A Brief History of Hospital Gardens

Hey, it’s Kat again. In today’s guest post, I’ll be talking about the history of hospital gardens as we know them today.

Tracing the history of hospital gardens shows us that there is a common thread of belief in the importance of fresh air, sunshine, access to nature and working the land as positive contributions to the healing process.

Healing gardens have long since served as places for recovery; for the restoration of the mind, soul and body. Monastery settings in the Middle Ages were the first instances where a garden was specifically incorporated as a part of the healing environment.

These spaces served as places for contemplation as well as for growing vegetables, fruits and herbs.

The Cloisters in New York City showcase a traditional monastic courtyard garden. Image: Kat Shiffler

A document believed to have been written by a monk in the early part of the ninth century describes a plan of an ideal garden for the Benedictine Monastery of Saint Gall in Switzerland, laying out many of the same formal features that show up in healing gardens today: intersecting paths for contemplative walking, a well or fountain, an herb garden, a green “court” or lawn.

In addition, outside the monastery’s walls there were also several acres of crops to supply necessary food for clergy, workers, visitors and the poor.

The Monastery of St. Gall was an early healing landscape. Image: Alarmy.com

The Church itself was instrumental in the establishment of hospitals during the Middle Ages that have influenced the delivery of healthcare through the centuries.

Later, the religious connection between spiritual healing and the garden began to fade and give way to a much more human-centered built environment. As hospitals developed, the formal cloistered garden features were often replaced by an open area for patients to walk and take in the sunshine and fresh air.

Some progressive hospitals that primarily cared for people with mental illness placed a greater emphasis on the active work of tending to gardens and fields. A prominent example is that of the Hospital at Zaragossa in fifteenth-century Spain. At this hospital, a routine of normal daily activities, including gardening, was encouraged for patients who were able—rather than confining them as was the custom at the time.

German horticultural theorist Christian Cay Lorenz wrote some of the first recommendations for hospital garden design at the end of the eighteenth century:

“The garden should be directly connected to the hospital… A view from the window into blooming and happy scenes will invigorate the patient… [and] encourages patients to take a walk… The plantings should wind along dry paths, which offer benches… The spaces between could have beautiful lawns and colorful flower beds… Noisy brooks could run through flowery fields… A hospital garden should have everything to enjoy nature and to promote a healthy life.”

Classic open-air hospital design at Hospital del Salvador in Santiago, Chile. Image: Wikipedia

Florence Nightingale, the founder of the modern nursing profession, stressed the importance of fresh air and natural sunlight on the well-being and healing of patients in her landmark, Notes on Nursing published in 1859. She described the value of plants and outdoor spaces in the healing process,

“People say the effect is only on the mind. It is no such thing. The effect is on the body too.”

Florence Nightingale, Notes on Nursing

Throughout Victorian and Edwardian periods, green spaces in hospitals were seen as places for healing. But in the decades the followed, priorities in hospital construction changed; the industrial revolution and two World Wars took place. Park areas were replaced by parking lots.

But in 1984 a study by American psychologist Roger Ulrich provoked a renaissance in the hospital garden movement. Ulrich showed that patients with views of the outdoors from their hospital bed recovered faster after surgery, and spent less time in the hospital than those who did not have an outdoor view. Ulrich has gone on to publish widely on the health benefits of nature:

“Just looking at an image of nature could be healing”.

Roger Ulrich, ‘Forest Bathing’: How Microdosing on Nature Can Help With Stress

Today there are many beautiful contemporary examples of outdoor hospital environments that promote healing through a connection to plants. These spaces are once again being seen as critical for health and well-being. Working farms at hospitals, however, continue to be somewhat rare—a growing part of the overall movement to create spaces that heal.

A contemporary courtyard garden at Great Ormond Street Hospital, London designed by Chris Beardshaw. Image: The Telegraph

Hospital gardens provide a natural and calming view, stimulate the senses of therapy patients, provide restoration and relaxation for visitors and staff—and have the potential to grow healthy food for surrounding communities.

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