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Notable Books: The Healing Power of Gardening


In The Healing Garden (HarperCollins), Canadian gardening guru Marjorie Harris explores the enduring power of gardens and gardening to heal and to lead us back to ourselves.

This attractive little book is divided into six chapters. The first chapter shows how part of healing comes from developing the ability to listen. "How long has it been since you stood under a tree in spring, leaning up against it to hear the sap flowing?" the author asks.

Chapter 2 traces the history of the healing garden, noting many early gardens were healing gardens. The author reveals how native peoples around the globe learned the properties of plants and used them in their healing rites. This tradition of herbal healing has carried on for thousands of years. According to the World Health Organization, healing herbs remain the only medicine of two-thirds of the world’s population today.

Chapter 3 focuses on the power of horticultural therapy to soothe and heal the soul. The author notes the work of landscape architect Roger Ulrich (Texas A&M University), who reports greenery elicits emotional and physiological responses that help restore the body to health. Other studies have shown once people get their hands into the earth, no matter their age or disability, they gain in self-confidence and a feeling of usefulness that enhances well-being.

Chapter 4, "Wildlife in the Garden", opens with an old Chinese proverb: "A bird does not sing because it has an answer – it sings because it has a song." Harris celebrates the pair of cardinals and the half a dozen house finches that make their home in her Rosa glauca for most of the long winter months. Winterberry and elder also attract birds, as do native grasses. Butterflies come to her downtown Toronto garden too. The giant bloom of Joe-Pye weed attracts the monarchs, as do the thistles, the painted ladies. Butterflies love herbs such as thyme, bronze fennel and mint. Butterflies are also attracted to brightly coloured flowers, especially pure reds and oranges.

In Chapter 5, Harris celebrates "The Sensual Garden." She describes how Chinese scholars would wait for their favourite tree peony to open – sitting for three days doing nothing else except meditating on the beauty of the blooms. Harris delights in the spicy scent of the sage plant with its rough grey leaves. The scent reminds her of Thanksgiving feasts and family gatherings. And she revels in the colours of the garden: the infinite variety of tone and hue. "For the elderly, being able to choose what colour of plants to grow, to handle them on a daily basis, gives them a sense of worth and value," Harris says. "It also awakens in them their own creativity by making these choices."

The last chapter provides practical tips on gardening design. According to Harris, "The healing garden can be a bench under a tree near a border of flowers. A small pot lovingly tended in a window sill or vast acres." In fact, only three things are absolutely necessary: plants, some sunlight and lots of love. "It’s the doing of it, the companionship of a plant, that heals," she notes.

Thinking about planting a healing garden this spring?

Harris suggests you start with the following plants:
English lavender

If you have more space, you can add:

Blue cohosh
Bachelor’s buttons