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Daniel Winterbottom takes a break in the new healing garden he designed at the University of Washington Medical Center, where textural grasses and perennials that change with the seasons create interest amid the concrete — and a soothing escape for patients and staff.
Havens of Healing
Daniel Winterbottom's gardens comfort the stressed-out as well as the sick

CULTIVATED GARDENS have been entwined with human health since the dawn of time, when Mesopotamian gardens were life-giving oases. The earliest gardens were filled with herbs for healing, and fruits and vegetables for sustenance. Garden historian Penelope Hobhouse writes, "The mythical paradise garden is envisaged as a place of perpetual spring where men could live at accord with each other and with animals — a place of perfect peace and plenty."

Gardens as havens of healing and sanctuary are perhaps needed as desperately in today's uncertain world as they were by long-ago travelers through the Persian desert, or early monks in search of curatives for the afflicted. Daniel Winterbottom, associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, designs gardens to soothe the soul and refresh the spirits of the grieving, the sick and the stressed out.

"In hospital settings, healing gardens provide a counterbalance to the issues of death, decline or ill health. Care providers frequently need these spaces as much as patients do," he explains.

Winterbottom's background is in fine arts, and he is passionately interested in the sociology of space, how urban pocket gardens can save a neighborhood, how a tree outside a hospital window can cheer a patient. His commitment was formed from his own experience. When his mother was battling cancer, he spent far more time than he'd care to remember beneath harsh fluorescent lights in pea-green hospital waiting rooms. He noticed how his mother was relaxed by a ride in the country, or even a glimpse of grass outside. Nature's beauty and constancy is comforting to those whose world has been dramatically changed by serious illness.
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A landscape-architecture design/build studio, in consultation with staff and clients, completed three much-used roof-deck gardens at the Cancer Lifeline center near Green Lake.
The largest of the Cancer Lifeline roof decks is called the Earth and Sky Garden, which features raised planters, a trellis overhead for dappled shade, room to gather for classes or discussions, and private corners for contemplation.
Winterbottom and his students have created healing gardens at the Cancer Lifeline center near Green Lake, and at the University of Washington Medical Center. The UW project is in its early stages. But Winterbottom hopes for a sealed greenhouse where people with compromised immune systems can enjoy plants, and for adequate play space for stressed children. "My dream would be for the UW Medical Center to be a therapeutic center instead of just having a healing garden," he says.

Three small gardens for the Cancer Lifeline facility were a UW design/build studio project. The student design team worked closely with staff and clients to understand the challenges that cancer patients face in dealing with raw, spontaneous emotions as well as the effects of treatment. Bare roof decks were transformed into gardens that welcome people seeking a few moments of quiet, provide space for discussion groups, or serve simply as a place to chat or have a cup of tea. The Earth and Sky Garden has a decorative copper privacy screen, the small Reflection Garden centers on a bubbling water feature, and the sunny Celebration Garden features pots of flowers, vines and fragrant herbs. Horticultural therapy classes are held in the gardens, giving clients a chance to get their hands in the soil, planting herbs, bulbs and sunflowers. The gardens have become an integral part of Cancer Lifeline's work; staff and clients are encouraged to deadhead the plants, pick a few flowers, have a picnic or just take a break in whatever garden appeals.

Winterbottom's landscape-architecture students won first prize at the 2002 Northwest Flower & Garden Show for their colorful garden filled with dripping water, found objects and live chickens. Called "Throwaway Spaces," it was a re-creation of a garden made by Puerto Rican immigrants as an expression of their culture. Tiny, variously planted, sustainable and multilayered, it was envisioned as a place to gather, plant and harvest, as well as a refuge during times of change. Winterbottom hopes the recognition their entry received makes the point that gardens are not just a luxury, but essential to our lives.

We believe we nurture our gardens, but the truth is that our gardens in turn nurture us. What are the specific elements that contribute to this sense of well-being?

A good starting place, Winterbottom advises, is to consider who will be using the garden. Some people may need room for a wheelchair or walker. Those suffering from dementia will require well-defined pathways. To soothe the stress of coping with grief and illness, some gardens will want to focus on making a restful environment.

Privacy, both acoustical and physical, is important. A sense of safety and enclosure can be created with sheltering walls, gates, shrubs or trees. People are drawn to oceans and rivers for their calming effects, which can be imitated by a fountain's water music. Shade is often significant in healing gardens because various drugs cause light sensitivities. Trellising, arbors and shade trees all offer respite from the sun, as well as the pleasure of passing from light into semi-darkness. Overhangs shelter us from drizzle or intense sun. A garden will engage more of the senses if fragrant herbs, plants with soft, furred leaves, and bamboo and grasses that rustle in the wind are included. Richly planted, tactile gardens that celebrate seasonal change emphasize life's reassuring cycles while keeping us interested. Multiple outdoor rooms, each with its own threshold, contribute to a feeling of transformation as the journey through the garden unfolds to reveal new environments.

A healing garden isn't just a showpiece, says Winterbottom. "You're not trying to wow people — you're trying to accommodate them."
Winterbottom and a team of University of Washington landscape-architecture students designed a healing garden at a foster home for children with AIDS in New York City. They created three distinct spaces to serve kids from ages 2 to 15, including a small garden for quiet contemplation, a basketball court and karaoke stage for older kids, and a third garden with a grassy slope for younger kids to roll down.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest staff photographer.

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