ramsey
Garden view at The Freeth, Herefordshire

Top tips for designing your own healing garden

Keep it green

The essence of a restorative garden space is that it should be predominantly green. Create vistas through trees and include plenty of textured, multi-layered greenery. Trees that cast dappled shade create an appealing natural feature. Add naturalistic planting beneath for an extra layer of green.

© Sabina Rüber
Naturalistic layers of planting in ‘A Cadogan Garden’, RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2008

Make it stimulating

Add reflective or gently moving water, scented plants, shaded alcoves and places to sit and talk. Thread the scheme with paths for taking gentle walks and use moveable furniture to allow for convivial and flexible groupings.

The RHS relies on our members and donors so we can look after our Gardens, inspire children to have a passion for plants, train the next generation of gardeners and find solutions to the environmental problems facing our planet. Find out more

The wonder of water

The addition of an expansive reflecting pool would be ideal, but if space is short, a small bowl or trough of still water will reflect the sky and plants around it and attract wildlife. Be careful not to install water features that might ‘drip’ annoyingly, instead choose those with soothing water sounds.

© Allan Pollok-Morris
Water feature for ‘Cancer Research UK Garden’, RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2010

Engage all the senses

Gardens that can be seen, touched, smelled and listened to are the most soothing. You can create a softer, moving landscape simply by letting some of your grass grow longer or by planting a patch of meadow.

Start with what you have

You can create a restorative garden around a group of existing trees – or even just one. The idea is to build a naturalistic space gradually over time, either by enhancing and adding to the natural flora or building up layers of planting alongside paths and sitting places.

© Alex Ramsey
Planting and path from a Buckinghamshire garden

Share your space

Insects and birds will animate your space and deepen your enjoyment of it. Design and plant with local wildlife in mind, and allow everything to be just a little more wild and messy. Less lawn mowing, more relaxing!


Robert Myers Associates

robertmyers-associates.co.uk | 01885 227377

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.