How Does a Healing Garden Grow?

A healing garden at this Washington SNF builds connections with nature.

It is morning in the occupational therapy clinic at Anderson House, a skilled nursing facility in Shoreline, WA.

Two occupational therapists are working with patients. One patient is working on functional leg strength, standing with his hands on a tall table. He is looking straight ahead out the window at a squirrel that is trying to eat corn from a pinwheel-shaped feeder on a tree. The antics of the squirrel distract him from the discomfort in his legs.

A birdbath sits on the table in the healing garden. A bottle with ice is hung above it so that fresh water drips into the birdbath.

The other therapist is working with a woman who has had a stroke. The therapist is encouraging this patient with a visual neglect to look to her weakened side by turning the wheelchair so she has to look to the left to see some blue jays at a peanut feeder.

Typically, healing gardens appeal to the senses with vibrant flowers, edible vegetables and fragrant plants. But a healing garden may also serve to connect clients/patients with wildlife, such as birds and small mammals, or colorful insects, such as butterflies. Many patients at Anderson House have pets, and feel a connection with all kinds of animals. Some feed birds and squirrels themselves at home and consider it a comfortingly familiar and favorite pastime.

The healing garden outside the occupational therapy window at Anderson House was created with that goal in mind, to facilitate the patients' connections with local wildlife, particularly the birds and squirrels.

An Idea Blooms
The space behind the OT clinic was an abandoned area where old furniture was stacked up against the wall. There was very little out there: weeds, a pine tree and some shrubs against the cyclone fence. With the permission and support of Anderson House's owners, the garden was created.

A hummingbird feeder sits atop a red pole; fushia is planted around the base.

A maintenance man weed whacked down the weeds, and the staff added some items to attract birds and squirrels:

  • A bird-seed feeder was hung from the eves of the building.
  • A pole with a peanut basket was installed.
  • A three-ear dried corn feeder was attached to the pine tree.
  • A birdbath was placed on an abandoned table, and a plastic bottle with ice in it hangs over the birdbath to gradually drip as it melts.
  • A suet feeder attracts chickadees, flickers and downy woodpeckers.
  • A hummingbird feeder was hung from a red pole to increase visibility for both the birds and the patients; fuchsia shrubs were planted at the base to increase the desirability to the birds.
  • A solar-powered electronic butterfly jitters in a circle, in a pot of marigolds and petunias nearby.

Patients planted daffodils and tulips in pots that were set outside. In the spring they added welcome color. Patients also planted nasturtium and wildflower seeds in pots that were set on the table. Watching them grow daily has also been part of the purpose of the garden.

Squirrels discovered the food almost immediately. Soon after, the regional Stellar jays discovered both the peanuts and the corn.

Bluejays feast on peanuts.

Fruits of the Garden
Selected patients are involved in the maintenance of the garden. Some stand or sit to pot bulbs or plant bedding flowers, such as petunias, in pots that are then carried out to the garden. Patients who are steadier on their feet and working on functional balance or UE function follow the therapist out back to stand and smear peanut butter on the tree trunk for the squirrels and nut-eating birds. A patient can stand at the sink to clean out the hummingbird feeder, then mix a new batch of nectar. As they work, they talk about their bird-watching activities at home.

Others sit at the clinic window and watch.

Squirrels enjoy the three-ear dried corn feeder attached to the tree.

"It's relaxing," says one patient, who has walked down to the OT clinic by himself, just to sit and watch the birds.

"It's comedy," says another, watching two plump squirrels both try to get into the peanut feeder at the same time.

"It's like Wild Kingdom," says someone, pointing out a neighborhood cat stalking a squirrel.

"It makes her smile," says the husband of a patient with a brain injury. He brings her down to the clinic everyday just to look out the window.

A project planned this December is to decorate a feeder Christmas tree, potted and placed in the garden. Patients of all abilities can spread peanut butter onto pinecones, and then roll them in birdseed. Others can string cranberries and orange slices for fruit-eating animals.

Jeanne Shepard, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist at Anderson House, a skilled nursing facility in Shoreline, WA.


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