When he retires next month, Dominique Marboeuf will leave a transformed landscape in the French psychiatric hospital where he has worked as the head gardener for the last 40 years. Located in western France, the hospital has 500 beds as well as a day hospital, with 1,200 employees. When he took the job, the psychiatrists who wanted to turn the surrounding park into a therapeutic tool for the patients gave him one mission: “Drown everything in nature”. To use Clare Marcus Cooper and Naomi Sachs’ terminology in their recent book, Marboeuf created a healing, therapeutic or restorative park. “For those patients deprived of freedom, the park must represent an area of freedom. It must participate in their well being by attracting them outside to break their physical and psychological isolation and by immersing them in a lush and calming environment,” he explained to me during a walk around the park last spring.
When the original asylum opened its doors in 1853 and into the 1960s, working in the vegetable garden was considered “one the strongest therapeutic methods against mental alienation.” In the 1970s, Georges Mazurelle took over the hospital, which today bears his name, with a symbolic revolution. He had the gates and the walls torn down. Then he hired Marboeuf. “It was such a simple idea. These people are suffering, let’s give them an environment that can alleviate their pain,” remembers the gardener who set to work on the 110-acre park creating a unity of design with green corridors and links between the buildings. “We wanted to break the lines and introduce curves. The aim was also to dress the buildings with contrasting vegetation to break the architectural harshness. We kept away from tidy, tame hedges.”
Favoring curves and cold colors
“Besides a few cedars, we excluded resinous trees because cypresses remind people of cemeteries. We played with contrasts using trees with heavy and light leaves to stretch the perspective with the more transparent leaves toward the horizon. I used hornbeams for hedges because they are less rigid and also easier to take care of,” says Marboeuf who tried to ban rigidity in favor of softness. Cold colors, blues and particularly greens, are preferred to warm colors considered more aggressive and tiring for the eye. Plants help remind patients of the cycle of seasons and the passing of time.
Despite the potential danger, doctors have always supported the use of water in the landscape as long as the ponds and the pools did not get deeper than 11 inches. “The park is also a favorite spot for the personnel. They tell me that they like hearing water sounds and birds singing and watch nature explode.” Another goal was to create esplanades to encourage encounters as well as spaces to allow privacy such as a huge chestnut tree covered in wisteria that creates a natural haven. His team restored an old washhouse formerly used by the nuns in charge of the laundry for the hospital. Located on the river that borders the park and partly left “wild”, that area has become a favorite walking destination for patients accompanied by personnel.
Smaller gardens designed for each unit
Open to patients and personnel, the park is one thing. But Marboeuf and his team went one step further with gardening spaces adapted to different patient populations. In several units for older patients, the team installed courses to help them practice walking on various materials (grass, sand, stones, bark…). Outside the bedrooms, vegetable gardens have been planted. They are cared for by the personnel and sometimes by the patients themselves. In another unit treating people with addictions, a small garden provides aromatic plants whose smells help people take their minds off their addiction.
“These gardens are always a request from the unit. We act as their technical advisors. The trouble is when the project rests on the enthusiasm of a single person. It often stops quickly,” explains Marboeuf. “If the garden become popular, we can add a fence to identify the space, maybe a bench. These gardens are not expensive to create.” He took me to another unit for patients with physical and motor handicaps. Deer graze in a meadow sprinkled with flowers. Patients can enjoy elevated gardening planter boxes and a picnic area that offers a natural setting, like a clearing in the middle of a forest. In addition, the greenhouses have been known to welcome art therapy workshops using salvaged materials and wood cut on the premises. As we walked around the park, Marboeuf pointed out several sculptures created in the workshops. “A young man who came to a workshop told me that the project helped make him feel more stable.”
Adventure land for young patients
Marboeuf has a soft spot for the children’s area that serves three units for young patients. He poured all his imagination into inventing a special space for them. “It was flat, but we created ups and downs so they can roll down the hill in the grass and build a fortress. From the top of the fortress, they can see the maze and the greenery theater. The suspended bridge to get up to the fortress helps them work on their balance.” In the greenery theater, children put on plays for their parents every year and work on taming their body and their spirit in space. As for the maze, it was built fairly low to let the children explore the idea of getting lost without causing anxiety. A wind harp, which was built at the hospital in a therapeutic workshop, creates intriguing sounds when the wind plays chords. The former soccer field has been transformed into a land of adventure for the young patients.
Though his team has shrunk over the years, Marboeuf is happy to hand over his life work to one of his colleagues knowing that, in La Roche-sur-Yon, patients will continue to benefit from an exceptional healing park.