Award-winning designer Matt Keightley, who created the RHS Feel Good Garden in 2018 to mark the NHS’ 70th birthday, believes a contemporary, therapeutic outdoor space provides somewhere we can relax and escape from everyday pressures.

“If we can create something beautiful enough to look at then we can break everyday thought processes. For people suffering from stress, anxiety or depression, if you break that thought process just because there’s something nice to look at, even if it’s momentarily, they will forget those stresses and will become more engaged and interact with the space,” says Keightley, who also designed a Wellbeing Garden at RHS Garden Wisley, inviting visitors to explore the physical and psychological therapeutic benefits of outdoor spaces.


Tips for creating a therapeutic garden

If the idea of a therapeutic garden appeals, here are some of the things you can do in your own garden to help chase those blues away.

1. Go for nostalgia

Therapeutic garden daffoldils
Daffodils can spark memories (Thinkstock/PA)

“Nostalgia plays a massive part in health and wellbeing. Nostalgia planting is completely subjective, but for me, my must-have plant would be rosemary,” says Keightley. “I have such fond memories of my folks’ garden, and you couldn’t walk past a rosemary bush without brushing it with your hands. Interacting with the garden will always help put someone at ease.

“Other nostalgic plants could be as basic as daffodils or bluebells, which may bring memories flooding back and create happy thoughts.”

2. Avoid straight, geometric paths

Therapeutic garden Curving paths can be therapeutic
Curving paths can be therapeutic (Thinkstock/PA)

“Textural changes are crucial, not just in the planting but in the hard landscaping too. We don’t want direct, geometric paths, where people feel forced to go from A to B. It needs to be much more natural and organic in form, so people can move through a space at their own pace without feeling stressed,” suggests Keightley. “I like curvy lines, but there’s no fixed style. I think meandering paths don’t feel forced. They make for a much more comfortable experience.”

3. Create a natural pause

Blue Oat Grass - Helictotrichon sempervirens - ornamental grass in garden setting.
Ornamental grass provides an effective accent in a border (Thinkstock/PA)

“We make pauses in the plantings using a combination of grasses and perennials, which are in stark contrast with evergreen structure. So we have things like rosemary, pittosporum and dwarf pines as a way of putting a break in a bed or punctuating a relatively soft-looking scheme to create excitement in the bed.”

4. Bring in some water

Therapeutic garden water feature
Water features can be especially soothing (Thinkstock/PA)

“The go-to focal point for a wellbeing garden is water. You can use it in a number of ways. A perfectly still body of water can be just as mesmerising and therapeutic as the sound of moving water,” says Keightley. “Some clients tell me they don’t want moving water because it makes them want to go to the toilet.

“With a still sheet of water, you can create an impression that the garden feels bigger because of the reflections. If you have a small space, you can transform pots into mirror pools on different levels, in threes and fives.”

5. Use vertical space with trees

Therapeutic garden trees
Trees can enhance vertical space (Thinkstock/PA)

“In smaller courtyard and urban gardens, use vertical planes, rather than thinking about the terrace and the lawn. The vertical nature of trees gives you a sense of security without enclosing a space,” says Keightley. “It can be quite daunting for people with depression or dementia to go into an enclosed space but at the same time, they need a sense of security. Trees do the best of both. They give you the height, providing dappled shade for shelter, but allow you to retain a view of the garden.”

Recommended: How to choose the right tree for your garden.

6. Create excitement with colour

Bright orange flowers
Bright colours can fuel cheerfulness (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

“People assume that cooler palettes such as blues and whites are calmer, but research shows other colours are helpful for wellbeing too. Yellow is associated with being happy, so yellows and hotter schemes can work.

“Contrasting colours also create interest and excitement in the garden,” adds Keightley. “You could have a cool palette of blues and pinks to purples, then a shock of orange could be that point where you increase excitement in a space – and if you create excitement, people enjoy it! They want to interact and move through the space that much more, chasing that pocket of excitement.”

Recommended: How to grow dahlias in pots.

7. Aim for naturalistic planting

“Be restrained to start with. Select your structural planting – your main grasses or perennials – and stick to that like a glue for the scheme, and do repeat-plant but not in a uniform way. Make it look naturalistic,” Keightley advises. “You need to strike a balance between structure and informality. People feel comforted by seeing ends to the garden and structure in the planting, rather than just grass and perennials.”

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