Samantha & Ron's Restorative Garden

Samantha & Ron's Restorative Garden

Therese Maring
Jul 27, 2010

Name: Samantha and Ron
Location: Dane County, Wisconsin
Years lived in: 4 years

When we visited Samantha and Ron's Wisconsin home a few months ago, their garden wasn't in full bloom. (That hardly seems fair to a landscape architect and a horticulturist.) Their outdoor space is now so inspiring—alternately peaceful, exotic, and energizing—that we've come back to see it in its lush prime. Samantha specializes in creating restorative gardens for healthcare facilities; Ron is an imaginative horticulturist with a nursery business adjacent to their home. But even non-professionals can learn from this couple's creative style.


Whether you live in the city, country, or somewhere in between, you've experienced the healing power of nature. The sight of a colorful hanging basket lifts your spirits. You feel stressed, so you take a walk outside to relax. If you've done either of those things, you understand restorative gardening, the practice of designing spaces that bring peace and stimulate healing. While 20th-century healthcare focused on sterile environments, there is now a more holistic interest in meeting people's needs. This includes incorporating restorative gardens in places like hospitals, oncology centers, and Alzheimer's facilities.

Healthcare research shows that properly designed garden spaces can help patients reduce stress and encourage well-being. The right environment can offer people opportunities for privacy or for supportive socializing, a sense of control, exercise, and a positive distraction during stressful times.

Granted, not everyone has acres of space (or their own Bobcat) to work with. But Samantha suggests we can all make our outdoor spaces more relaxing and restorative by thinking about:

  • Earth: incorporate as much variety and lushness as you can in your vegetation, especially in a smaller space. Use boulders, stones, and large pots to elicit feelings of stability.
  • Water: use even a small water feature. There are many free-standing styles available. Moving water is calming and brings feelings of abundance.
  • Fire: yes, firepits are great, but don't forget to provide shade from fiery summer sun. Incorporating lanterns or lights to illuminate paths and points of interest can also have a positive impact.
  • Air: breathe deep and take in the fresh air! You can make a summer breeze tangible through the use of hanging textiles. Ron likes to bring home fabrics from overseas travel; those colorful pieces often turn into exotic banners and flags.
  • Space: use moveable furniture so you can create an intimate space or a more social one, depending on your needs. Try to carve out small niches or garden "rooms" to add privacy and peacefulness. If you have a smaller space, plant a strolling garden along the side of a house or garage.

You don't have to have a big space to make a big impact. "It's the sense of design and appropriately located, aesthetically pleasing plants that make the space, along with personalized details," says Samantha. "Place some fun art on a fence, or create your own art with found material." Painting a wall or fence with a bright color can be energizing. Container gardens like those Ron creates can also do the trick. Try using small evergreens, perennials and annuals for color, and ornamental grasses for texture and movement.

And have a sense of humor! A whoopee cushion on the chaise lounge is probably not appropriate, but you'll see in Samantha and Ron's garden that they know not to always take themselves seriously.

The couple's best advice may be the most basic: turn off the air conditioner and get outside. Just the act of being in nature is a stress reducer. Samantha quotes John Muir: "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul."

Re-Nest Survey:

My/Our style: Our style could be considered native midwest meets naturalized Asian.

Inspiration: Our inspiration comes from a variety of sources. I am a landscape architect and Ron is a horticultural grower. We always have stacks of design magazines and growers' catalogues to glean ideas from. We also enjoy international travel and have gotten much of our inspiration from Asian travels.

Goals for our garden: Our goal is to just keep having fun. We aren't very good at sitting around, so the garden offers endless opportunities to be creatively active. When we do sit down and relax or have friends over, there is no better place than in the garden.

Best examples of restorative spaces: Our whole garden is restorative. It is a place for activity, for relaxing, viewing, partying, contemplating, meditating, and sharing with others. It the place where we "live" outside, no matter what the season.

Favorite elements: There are so many wonderful elements, including the perennial flowers that Ron grows, large evergreen trees we spaded in, water features and the VooDoo Lounge. However, this year's creation of the red torii archway really tops them all.

Biggest challenge: The biggest challenge, considering our work load during the summer, is the maintenance. Weeding of the space requires constant cycling around the garden to keep up.

What friends say: Our friends always enjoy visiting the garden. There is a great bocce ball course on the lawn that circumvents the house and is always a component of our parties. Our neighbors bring their three young children over often, because there is always something to explore like flowers, water, the bridge to run back and forth over, and vegetables to harvest.

Green elements/initiatives: The VooDoo Lounge is built of reclaimed lumber and metal siding. All trellis structures are created from reclaimed Douglas fir and scrap greenhouse polycarbonate. Brick pavers are salvaged from the removal of an old roadway. The old barn foundation was saved and the concrete stained to create the Paradise Garden space. Boulders and stones are from local farm fields. The large water feature trough is a salvaged steel H-beam. Most of the perennial plants and ornamental grasses are leftovers or unsalable plants from our nursery.

(Thanks, Samantha and Ron!)

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(Images: Therese Maring)

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