The Dirt: A room with a natural view

My grandmother "Nana" had a room with a view: A scarlet oak was perfectly framed by her window at the assisted-living home. Nana had moved there when she was 83, leaving behind the Canton abode where she had lived for more than 50 years. I visited her often, but I'm ashamed to admit, I went primarily because I loved the landscaped yard and gardens surrounding her new home.

Soothing coleus: Even the simplest container gardens can reduce stress, say horticultural therapists. Photo by Marvin Bagwell

I loved my Nana, but I have often wondered if I would have stopped by as often if the place had been all concrete and sterile. Perhaps that makes me sound selfish — or some kind of garden weirdo — but think about it: Don't you prefer going places that are nicely landscaped and where just being there reduces your blood pressure and stress levels?

Egyptian doctors were probably the first to use gardens for therapy. They recommended that the royal family walk in the garden to receive a calming effect. Nowadays, horticultural therapy is a certified profession that tries to create a "process through which plants, gardening activities and the innate closeness we feel toward nature are used as vehicles in professionally conducted programs of therapy and rehabilitation," I read.

What most people intrinsically know — that being in nature is a soothing experience — horticultural therapists are bringing to the forefront. They work in hospitals, prisons, retirement centers and public schools — just to name a few places.

My Nana's room was lovely, small and cozy, with a deep windowsill where she kept pots of African violets and sedums artfully arranged. Nana was not a gardener, but she enjoyed her window full of flowers, often pointing to them and saying, "Aren't they pretty? We made those."

She was referring to the local gardening-club ladies, who volunteered their afternoons to create small beds of annuals and help residents arrange flowers in containers and start a vegetable garden. Such clubs have been instrumental in promoting horticultural therapy: In 1951, the National Council of State Gardening Clubs named it as one of the organization's major objectives.

Nana's retirement center was a big, old house with wonderful wood floors, giant windows and a wraparound porch with rocking chairs. The center didn't create the landscaping, though. Most likely, that lovely yard was the work of the first owners, who farmed the land and built the house. I like to think they would be happy that residents like my Nana enjoyed their oaks, sugar maples, magnolias and cypresses.

If you asked a horticultural therapist whether having this beautiful environment was beneficial to my Nana, the answer would be yes. My grandmother benefited both mentally and physically, which is what many studies show: reduced blood pressure, stress and muscle tension when experiencing nature. And merely looking at a picture of a natural scene can provide these benefits. (If you work in a cubicle and have no view, you might want to hang up a picture of your favorite natural scene and stop every so often to look at it.) Further, for patients dealing with long-term health issues in which treatment is invasive and always present, simply going to the sunroom — filled with green and living plants — gives the feeling of a mini-vacation.

This may all strike you as akin to reading a self-help book and thinking, "Well, I knew that. Why didn't I write the book?" It isn't that we don't already know this information, whether consciously or subconsciously: It's that we don't necessarily apply it. Horticultural therapists do. They not only understand the benefit of plants and gardening activities, they use this knowledge to help treat and promote the well-being of others.

I visited my Nana both because I loved her and because I enjoyed the garden. For a little while, I could sit on the porch of that old house, gaze at her green oasis and listen to my Nana talk. For the 20-year-old career girl I was at the time, it was a welcome respite. For my Nana, it was a treasured visit.

I think that worked for both of us.

For more information, visit the American Horticultural Therapy Association Web site, www.ahta.org.

[Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.]

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