The Benefits of Being Outside

Gardeners have known it for the longest time: Communing with nature is a beneficial and healthy endeavor.

Now there’s research to back it up. According to a recent study at Virginia Tech University, “A view of trees may reduce the recovery time in the hospital after surgery by almost a full day.”
Other studies show that spending time outside in a garden positively affects a person’s emotions and improves a sense of well-being. Access to nature balances circadian rhythms, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress and increases absorption of Vitamin D.

There’s even a name for it: horticultural therapy, and it has become a method of recovery, both physical and mental, for Alzheimer’s patients; the physically handicapped; injured or ill patients; and troubled or abused children. Its benefits are now even being extended to young people with conditions such as autism and Down syndrome.

No one knows the value of gardening better than Pamela Buckman, the manager of The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at The New Orleans Museum of Art. She combines her knowledge of gardening with a Master’s of Social Work to make sure those who visit and/or volunteer at the garden will always find a calming and satisfying experience.

The garden occupies approximately 5 acres in City Park adjacent to the museum, and this November it will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Credit goes to a team headed by architect Lee Ledbetter and his collaborator, landscape architect Brian Sawyer, for the success and tranquil beauty of this lovely oasis.  

It started with a stand of 200-year-old live oaks at one end, a neglected camellia garden, which was once the Men’s Camellia Collection at the other end, and a lagoon meandering smack-dab through the middle of it all. Looking at the now-peaceful landscape, it is difficult to visualize all the work that went into the substructure, which snakes underneath and through the site. It’s amazing so many of the original oak and pine trees still grace the space.

The garden includes 63 sculptures, most of them donated to the museum by The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Foundation. The collection includes works by some of the great master sculptors of the 20th century, such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, as well as works by Louisiana artists Ida Kohlmeyer and George Rodrigue.

“And though it is primarily the green of grass and bushes that serves as a backdrop to the sculptures, you can always find something blooming and something scented here,” says Buckman. “In the spring, the irises are especially dramatic.”

The ornamental plantings include white and purple blooming lilies of the Nile and two varieties of ginger. The ground cover is a combination of holly fern and Asian jasmine, and St. Augustine sod is used for all the lawn areas. A variety of aquatic plants at the lagoon’s edge primarily consist of purple and yellow blooming varieties of the Louisiana irises, yellow flag irises, spider lilies, butterfly irises and horsetails.

Buckman loves all of her duties as garden manager, but working with volunteers is clearly one of her favorite tasks.

“Every day is different,” she says. “Sometimes we need to do trimming, other days weeding or raking pine straw, but whatever they are doing, the volunteers are commingling with nature and getting dirty. The great thing about the garden is you can assign a task and volunteers can finish it, so they experience a visible measure of success. And there is always something to do – the weeds never take a vacation.”

She also works with special groups such as court-ordered nonviolent offenders and clients from The Magnolia School, an organization that provides support to adults with intellectual and other developmental disabilities.

“We like the experience because it gives our clients such a fulfilling feeling,” says Nancy Santolucito, horticulture trainer at the school.

Magnolia also has a therapeutic garden on its campus, accessible to clients who use wheelchairs, walkers or canes. The raised-bed garden is a haven for residents, staff and visitors.
“Our clients also help out at Longue Vue’s garden and at the zoo,” Santolucito says. “Being out in nature offers them a deep sense of well-being.”

And if that’s not enough therapy, Buckman has joined forces with East Jefferson General Hospital’s Wellness Center to offer yoga and tai chi classes. Yoga class is available the first, second and third Saturday of every month in the garden at 8 a.m., and tai chi happens either in the gallery or garden on Mondays from 6 to 7 p.m. The fee is $5 per class and is free to Wellness Center and NOMA members.

When all the therapeutic factors of gardening are combined, one easily sees that gardening truly benefits the body, heart and soul. Gardening constantly reminds us that we are capable of nurturing and cultivating the earth, and through that endeavor we can find true peace and happiness.

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