An Ever-Changing Therapy Garden
After Sue's husband was admitted to the hospital in a near coma from diabetes, she turned to gardening to create a place of rest and revival to help him heal.
Sue Ingraham had known she’d wanted to garden for some time. “When my youngest daughter was little, she picked all the neighbors’ flowers,” she laughs. “I knew we’d have to have a garden for her, so they wouldn’t all hate me.” Though she hadn’t gardened in any serious way before then, after that eventful week, “my whole world just shifted,” she says. She knew she wanted to focus her energies closer to home while she helped her husband convalesce, and creating a therapeutic garden “was a way to make something beautiful out of something hard and ugly,” Ingraham says.
Most people would feel intimidated by the thought of creating a garden from scratch on a modest suburban lot, much less on the third of an acre Ingraham has, but she just jumped right in. “We started at one end and did a section at a time,” she says. When things didn’t work out, Ingraham enjoyed the usual gardener’s dance of transplanting and shifting elements around until they worked. “I tell my neighbors, if you don’t like it, just move it—you really have nothing to lose,” she says.
One of the first challenges was creating a sense of privacy. “My husband’s a very private person, and our garden was surrounded by a cyclone fence, so I needed to create a place for him where it didn’t feel like a fishbowl in order for him to feel okay going outside,” she says. “I also wanted a feeling of depth to the garden, that it’s not just a plot, but a place where you can go, walk around on paths, and kind of feel like you’re lost out there.”
“With the way we created the garden, you can stroll around the perimeter on a grassy trail, or you can go around the middle section of the garden on the slate pathways and walk around each garden bed or through the vegetable garden,” says Ingraham. When you are staying close to home for rest and recovery, it’s lovely to feel as though you have your own private park, and creating a series of garden rooms, or different experiences as you walk down each path, makes the landscape feel more expansive than it actually is.
Integral to that sense of expansiveness is having each area of the garden be ever-changing throughout the seasons. “I wanted it to change its look month to month, so it feels like a whole new place every month,” Ingraham says. “In spring, there are flowers and fragrance; it’s an olfactory experience. There’s honeysuckle around the borders of the yard, Grape Candy iris, and lilac. Something about all those smells takes me back to my childhood, and there’s a happiness there—it just makes life good.”
Spring favorites include witch hazel (Hamamelis), Lenten rose (Helleborus), spring bulbs like tulips and daffodils, lilac, bleeding heart (Dicentra), forsythia, and foxglove (Digitalis). The white puffs on her Washington hawthorn tree (Crataegus phaenopyrum) and the classic blooms of dogwood (Cornus) provide interest from above.
Summer’s delights are more visual. “By July, it’s like a jungle out there. Echinacea, sedum, tabletop yarrow—I love it because it’s so prolific, with lots of texture, color and interest,” she says. To make sense of that explosion of color, Ingraham pays careful attention to texture. One good textural combination is sedum with lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina), because the smooth surface and smaller leaves of the sedums make such an interesting contrast with the large, fuzzy leaves of lamb’s ears.
Summer-blooming plants in Ingraham’s garden include goldenrain tree (Koelreuteria), mock orange (Philadelphus), Spirea ‘Bridal Veil’, bee balm (Monarda), bellflower (Campanula), wallflower (Erysimum), Russian sage (Perovskia), rose of Sharon (Hibiscus), speedwell (Veronica), gay feather (Liatris), Jupiter’s beard (Centranthus), and ornamental sages (Salvia).
In fall, fragrance again competes with color for center stage. “There’s more earthy scent in the air; I can smell the herbs, and the vegetables ready to be harvested.” Ingraham’s garden is also packed full of shrubs and trees with beautiful fall color. Washington hawthorn shines again with orangey-yellow foliage, the dogwood trees turn red, and redbud (Cercis), mountain ash (Sorbus), lilac, smoketree (Cotinus), and witch hazel all show stunning color as the weather cools.
Ingraham grows a large selection of fragrant herbs including rosemary, thyme, sage, chives, tarragon, oregano, lemon balm, catnip, chamomile, dill, fennel, garlic chives, marjoram, and parsley.
Winter’s appeal is more stark and architectural. Here, the framework of the garden becomes apparent. As summer-blooming perennials crumple to the ground in dormancy, the branching habit of trees and shrubs draws the eye upward, while the few plants left standing such as Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ add interesting puffs and mounds to the winter landscape. Arbors, trellises, and posts marking the pathways give a permanent sense of the structure and layout of the garden.
Having a garden that feels new every day is key to creating a healing space in which to recuperate, and another aspect of that is inviting life into the garden. The lively flutters and scuffles of birds and other small wildlife add a sense of awe and wonder to the landscape. “We get quail, pheasants, and any kind of bird you can think of,” says Ingraham. “I’ve learned not to prune things down in winter so birds can shelter from local hawks in our brush.” Pruning late not only provides shelter, but also leaves seed heads and berries for birds to find through the toughest parts of the year.
Ingraham also provides a restful place for a local stray cat. “I put a heating pad in the garden for him in winter,” she says. The little stray and her own cat have found special places to nap around the garden.
Creating a garden this beautiful is a labor of love. While designing, Ingraham would visit nurseries which carried locally-grown plants, which she credits to the year-round success of her garden. “I’d go every week to see what was blooming,” she says. Because the plants weren’t shipped in from another part of the state, she was able to develop an accurate idea of what would look good at every time of year.
Beyond the thought put into the design, the work involved in creating the garden proved to be a healing experience as well. “My husband’s not a gardener, but working in the garden really helped him. I would give him a project to do, and it might take two to three months to finish because he could only do 15 minutes at a time, but it felt good for him to be a part of the process.” He was able to accomplish some projects that required heavier lifting than she would have been able to do on her own.
Of course, a garden is never truly finished. It’s apparent from the impeccably-clipped thyme around the path stones and the perfectly-in-their-place perennials that Ingraham takes a great deal of pleasure in maintaining her exquisite landscape. She says, “I love being outside, playing in the dirt—and even making dirt!”
For Ingraham, the garden has been a place of respite and growth. “Sometimes when life gets really ugly, if you get to work and focus on something, it helps to not let the ugly take control. By working in the garden, I was able to focus on creating something beautiful, and at the same time it allowed me to stay close to home and be near my husband when he needed me.”