By Heather Abbott LMHCA

What is it about the garden that offers us such renewal? Recently there has been a focus on “Green experiences”, like forest bathing and eco-psychology, but before that every culture has had odes to spring or the scent of flowers on a sun-drenched summer day. What quality of the garden inspires us to sonnets? What motivates us (or our ideal clients!) to transform ho hum lots into unique oasis gardens? I have experienced the reset and calm that can come from even a few brief minutes in the garden, and I’m intrigued with that “secret elixir” of restoration we can create for ourselves, our clients, and truly, the world. This vibrant garden is a glimpse of the delights we get to embrace everyday with wonder at our fingertips.

Along a fenceline a tall planting of Lion's Tail and Verbena mix with shorter plants such as Salvia Nemorosa and Mango Popsicle knipophia.
A lush garden with Leonotis leonurus(Lion's tail), Verbena Boniaresis, and Salvia nemorosa create a vibrant tapestry.

Attention Restoration Therapy investigates how immersive nature experiences can restore our calm and provide support for mental health. The four pillars of this therapy are that being in natural spaces can lead to clearer concentration, relief from mental fatigue through fascination and wonder and then that leads to the final important goal of reflection and restoration. This way of looking at what gardens invite us into for mental health also offers us insights for design work and what we can create in the community. A sense of escape into a new immersive world is what we should strive to create for our clients. Being invited into a world apart is a pillar of attention restoration theory.

A crucial part of what we guide clients toward with their new garden is a place of being away. It is much harder to have the unanswered emails or clamoring to-do lists keep you hostage when you walk into a vibrant garden. Creating a well-designed garden involves peering into our client’s world and learning what will bring them delight. The Helenium ‘Waltraut’ in this client’s garden reminds them of a trip to Italy they took celebrating their 40th anniversary.

almost 3 foot tall perennial with orange and golden petals and brown centers to the flowers.
Close up picture of Helenium waltraut

The golden colors remind them of the pottery they enjoyed on their trip and as soon as they saw a picture of the flower, they were enchanted. In their case the garden invites them to remember a place that is deeply meaningful to them in another part of the world. There is a reason that a woodland archetype or a meadow aesthetic will appeal to one client and not another. We may never know all the deeper layers of why they love the sparkle of orange flowers or can’t tolerate pale pink. Perhaps they grew up in the prairies and the wider horizon of grasses bring them nostalgia, or maybe azaleas irritate them by reminding them of the cookie-cutter suburban houses in childhood. Increasingly we look to the garden as a refuge from the stresses of everyday life. I hope we all can embrace the garden as a daily invitation to wonder.

Another tenet of this form of therapy is using fascination to restore our overwhelmed nervous systems and find equilibrium. Fascination is an experience where attention isn’t forcefully directed but instead is more subtly evoked. This gentler attention of being in nature is in contrast to the “directed attention” related to executive functioning that we use when we problem solve or consciously put our energy into goals. This directed type of attention can get used up and can be overwhelmed with all the cognitive load of life. The path to recharging is through a less conscious side of our brain that utilizes fascination. It’s the curiosity about that corner of the garden coming into bloom, it’s the feeling of timelessness or flow as someone starts deadheading and tidying up in their garden. It’s a non-pressured invitation that restores attention and allows peaceful reflection on everyday life to bubble up to the surface. It is whimsy and play, the humming of bees, and new blooms every day where we can let fascination give us pause and allow us a chance to recharge.

Over the past few years in my life after cancer the garden has given me much needed respite from the fears of recurrence and other stresses of life. One of my favorite flowers is the Allium and this photo at the Chelsea Flower and Garden Show in 2022 shows how this display invited me into the wonder of the garden.

A smiling woman wears polka dots and stands excitedly next to a dried flower arch of Alliums at the entrance to the Chelsea Flower and Garden Show.
Savoring the wonder and delight in this collection of Allium flowerheads at the Chelsea Flower and Garden Show 2022.

So let’s keep on creating this spring and welcoming our clients and our communities into the restorative power of the garden.