Building the A.R.E.’s Healing Garden
By Rick Spalenka
Helping to create the Harris Prayer and Meditation Garden in 1994 was much more for me than just a garden design project. Not that I hadn’t designed gardens before, that’s what I do, but this particular garden launched my interest in the power of the mind, body, and soul in relation to gardens. I was fortunate to be the designer selected by A.R.E. for the Harris Garden project and to promote this garden as one of my earliest successes. Since the completion of this garden copious evidence has verified that stress contributes significantly to disease (dis-ease) and that verdant natural gardens can reduce that stress.
I worked closely with Peggy Cline, who was then A.R.E.’s Building and Grounds manager, to create a healing garden. We wanted a place a visitor could find respite from stress, from worldly distractions, and from uncomfortable weather. Peggy saw the value of the existing bamboo grove, which, in Chinese garden tradition, represents strength and flexibility. She also felt the power of the existing mature trees as shelter from the elements and symbol of longevity. The existing garden had a water course with fish that was difficult to enjoy because it was hard to access, and it lacked the therapeutic sound of moving water. A change in elevation provided for a cascading waterfall, and the addition of a stone retaining wall and sitting area provided a serene place for contemplation, reflection, escape, and harmonious meditation.
Since many visitors may sometimes be using the garden at one time, small private areas were needed for personal use. Alcoves were located along a meandering path for solitude without hindering others from enjoying the serenity of the garden. The word “meander” comes from the Greek word maindros, after Meander River in Greece’s Phrygia. This refers to the ancient desire of “moving aimlessly and idly without fixed direction” (American Heritage Dictionary), associated with the power of the labyrinth legends. One can now walk past the bamboo grove, enjoy its symbolic strength and not be aware of the bustling traffic behind the grove or the visitors finding solitude in the nearby alcove areas. Following a path with a beginning and end can represent the path through life.
Another objective was to incorporate an Oriental element to the garden design to acknowledge that man is one with nature. We agreed that a traditional bowed Oriental-style bridge was needed to create a connection over the existing water feature and proposed connecting paths. The plants selected were to complement and emphasize the Oriental use of color, texture, and seasonal beauty, using plants comfortable in Tidewater’s climate. Jay Mears, a local garden designer and plantsman, Peggy, and I selected and planted the foliage to complete this amazing garden. Recognition must also be given to the A.R.E.’s building and grounds department for its maintenance, timely replacement, and ideal additions to the landscape palette in this wonderful garden.
Today, it is truly a mystical place filled with peace. A wooden stairway leads to the peaceful garden which has a waterfall, a pond with fish, a footbridge, stone walkways, relaxing benches, beautiful bamboo, and a lighting system. My hope is that the Harris Garden will continue to provide healing vibrations to others as it has done for me.
Rick Spalenka, ASLA, is a registered Landscape Architect in Colorado and Virginia, and is certified in therapeutic garden design through the Chicago Botanic Garden. He received his Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture from the University of Wisconsin (Madison), his Masters in Urban Studies from Old Dominion University (Norfolk, VA), and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Mesa State College (Grand Junction, CO). He combines his 20-plus years of landscape design and building experience with 10-plus years of medical/surgical and psychiatric nursing experience to specialize in therapeutic and healing garden design for healthcare and residential clients. To learn more, visit his Web site RGSDesigns.com.
The A.R.E. Meditation Garden in Virginia Beach was renamed the Harris Prayer and Meditation Garden after being renovated, expanded, and beautified, thanks to a generous donation by A.R.E. member Samuel D. Harris.