Healing Gardens For The Soul

By Scott Rothenberger

Public gardens are fast becoming community gardens as more individuals in urban settings turn to Mother Nature to help heal the heart. Living in an area with a wealth of public green places like the Greater Lehigh Valley provides wonderful escapes for families during beautiful sunny days. I’ll take you on a tour of some of the area’s “healing gardens,” as I like to call them, and share with you my insights as a landscape designer as to what makes these gardens wonderful refuges from our daily trials and tribulations.

The Lehigh Valley and its surrounding communities are rich with an amazing assortment of passive gardens such as the Malcolm Gross Rose Garden in West End Allentown and the city’s Historic “West Park” between Turner and Chew and 15th and 17th. These types of public gardens represent “green” places of solitude in the middle of an urban jungle. Both of these gardens have undergone major updating and renovations in the last few years. The Rose Garden has added a new architectural structure to represent an altar for wedding ceremonies and has increased the number of public functions being held there with the addition of events this year for the 2010 SOTA Showhouse. Over the last few years, I have volunteered countless hours working with the city’s Parks Department to extensively increase the “green” status of West Park with a multitude of sustainable perennial gardens. Glenn Neiman, President of the West Park Civic Association, says, “With the introduction of sustainable perennials that provide multiple seasons of interest and color, the city has saved money by not having to replant annuals each spring and fall. As a community we have seen more residents getting involved in keeping the park looking good and just using the park more as a whole. I often witness visitors just sitting on a bench enjoying the view and contemplating life.”

Another example that takes green spaces to the next level, a level that I call an interactive garden, is the physical therapy garden at Good Shepherd Home-Bethlehem. This is a garden that is truly designed to help heal the body and soul. There are potting stations designed for individuals in wheelchairs, there is a gentle ramp to help patients regain the strength to conquer walking an incline, and there is a koi pond for patients and visitors to feed the fish. All of the activities within the garden represent movements that individuals deal with in daily life. The benefit of getting your hands dirty, working with Mother Nature, and watching something grow also helps to heal the heart and soul as well as the muscles of the patients.

In south Allentown, a large Healing Garden with pathways, fountains, benches and beautiful trees and plants is the centerpiece of Good Shepherd’s main campus. “The Good Shepherd Healing Gardens are a soothing place for our patients,” says Frank Hyland, Vice President, Rehabilitation, Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network. “It’s nice to have a beautiful space like this on our campus and in the middle of the city. The Healing Gardens help our patients relax and focus on their recovery.”

Living in an area with a wealth of public green places like the Greater Lehigh Valley  provides wonderful escapes for families during beautiful sunny days.

A garden that is of special interest to me is a garden that I voluntarily designed and implemented for my hometown of Boyertown. The Sandy Neiman Cancer Memorial Garden, located at the home of the annual Boyertown Relay for Life fundraiser, was created for everyone whose lives have been touched by cancer. The garden is a prime example of how communities can take an unattractive macadam spot and not only turn it into a public green space but transform it into a community garden. The garden was built in honor of the late Boyertown native Sandy Neiman who donated much of her time giving back to the community. The concept of the design is reminiscent of two clasping hands of friendship symbolically represented by two intersecting curvilinear walls. The taller wall becomes a retaining wall which is softened by draping plantings; the shorter wall curves around an irregular Pennsylvania Bluestone patio and becomes a sitting wall. As you sit on the lower wall there is a memory poem on the opposite taller wall for viewing. The irregular stone pathway and patio with its tucked-in steppable plantings is symbolic of the trials and tribulations we all face in our lives. The lower sitting wall is designed so that visitors can sit and visit with friends or use the garden to reflect, meditate, pray or to become one with nature. The garden is full of perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees and the garden encompasses multiple seasons of color. Each flowering season there is something pink in bloom, representative of Neiman’s fight against breast cancer. The garden also contains the echinacea hope flower, grown especially for this project by Hopewell Nursery in Boyertown. Echinacea “HOPE” is a perennial coneflower from which proceeds from the sale of this plant are donated to the Susan G. Komen race for a cure. The garden was created in Neiman’s name for her gift of helping others and giving back to the community, but it is for everyone whose life has been touched by cancer by providing a tranquil place for those who seek comfort and peace. This is a survivor’s garden, too. It is a place where survivors can come with their friends, enjoy the garden space and reflect. The great thing about a garden is that brings people together. We had volunteers donating materials, plants, and the funds to build the garden. We had volunteers donate their time to install the garden, and once a month I meet there with a group of volunteers to help with garden maintenance. Many children are also learning about gardening and connecting with Mother Nature through this garden.

Stephanie Cohen of Collegeville, an international writer and lecturer on horticulture subjects, has also dealt with the saddening effects of loss due to cancer. “It was sad and lovely at the same time. Sad because of Sandy’s passing, but lovely because of the wonderful garden,” Cohen said of the creation of this community garden. Cohen applauds the memorial effort and the natural beauty of the garden. “I think it’s just a wonderful tribute to Sandy. I like a garden because of what it represents. Each year, spring comes back and brings hope. We celebrate Easter, which is about birth and renewal. You are doing the same thing in a garden. That way no one will ever forget her,” Cohen said.

Barbara Furman, a health and physical education instructor at Boyertown High School and member of the Boyertown Area Community Wellness Council, collaborated with me to provide the space for the garden. “Sandy was a great fan of Boyertown sports and I understand that she was also a very good athlete in high school,” Furman said. “The memorial garden is a wonderful addition to the community track in Memorial Stadium.”

The garden is open for community use from dawn to dusk every day. Being from Boyertown, it strikes me on a personal level that I am able to share my passion for horticulture and design with the community. What means the most is being able to give back and get other people excited. We have created a space in our hometown for people to come and share. For me it’s all about enhancing people’s lives.

As we venture into our vast array of public green places let’s stop and ask ourselves how we can make a difference, how we can connect with Mother Nature, and how we can help the environment. If we get involved in the process we can help turn public gardens into community gardens, and thus help to heal the heart.

Donations to fund the Cancer Memorial Garden are being accepted through the Boyertown Area Community Wellness Council. Boyertown Area Community Wellness Council serves the entire community in “promoting healthy lifestyles for all” and has been an established non-profit since 2005.

For further information about helping with the effort, contact Scott Rothenberger at [email protected]. “Dirt diggers” welcome!

Scott Rothenberger is an internationally recognized designer from Barto with more than 17 years’ experience in the industry. His work has appeared in the New York Times and in books and magazines across the country. He is the owner of Scott Rothenberger’s PLACE; Interior and Exterior Architecture for living.

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