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Stanford Report, August 6, 2003

Horticulturist focuses on fostering flora throughout hospital grounds


A room with a view is easy to come by for patients at Stanford Hospital. Many rooms overlook colorful gardens, lavender-scented walks, and in spring, some of the 43,000 bulbs blossoming on the grounds.

That the gardens stay fresh and healthy during the hottest summer days and remain colorful in winter when many home gardens fade is no accident. Planned by garden designer Katsy Swan and paid for in large part though donations from Helen and Peter Bing, the gardens keep their good looks through the attentions of hospital horticulturalist Brad Sorensen and a team of contractors led by Tom Nye.

Horticulturist Brad Sorenson (left) and Tom Nye keep the gardens around the medical center looking lush all year round. Aside from scale, their techniques aren’t necessarily different from those of a weekend gardner. Photo: Amy Adams

Sorensen said the primarily pink, purple and white plants in Swan’s design create a soothing atmosphere that patients enjoy. “The gardens are very therapeutic,” he said. This relaxing aspect of gardens is one reason Sorensen initially became interested in gardening. He came to the campus in 1991 as a horticulturalist for Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital after working for both wholesale and resale nurseries. In 1998 Sorensen began overseeing gardens for the entire medical center.

In addition to providing scenic views, the gardens under Sorensen’s supervision include enclosed spaces with seating areas where patients can relax or meet with family. Seeing patients enjoy the gardens is a reward for Sorensen’s hard work. “It makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something,” he said. “Ideally we’d like every patient window to have a view.” The patients are also what inspired Helen Bing’s interest in donating money to keep the gardens flourishing.

Other than a few restrictions on the plants he can use, Sorensen said there’s little difference between maintaining gardens at a hospital vs. any other area such as a university or company grounds, or even keeping a garden at home. Whatever the location, Sorensen said a big part of the job simply involves making sure each plant gets the right amount of sunshine and water.

“There’s nothing special we do here that you can’t do at home,” he said. The flowers themselves are commonly available and they soak up fertilizers that can be found at any nursery. Snails keep their distance thanks to snail bait ­ a product that is widely available to home gardeners.

Sorensen said his team avoids spraying toxic pesticides, because he doesn’t think such chemicals are needed and he fears people’s reaction to seeing gardeners wearing masks and rubber gloves. “I think it would make people uncomfortable,” he said. Instead, years without pesticides has allowed predatory insects to make their home in the gardens where they eat aphids and other pests. “The insects set up a natural balance in the garden,” he said.

Most plants adorning the gardens are the same as those found thriving throughout northern California gardens, with a few exceptions. Toxic species such as oleander, whose pink and white blooms brighten California freeways, aren’t allowed in the hospital gardens, and any new plant that catches his or Swan’s fancy must get hospital approval before it becomes part of the design. The one mildly toxic plant poking its pastel head from the center of the hospital’s flowerbeds is foxglove. Although it graces many plantings, it’s spires of spotted flowers are banned from the psychiatry ward plantings.

The biggest difference between maintaining the hospital gardens compared with a home garden is volume, Sorensen said. The showcase of the medical center gardens, the Bing atrium, on its own requires 200 flats of flowers during the major spring and fall plantings. Together, the gardens require plant shipments worthy of a retail nursery.

Keeping up with the individual needs of so many plants is a job for more than just one person. Sorensen works closely with Tom Nye, a supervisor for the contracting agency that tends to the daily watering, fertilizing, pruning and planting of the garden beds. The Martin Ragno and Associates contractors, also paid for by Helen and Peter Bing, vary in number throughout the year depending on the projects at hand.

Sorensen and Nye agreed that working in the medical center gardens is therapy for them as well as for the patients. “I always get up in the morning and want to come to work,” Sorensen said.

First wave of always-unpredictable wildflowers bursting on campus grounds (5/12/00)

Stanford Hospital & Clinics