How gardens can create hope and wellbeing in uncertain times

Portland healthcare expert Teresia Hazen was with a patient 20 years ago when news over the TV relayed that two airliners had crashed into New York City’s World Trade Center. The nursing floor at Legacy Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon went eerily quiet.

On that “traumatizing and horrific” Sept. 11, Hazen, a horticultural therapist, retreated to the hospital’s garden.

“It was silent, there were no planes flying overhead,” she said. “I don’t even think I heard birdsong.”

The desire to be in nature lies deep within human survival. Spending time outdoors, tending to plants and caring for wildlife improves health and wellbeing by alleviating stress, which accelerates the healing process, said Hazen, who specializes in therapeutic gardens.

Being active outside also increases physical activity, connects people to each other and renews the spirit, she added.

During uncertain times, gardeners put their hands into the soil to feel strength. Experts refer to this as “prescribing the outdoors” or “green medicine.”

In April 2020, at the start of shelter-in-place orders to reduce the spread of COVID-19, organic farmer Ian Wilson of Portland Edible Gardens sent a reassuring message to his clients who were shaken by the mysterious coronavirus and fearful of food shortages.

“I believe our gardens will carry us through this difficult time,” said Wilson, whose company offers vegetable garden plans and raised beds. “We plant seeds in times of abundance and in times of scarcity. Our garden’s gifts are too many to name and more generous than we could ever know.”

Each trauma brings a heavy sadness, said Hazen, who was the coordinator of Legacy Health hospitals’ therapeutic garden program for three decades. Now, with the fourth wave of COVID-19, she said people are exhausted; some are filled with rage.

Traumatic experiences can lead to feelings of hopelessness and anxiety, but walking in a garden is one coping strategy to help focus outward and on others, she said.

Portland-based Legacy Health hospital system has 12 green spaces across its campuses specifically designed for healing. The first therapeutic garden debuted at Legacy Bishop Morris Care Center in Northwest Portland in 1991, a decade before 9/11.

“When you’re feeling numb and stunned from major stressors and trauma, you often forget to take care of yourself,” she said. “To be in a normal cycle of the day, it often helps if you experience fresh air, sunshine and other nature benefits. Gardens provide respite and support.”

Larry Cross created a therapeutic setting in his backyard in Southeast Portland to help his husband be safe and comforted while experiencing cognitive decline.

The memory garden, designed to stimulate the senses with colors, scents and the taste of ripe tomatoes, may not slow his partner’s dementia, but it offers “positive smidgens” of mental stimulation, Cross said, referring to research by Portland brain health educator Roger Anunsen.

Cross is “maximizing nature’s positive effects” to help his husband move away from watching TV and “be activated” by sights and sounds outdoors.

Caregivers also benefit. For that reason, Cross is opening his backyard from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 11, to people wanting to see what he calls his Fragrant Matisse Sculpture Park. Here, water features, yellow-orange honeysuckle and other elements were installed to spark all five senses.

He hopes to encourage more do-it-yourselfers to create memory gardens for loved ones with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

Cross’ open house at 7407 S.E. Glenwood St., off Southeast 75th Avenue in the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood, is free. No reservations are required, but every visitor must wear a mask.

Most of his backyard projects used recycled materials and were built on a tight budget. Some were modeled after other memory gardens, which have privacy fencing, nonslip walkways and no toxic plants.

Cross, who relies on a mobility scooter, also designed his yard to be universally accessible with wide paths and a ramp to the elevated wood platform he calls a “rain pavilion.”

The former librarian, elementary teacher and bookkeeper took classes to earn a certificate in accessible and aging-in-place design at Portland Community College.

One of his favorite spots in his backyard is the straw area created for six chickens. “They are fascinating to watch and interact with,” he said, citing studies on the calming presence of animals.

Cross also designed a light-filled studio with two sliding doors and a view of the main water fountain for his husband to see nature, perhaps sew or just sit with their Shih Tzu named Diamond.

Three miles from Cross’ home is the Portland Memory Garden, fenced within the Ed Benedict Park at Southeast 104th Avenue and Powell Boulevard. A pavilion at the entrance serves as a memorable landmark as visitors walk a loop, past raised bed planters.

During the coronavirus, people recognized the importance of creating a sanctuary at their home. Cross hopes the sentiment continues.

“I encourage everyone to create or enhance their own island of tranquility,” he said.

The well-documented benefits of being around greenery – an increased sense of hope as well as improved healing and health – are needed more than ever during the coronavirus pandemic, said horticultural therapist Hazen.

Nature is life-affirming. Seeing a few fresh flowers in a water glass can help restore, renew and relax people, she said.

Here are Hazen’s suggestions to develop a home garden to be even more restorative:

  • Plan for four seasons of sensory stimulation with visual, touch, auditory, smell and edible fruits or vegetables. Pick colorful, feel-good plants such as summer coleus and petunia, fall aster and black-eyed Susan, winter’s fragrant golden Mexican orange and camellia sasanqua, and your favorite spring flowers. Nurture a mix of trees, shrubs, perennials, herbs, annuals and vines.
  • Move your most comfortable chair to a window to enjoy 365 days of activity and notice the seasonal changes among plants and wildlife. Hang up an Audubon-approved birdhouse and a bird or hummingbird feeder, and install a water feature that can be a safe birdbath. Encourage more birds, butterflies and other wildlife with water, diverse plant choices and safe organic practices.
  • Socialize over plants. Shop and study at a garden center to see what’s in season. Meet friends at a garden that has protection from sun and weather. Join a gardening group that meets outdoors. “Take flowers to your neighbor,” said Hazen. “We need to be thinking about others who are suffering now.”
  • Gardening counts as exercise. Stroll around and survey your garden with your morning coffee or at the end of the day. Walk, bend, reach, stoop, stretch, lift, push, pull, stand, sit and do other movements for good balance and to strengthen all muscle groups.
  • Keep it simple. Start small with your plants and maintain the garden you create. It’s all about joy, not making more chores, said Hazen. “Just gather some flowers and place them in water,” she said. “It doesn’t even have to be in a vase. I put marigolds in a tomato paste jar.”

Watch for dates when Legacy Health gardens reopen to the public, announcements of free garden events and garden volunteer information at

— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072

[email protected] | @janeteastman