The Healing Power of Gardens

The irony that a worldwide pandemic should be the reason behind the cancellation of an RHS Chelsea Show garden to celebrate Florence Nightingale, and all she did in advocating the importance of cleanliness in fighting infection, is not lost on us. But being in lockdown has also reminded us of the therapeutic value of gardens and green space – something else Florence Nightingale was an ardent believer in.

A lover of the great outdoors, her insights into the importance of fresh air, sunlight and green space were well ahead of her time and the RHS Chelsea garden, designed by Robert Myers, was to have been as much a celebration of modern-day nursing, as it was a celebration of the restorative power of nature.

In an article for the Telegraph, Robert Myers revealed his tips for creating a healing garden in our own outdoor spaces, something we might all benefit from as we wait for the current storm to pass. He recommends plenty of textured and multi-layered greenery, reflective and gently moving water, scented plants and places to sit and talk; while in his Chelsea garden he planned to include vibrant plants such as foxgloves and peonies which Nightingale herself recommended for the improvement of health and well-being.  You can read the article here.

James Smith, Design Director at Landscape Company Bowles & Wyer has also written about creating a restorative garden in Homes & Gardens. He suggests including fragrant plants such as scented geraniums, lavender and lilac; wildflower meadows and grasses for their seasonality and gentle movement and ponds for the soothing effect of water.

Here are James’s top tips:



The essence of a restorative garden is that it should engage all the senses.  Fragrant plants help to evoke memories and can have a calming effect, especially if positioned close to path edges. Try scented geraniums, lavender, lilac and herbs such as rosemary, lemon verbena and mint.

Seasonality is also important.  There is something special about seeing new plants emerging in Spring, the arrival of wild flowers in Summer and the beauty of spent flowerheads or leaves in the Autumn and Winter.

And movement can play a key role too, such as blocks of tall grasses swaying gently in the breeze or the leaves on trees rustling on a windy day.  Grasses such as Miscantus ‘Morning Light’, Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, Pennisetum ‘Hameln’ and Poa labillardieri are all good or try Sporobolus heterolepis known to smell like popcorn when in bloom.



All gardens should provide a place to sit and contemplate, whether that’s a bench, bean bag or hammock. Simply looking out of the window at a bench can help you imagine yourself sitting there amongst the planting and encourage you to get up and go out.

We like to position seating in key areas, sometimes where planting gives protection and privacy, and always where there is a good view of the surrounding space allowing for relaxation or providing somewhere to sit and talk.  Having tall planting nearby, or putting planting in raised beds helps to further connect people with nature.



Both water and fire can be mesmerising in equal measure.  Watching and listening to them can provide a meditative and soothing experience and help recovery from physical or mental fatigue.

They don’t need to be complex either, quite often the simpler they are, the more effective they can be. Weathered steel dishes or other vessels are very popular and can be used for both purposes. Fire can help to extend the use of the garden into the colder months or well after the sun has disappeared on a summer’s day, while a still body of water is great for creating reflections and bringing the sky down into a space, no matter how large or small.  If positioned carefully near trees you will also see fantastic reflections on a calm day.



Restraining your colour palette to different shades of green will immediately give your garden a more tranquil feel.  Green is the ultimate colour for relaxation forcing your eye to  wander more slowly over the space.  Hedges, lawns and topiary can all be used, as well as green flowers and foliage, to create a rich tapestry of textures, shapes and leaf forms adding to the restorative effect.



Restorative spaces should cater for everyone, young and old.  The sound of happy children can help lift spirits so try incorporating simple elements like stepping stones through planting or swing seats to add an element of fun.  Remember, a restorative garden should be a safe haven for all the family, whether that means a place to ponder or a space to play.

Images:  Gardens by Bowles & Wyer