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Originally published Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 7:09 PM

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Plant Life

Seattle's Fisher House offers a place of peace

Fisher House puts up families of veterans who are receiving treatment at the Veterans Administration Puget Sound Health Care System. The idea is that patients get better more quickly knowing their families are close by and well-cared-for.

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Valerie Easton writes in her blog about gardens and the people who make them. A columnist for The Seattle Times' Pacific Northwest Magazine for the last 14 years and author of four books on gardening, she lives on Whidbey Island where she loves to hike, read and garden.
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UNIVERSITY OF Washington professor Daniel Winterbottom works around the world establishing healing gardens in impoverished and war-torn places like Guatemala, Bosnia and Croatia. Sometimes he stays right here at home to work with his landscape-architecture students to design and build gardens like the new restorative one for veterans and their families at Fisher House on Beacon Hill.

Fisher House puts up families of veterans who are receiving treatment at the Veterans Administration Puget Sound Health Care System. The idea for this Fisher House and others around the country is that patients get better more quickly knowing their families are close by and well-cared-for.

The place is large and welcoming, filled with comfy furniture and paintings. The hope is that these stressed-out families, who are far from home, can find quiet and companionship while staying at Fisher House. Many come from rural areas and find the city intimidating; Fisher House has accommodated more than 2,000 visitors since it opened in 2008. Most stay a week or so; one family stayed an entire year. So far, guests have ranged from a day-old baby to a 93-year-old, and hailed from 37 states, seven countries and three continents.

So how did the 14 UW design/build students go about planning a garden to offer respite and solace, as well as social space, for people of such differing ages and needs? "It was quite a challenge," says Winterbottom. "But so important, because many people staying here have lost such control of their lives."

The students had 10 weeks — a single school quarter — to design, build and plant the garden. They met with focus groups and came up with a plan for a peaceful space with room for both socializing and privacy. The "Friends of Fisher House" raised $40,000 to build the garden, and local businesses donated plants and materials, including the concrete and 22 yards of compost.

The house and new healing garden's location is about as urban as you can get, surrounded by pavement, traffic, construction and the near-constant wail of ambulances. But the new garden offers space for quiet retreat and play as well as for growing vegetables. Memorial services, and even a wedding, have been held in its pavilion.

The entry is hedged for privacy, and richly scented with aromatic herbs such as sage, rosemary, thyme and curry plant. Berried trees and shrubs attract birds; metal planters hold purple smoke bushes. The little vegetable garden has been expanded so patients and visitors can take comfort in familiar tasks like weeding and harvesting.

The heart of the garden is a paved plaza with screens to block out passers-by. Benches offer places to relax and enjoy the centerpiece, a wavelike feature made of copper and tousled ornamental grasses to suggest moving water, especially when lit at night. Clematis and honeysuckle climb an arbor around the pavilion, which is designed for yoga classes as well as events. The garden curves to create a more secluded area for reading or contemplation. Still to come is a woodland walk that'll wrap around the back of the building.

"The story of Fisher House Healing Garden is bigger than this specific garden," says Winterbottom, who hopes the idea of healing gardens, especially important now that we have so many veterans coming home from war, will catch on and be replicated at more hospitals around the country.

Why can gardens be so therapeutic? "Stress is reduced, and people let their guard down in nature. They interact with other people staying here, as well as plants and weather," Winterbottom explains.

As one Fisher House visitor said, "I didn't know I needed to be healed until I went into the healing garden."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "The New Low-Maintenance Garden." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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