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Nearly every day Carol Roberge needs a nature fix.
When she can, she drives up to Mount Lemmon to commune among the pine trees or takes in the saguaro-studded desert landscape along Gates Pass.
When she can’t, she steps outside her front door to spend mindful time in her tiny Armory Park-area garden. She created it as her sanctuary from the stresses of everyday life.
“I need to have a place so I can come down several notches,” says Roberge, a holistic health counselor whose other careers included landscape design.
The health benefits of nature have long been recognized, and there’s some science behind it, according to Esther M. Sternberg, director of the University of Arizona’s Institute of Place and Wellbeing.
“There’s a part of the brain that specializes in beautiful views ... and preferred scenes (of nature),” Sternberg said in a 2014 Tedx talk at The University of Texas at Austin. “It turns out that that part of the brain is rich in endorphins, those feel-good molecules.”
Roberge’s personal research has revealed that being out in nature lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, improves mood and boosts the immune system.
“But our society is so focused on technology that there’s a great disconnect with nature,” she adds. “We’ve gotten so extreme that we don’t live in harmony anymore with nature.”
Both Roberge and Sternberg, as well as other experts, believe any brush with nature is beneficial, whether it’s plants in a vase indoors or a small garden.
Roberge hopes to guide people back to the healing forces of nature by leading a two-hour class Jan. 23 on the topic at the Tucson Botanical Gardens.
ROBERGE’S ECO-THERAPY GARDEN
A residential eco-therapy garden should have plants that engage all of the senses, Roberge suggests. Specimens should allow you to brush against their leaves, give off an aroma when petals or leaves are crushed in your hands or provide a calming views.
“It isn’t about having a particular garden or growing specific plants,” says Roberge, “but having a place to retreat to that replenishes one’s soul and allows us to mentally and physically regroup.”
Here are a few of the things she includes in her landscape:
Milkweed to attract butterflies.
Salvia leucantha to attract hummingbirds.
White sage and desert lavender for the aroma.
Agave and other succulents for sculptural interest.
Desert sunflower for its bright yellow blooms and fuzzy, touchable leaves.
Large rocks to simulate a natural setting.
Pine needles that provides a soft, cool carpet on which to walk barefoot.
Bird feeders to attract wildlife.
Roberge opts for arid-adapted plants to keep her water use low. Her garden is meant to attract wildlife “to replicate a wilder natural habitat for them as well as myself,” she says.
When selecting plants, focus on leaf shape, color and texture and not so much on blossoms, she advises. That way you can enjoy the plant when flowering season is done.
“The flower is sort of like the icing on the cake,” she says.
Because Roberge’s rented house faces a major street, she makes sure the garden provides a buffer from the traffic noise so that she can lose herself in her little version of nature.
ECO-THERAPY IN TUCSON
A version of eco-therapy known as horticultural therapy is used by Tucson organizations as a viable treatment for people with mental illnesses, learning disabilities, addictive behaviors or emotional trauma.
For Desert Milagros LLC clients dealing with eating disorders, emotional trauma or mood disorders, getting away to a 50-acre ranch in Arivaca for a day or weekend offers visible results.
There they care and work with horses, tend chickens and spend time in the desert.
“What we see is that people begin to relax,” says owner Faith Suaso. “People suffering from anxiety, you see that just beginning to reduce.”
Getting out into nature helps people slow down, Suaso adds.
“Instead of constant coming and doing, people get some space. It allows people to breathe a little bit.”
Tucson Botanical Gardens runs an outreach and on-site horticultural therapy program for people with physical and learning disabilities and emotional trauma.
Participants work with plants and do crafts as a way to develop motor skills and stimulate the senses, according to the gardens’ website.
The effect is noticeable, says program director Juliet Niehaus.
“They become peaceful and calm,” she says.
“Especially with adolescents and kids with ADD (attention deficit disorder),” Niehaus says, “often they can focus right down. There’s something about planting and harvesting.”
The Institute of Place and Wellbeing, a collaboration of the UA’s medicine, architecture and integrative medicine programs, is working to establish the scientific evidence that eco-therapy improves health.
But Roberge says we don’t need hard proof to know that nature is healing.
“We are connected to nature,” she insists. “Mentally we don’t know it, but in here”– she points to her heart–“We know that.”
Contact Tucson freelance writer Elena Acoba at email@example.com.