Why is gardening so popular? Homegrown vegetables, delightful flowers and pleasant landscapes might be reason enough, but our affinity for nature apparently goes much deeper, and a Fargo clinic’s healing garden is fostering the connection.

Our love of nature might be hardwired into our genes. Researchers studying the healing effects of gardens theorize that humans respond favorably to nature because we evolved with nature. Nature has been good to humans, feeding and clothing us, creating an ingrained bond.

As an example of that bond, the University of Minnesota reports that after a stressful event, images of nature quickly produce a calming effect. Within three to four minutes after viewing nature, blood pressure, respiration rate, brain activity and stress hormones all decrease, and mood improves. How can these benefits be cultivated? Healing gardens are an increasingly popular way.

What is a healing garden? The term is used for a space purposely planned and planted by a health care facility to provide a place of refuge and promote healing in patients, families and staff. The space can give relief from symptoms, reduce stress and improve overall sense of well-being and hopefulness, according to the University of Minnesota.

Healing gardens provide quiet spaces for reflection. Photo courtesy of Chrysalis Behavioral Health Services and Training Center / Special to The Forum
Healing gardens provide quiet spaces for reflection. Photo courtesy of Chrysalis Behavioral Health Services and Training Center / Special to The Forum

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Dr. Angela Cavett is developing just such a healing garden at the counseling office of Chrysalis Behavioral Health Services and Training Center in south Fargo. The gardens physically got started just two summers ago, but are already beautiful and highly utilized.

Cavett says her idea to create a healing garden comes from a concept that goes back thousands of years and across cultures. She adds, “There’s slowly beginning to be a movement toward having gardens as part of hospitals, schools and prisons.”

Cavett’s love of gardening began when she was a child. “My grandma, Luella Potter, Elliot, N.D., gardened and included me in that experience. Her gardens were so very healing to her and all who knew her.

“When, as a midcareer psychologist, I started thinking about what REALLY helps people when they are in emotional crises or when they are grieving or when they need to process trauma, I realize my training in evidence-based practice is extremely important and yet things like gardens, yoga, drumming, and cooking all contribute as well.

“At Chrysalis, I want the healing garden to be part of that vision of creating a sacred place where people come. The gardens feel safe for those who may not easily experience the feeling of safety.”

Healing gardens engage all the senses. Photo courtesy of Chrysalis Behavioral Health Services and Training Center / Special to The Forum
Healing gardens engage all the senses. Photo courtesy of Chrysalis Behavioral Health Services and Training Center / Special to The Forum

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The clinic's healing garden actually is four separate gardens, which Cavett calls rooms, each with a special purpose. One is a spiritual garden which includes a labyrinth and contemplation bench.

A second garden room is for groups of people such as suicide survivors. This garden has apple trees, blueberries and a stretch of black-eyed Susans. Cavett says, “The seating is super comfy in this area so that people feel that being together in the space will be relaxing while they connect.”

The third room is the butterfly garden which includes a small patio with rocking benches facing each other surrounded by perennial flowers and shrubs. Cavett says, “This space is ideal for couples therapy or grief work or any time an intimate space is needed to connect with another person in a natural setting.”

The fourth garden room includes many things, and Cavett calls it the Active and Sensory Garden. It contains a butterfly nursery with milkweed, a shed with games to play, a sensory garden, raspberry patch and a playground. One corner has lilacs planted in a half circle and as the lilacs grow, children will have a semi-contained, fortlike space in which to feel safe. There are benches and a large swing for couples or parent and child.

A monarch caterpillar feeds on milkweed in the healing garden. Photo courtesy of Chrysalis Behavioral Health Services and Training Center / Special to The Forum
A monarch caterpillar feeds on milkweed in the healing garden. Photo courtesy of Chrysalis Behavioral Health Services and Training Center / Special to The Forum

The gardens are well utilized, and Cavett says, “We take individual clients into the gardens throughout the day, as well as groups throughout the summer, including suicide survivors, a group for those impacted by infertility, a loss and grief group, a neuroscience-informed parenting group and a mindfulness meditation group.”

To protect confidentiality of patients, the clinic doesn’t allow the public free access to the gardens, but Cavett often gives tours when contacted. “It seems someone wants to tour the gardens most weekend days of the summer,” Cavett adds.

More information about Chrysalis Behavioral Health Services can be found on their website https://www.chrysalispc.com/.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.