How to Optimize Garden Design for Well-Being

7 min read

Co-authored by Bethany Harries

No matter how you define your own well-being, it is likely to be enhanced by exposure to nature and by engaging in activities within nature. There is plenty of evidence that already shows the positive impacts that green spaces have for different people across the world. In denser urban areas, fewer opportunities for frequent or regular outings to large parks or nature reserves mean that indoor and outdoor gardens take on an increased significance. Whether privately accessed, community-managed, or institutionally curated, gardens exist in a huge variety of contexts, sizes, and cultures.

While there is a clear evidence base that demonstrates the use of gardens as a potential health promotion tool, there is still a big gap between scientific findings and applied garden design recommendations. Our team at the University of Surrey and the Royal Horticultural Society (UK) conducted a systematic review—a robust synthesis of all relevant and high-quality published evidence following best-practice methodology—with the specific aim of extracting key findings that are translatable to actionable design recommendations for people who have control over their garden spaces (landscape and garden professionals, but also private citizens, office managers, and community leaders). Following stringent inclusion criteria and quality appraisal, the evidence included in the systematic review consists of 17 peer-reviewed articles dating from 1996 to 2019 and published in English. In applying any (or, if possible, all) of the following recommendations, a garden space can be optimized in delivering well-being benefits for its users.

Recommendations for Prioritizing Well-Being in Gardens

We know that gardens and green spaces that are not specifically designed with well-being do still provide health benefits to humans. In addition to this, by identifying the key “active ingredients” of these effects, we can aspire to deliver health benefits more strategically across our living environments. We set out below our evidence-based set of recommendations for anyone who wants to prioritize well-being in their gardens (perhaps “well-being gardens,” “healing gardens,” “therapeutic gardens,” any other health-based outdoor design, or simply a garden that brings joy).

Chalmin-Pui, L.S.

How to Optimise Garden Design for Wellbeing infographic

Source: Chalmin-Pui, L.S.

It’s important to note that these recommendations must follow an initial appraisal of the garden space in terms of resources available and its climate, soil, sun exposure, and ecological context. Working with existing (and forecasted) conditions is crucial to understanding which plants and their intended function will be best for the plot. Another aspect that should underpin the entire process of creating the garden is to share existing examples and co-design with the community that will use it. This will ensure that the garden meets the range of stakeholder needs and provides the best practical opportunities for engagement, sense of ownership, and support.

1. Diversify Planting. Plants are the heart of any garden. As mentioned, planting choice must first be determined by the local environment.

Once these preliminary considerations have been taken into account, the plant palette opens up. Just in the United Kingdom, there are more than 81,000 ornamental plants. Planting variety should be diverse enough to create an experience that will stimulate as many senses as possible through plants with different colors, textures, scents, shapes, tastes, and qualities that will attract birds and pollinators. These aspects are all likely to have instant impacts on our mood. As the garden grows through the seasons, remember to maintain vegetative diversity through seasonal changes by focusing on barks, berries, and stems in winter.

2. Foster Serenity. Any garden users are consciously using gardens as a peaceful and quiet space to relax in. Indeed, gardens can be important spaces to escape from daily hassles.

To protect this sanctuary, serenity can be accentuated with the use of sounds—gently flowing water through a water feature (pond with changing levels, small rill, water fountain), long grasses waving in the breeze, or even wind chimes. Adding plants that provide food for birds (or a bird feeder) will bring in birdsong, which has also been shown to be restorative.

3. Create Distinctive Spaces. No matter the size of the garden, it can be created with different spaces that are maintained and separated for different needs and purposes. For example, needs for privacy and social interaction are constantly changing for even the most balanced individual.

Depending on our emotions, life circumstances, and personalities, we may seek spaces that are calming or invigorating, open or secluded, colorful or muted. Whether using plants, structural elements, or even just turning your head from left to right, dividing spaces allows us to cater to our evolving needs and healthy human range of emotions.

4. Encourage Exploration. A garden should have elements that inspire easy exploration. Stimulating all five senses as a means of discovery can be achieved through planting variety.

Include a diverse range of scented flowers or textured foliage, and encourage garden users to explore and experiment. Especially in an institutional garden setting, visitors may not realize that they are permitted to touch or sniff the plants. Some signage such as plant labels can foster deeper engagement and interaction.

Ensure that the planting choices don’t include toxic or allergenic plants if visitors will be encouraged to touch them, and prioritize plants that are hardy enough to be regularly manipulated. Such interactivity and exploration will engender playfulness for both children and adults, which is likely to be uplifting and restful for the mind.

Environment Essential Reads

If the garden is large enough to need pathways, these should be easy to navigate, curved to create different viewpoints, and invoke a sense of curiosity and surprise. Meandering pathways that link the whole garden together also remove the pressure of choice at an intersection, which is especially helpful for people with dementia. Avoid dead ends, unless this is the deliberate creation of an intimate space.

5. Ensure Accessibility. In addition to the geographical location of the garden and ensuring that it is easy for people of different backgrounds and abilities to find and access, there must be opportunity for a range of activities. An environment becomes restorative if it is compatible with what an individual wants or needs to do.

Accessibility becomes doubly important in contexts such as hospital gardens or retirement homes where wheelchairs or wheeled beds are more commonly used. Avoid steep gradients, stairs, threshold steps, or heavy doors. Moreover, pathways themselves should be built of materials that can be wheeled upon, and do not reflect glare, which may cause eye discomfort. Design guidelines exist that have been specifically developed with disabilities in mind.

6. Celebrate Cultural Significance. A garden that embeds well-being in its design is itself embedded in its local culture and history. Including cultural artifacts to match the individual or community who enjoys the garden can facilitate fascination, belonging, and a sense of safety or familiarity.

Celebrating local cultures can be subtle or immediately visible: stone walling using local techniques, water fountains following old traditions, borrowed views of surrounding buildings, inclusion of indigenous or heirloom plants, memorial trees, plant displays reflecting pertinent symbolism such as pride colors, or artifacts crafted by garden visitors.

Bringing It All Together

These six key design features to optimize well-being are applicable to gardens in any context and of any size. Whether investing in a small home garden or balcony, improving a neglected community space, supporting the creation of a green schoolyard, or creating a garden for a rehabilitation center, aim to incorporate as many evidence-based aspects as possible. The science shows that a garden for well-being is a place with a lasting legacy that welcomes everyone, a hopeful place to experience a healthy range of emotions, and a diverse place of resilient planting.

Bethany Harries is a postgraduate researcher in environmental and health psychology at the University of Surrey, UK.

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