Planting scented herbs and flowers are great for hospice facilities, explains Marcus. Since smell is one of the last senses to leave before death, it is appropriate to include fragrant plants such as lavender and rosemary, and fragrant climbers such as jasmine, clematis, and wisteria—especially near the windows of patient rooms,” she writes in Therapeutic Landscapes. “The inclusion of aromatic herbs such as sage, thyme, and lemon balm along pathways invites those in the garden to pick and smell them.” She warns against annuals, which need to be taken away when they decay after one season.

After studying thousands of cases, Marcus believes that a garden’s healing power rests in its ability to calm frayed nerves. “In a hospital setting, most people are stressed, to some degree. These could be outpatients waiting for a prognosis, visitors waiting for a loved one in surgery, nursing staff experiencing burnout on a break from work,” she explains to Quartz. “The evidence suggests that moving from a stressful environment into a natural or semi-natural outdoor space can help lower blood pressure and reduce stress hormones.”

Image for article titled The science behind why people turn to gardening to cope with stress

Covid home gardening and hope for black thumbs

Marcus says that those who feel anxious about being marooned indoors during the pandemic might benefit from connecting with the soil, whether it’s in a garden bed, nearby park, or apartment pot plant. “Feeling the sun, breathing fresh air, maybe hearing birdsong, and surrounded by a variety of shades of green—all of these can add up to a stress-reducing experience similar to that experienced by people in a hospital setting,” she explains.

Portrait of landscape architect Clare Cooper Marcus,
Clare Cooper Marcus
Image: University of California, Berkeley

For those thinking about starting a home garden, Marcus recommends choosing plants that appeal to our five senses. “There are things you want to smell, maybe plant leaves that you want to touch, things to pick and eat, things to listen to,” she says. “There should also ideally be a variety of places to sit in the sun or in the shade, depending on the time of day and the season.” As a general rule, one should allocate 70% of the space for greenery and the rest for hard surfaces like a path or a patio.

Unless you’re into competitive gardening, there’s no need to fret about growing prize-winning petunias, perfect lawns, or gigantic vegetables. “Regardless of whether a garden might garner praise in professional design journals as ‘good’ design, the environment will qualify as bad or failed design in healthcare terms if it is found to produce negative reactions,” writes Ulrich in Healing Gardens. Ultimately, it’s less about how a garden looks and more about how it makes you feel.

Even those who believe that they’re cursed with a black thumb can get something to grow, assures Marcus. “Planting radishes is a good start as they germinate quickly and offer something to munch on. Buying herb plants from a nursery—parsley, basil, oregano—then all you have to do is keep them watered, and you can clip off sprigs to use in cooking,” she suggests. “Marigold or nasturtium seeds are very easy to germinate and you will quickly have flowers. Depending on the climatic region where a person lives, buying bulbs at a plant nursery, putting them in a pot, watching them come up, and then flower can be a very appealing experience.”

Heeding the science of therapeutic gardens, we might glimpse what the 12th century Benedictine mystic Hildegard von Bingen called viriditas, a “greening” regenerative force that can mend the mind, body, and soul.

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.