Researcher Roger Ulrich reported in 1984 that hospital patients with an outdoor view of trees healed faster and used fewer pain meds than those without that view.

Since the 1980s, a natural healing technique out of Japan called forest bathing – essentially spending time in nature to reduce stress – has become increasingly popular.

For decades studies have shown the healing powers of plants and nature, says Esther Sternberg, director of the University of Arizona Institute on Place and Wellbeing.

“The part of the brain that processes beautiful views happens to be rich in endorphins,” says Sternberg, who also is research director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and has written extensively on this subject.

“It just makes sense that it makes you feel good.”

Now a newly opened assisted living senior community is putting the research into practice.

A 2,500-square-foot plot of landscape and edible plants sits in the middle of The Hacienda at the River, 2720 E. River Road, a 71-unit community for seniors who need help with daily-living tasks or memory care.

The garden has cacti and succulents to provide visual interest, but it’s mostly used for edibles. For the season that includes several tomato varieties, tomatillo, green onion, strawberry, celery, thyme, rosemary and tarragon. Trees yield kumquats, limes, pears and figs in season.

They’re harvested for use in the community’s kitchen.

Wide paths meander through the garden, which is surrounded by living quarters. Benches, a fountain and a café table with chairs invite residents and visitors to stay, relax and contemplate.

A 25-foot-high open structure encourages plants to grow up its walls and posts. That greenery will eventually surround the garden. The plan is to give people the feeling of being enveloped in nature.

“The idea … is that you are transformed in this healing space. I want you to feel like you’re going into it,” says David Freshwater, chairman and developer for Watermark Retirement Communities. The Tucson-based company opened The Hacienda at the River last summer.

The garden and related wellness activities are the first of their kind within Watermark’s more than 50 communities nationwide. Freshwater speaks of it as a demonstration of future assisted-living developments that includes wellness activities like horticultural and equine therapy, tai chi and meditation.

“People are not asking for this,” he admits, “but we think it’s important and we’re going to be studying this stuff with the (UA) and be able to disseminate this to the industry.

“We feel strongly that it was the right vision to take.”

Resident Paul Barby, for one, is sold on the garden as an important amenity.

“One of the attractions that drew me to Hacienda was this meditation garden,” says the 82-year-old. “I did a lot of gardening and I always loved plants. This is very much a plus.”

Barby joined three fellow residents on a recent warm afternoon to garden with Jason Welborn, the community’s horticultural guide.

That day’s “In the Healing Garden” session was going to include planting vegetables in the raised bed.

But the 90-degree afternoon would make the residents feel uncomfortable. So Welborn, who previously managed the heritage orchard at Tumacacori National Historical Park, decided to instead have them plant lavender, yellow Dahlberg daises, blood-red celosia and red and orange portulaca into a dirt-filled red wagon for an upcoming charity auction.

First-time gardener Luanne Maxon-Provencher, 80, dove right in. She was joined a little later by Lois Struthers, 89, who used to garden, and Virginia Reynolds, 99. Barby added finishing touches.

Ignoring the garden gloves and trowels, the residents used bare hands to pull plants out of containers, put them in holes that Welborn dug and pat the roots into the soil.

At one point they laughingly compared how dirty their hands got.

During several breaks in the one-hour session, the group asked Welborn how to take care of plants in their units and spoke about birds.

They all praised the garden program. “I had a lot of flowers” that Struthers had to give up because keeping up a garden was too hard, she says. Looking toward the plant-filled wagon, she adds, “This is wonderful to get back to.”

“One thing I don’t want to do is garden,” declares Reynolds. She quickly adds, “I love to do it with friends. I just don’t want to do it alone. I like the company.”

Welborn sees benefits over and over among gardening residents – spending time with others, feeling pride in what they’ve accomplished and getting light exercise.

He finds that residents with memory loss remember and share life stories when prompted by gardening activities or plants from their past.

He recalls guiding a memory-care resident’s hand to dig a hole, hold a plant and put it in the ground. She didn’t know why she was doing this, he says, but that wasn’t what mattered in the moment.

“The tactile contact with soil and plants is really beneficial,” he explains. Soil has chemical properties that are soothing.

Sternberg, who is not involved in the Hacienda garden or program, echoes that thought. Plant scents, color and texture can conjure calmer times, especially for people with memory loss.

“One of the big problems they have is anxiety,” she says. “As they get used to going into this garden, it becomes more familiar and they have less anxiety.”

“They may not remember why they feel good,” she says, “but (gardens) bring back positive emotions from an earlier time.”

Contact Tucson freelance writer Elena Acoba at