For a Garden That Feeds Your Soul, Design It One Step at a Time

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

Most of us do not think about architecture, even though it is the art form that most directly shapes our experience of life. We don't stop to ponder the arrangement of floors, walls, doors, and windows that we encounter, instead, we simply allow ourselves to be guided by them. Typically, it is only when we encounter architecture of breathtaking beauty, or on a grand scale, that we admire its power to transform. When this happens, the sum of simple objects- floors, walls, doors, and windows adds up to revelation.

Likewise, our gardens are merely the sum of simple objects- paths, hedges, gates, and framed views. When examined piece-by-piece they may seem mundane, but when they are artfully formed and combined, a new way of seeing creation is revealed.

For most of us, the magic of the garden is rooted in the cycles of the earth and the natural world, we think about plants, not design. When it comes to actually designing extraordinary places, most of us feel as if we are not up to the task. It seems too complex, too mysterious a process. However, if we tackle the basic elements one at a time, I have found that most people are capable of creating spaces that deepen the sense of wonder and sanctuary that they receive from their gardens.

All journeys have a starting point, and in the journey of designing a garden why not start at the gate? Imagine the different possibilities of what a gate implies. The princes of medieval Florence knew that the "gates" of their new cathedral had to be more than simple doors that blocked the sun and wind. No, they envisioned a threshold that would dazzle, changing even casual visitors into converts and pilgrims. They sponsored a competition among the great artists of the day, eventually commissioning a work that many consider a turning point, the start of the Renaissance, doors to a new world.

The "doors" to your garden don't have to dazzle, but they do mark a boundary line between different worlds. What is it you want to feel when you step into your garden? How can you make the act of moving from one world to the next more meaningful? Those are the questions to ask yourself when you design a garden threshold. It could be an actual gate, solid, hiding the mysteries beyond. On the other hand, you may want something transparent and open, framing a view that beckons to passersby. Your choice of materials may vary from plants, to wood, stone, metal, or even space itself. Each option presents different possibilities and creates new meaning.

More that any other element, the pathways through your garden will shape your experience of it. A path can be broad and plain, freeing our eyes to take in a view. In a cathedral, this would be the main aisle, inviting the faithful to the altar. Conversely, a path may be a series of stepping-stones that force us to move slowly, paying attention to the details at our feet. Here, the goal may be a different sort of communion; the inner reflection of a Zen monastery comes to mind. A friend of mine is designing a labyrinth for her garden- what is a labyrinth, but a path invested with meaning?

One of my primary goals when I designed our new garden was to break down the expanse of our backyard into a series of interconnected rooms. And, what are rooms without walls? A garden wall may simply be a fence, a tall hedge, or a perennial border. Here again, our choices in terms of how to execute the fence or which plants to choose will determine the kind of experience we create. Following my friend's example, I too will create a modified labyrinth for the garden; it is my intention to enclose it behind tall dense shrubs, hiding it from view. One reason for this is that I want it to surprise visitors and provide a sense of discovery when the come upon it. In addition, when I walk my labyrinth, I'd like to do it within the confines of a private meditation room. (No need to scare the neighbors!) Other areas of my garden, by contrast, will be open, defined only by a border of limestone trim or a low boxwood hedge.

There are many other parallels between garden design and the basics of architecture. For example, windows are often created for the sole purpose of capturing a view. In our gardens, we can do the same thing, opening views if they are blocked, or emphasizing them by framing them with plants or a garden structure.

Magnificent cathedrals, comfortable homes, and great gardens all inspire by design. They are, indeed, revelations. Look beneath the electric skin of post-modern life, and you will find a longing for that sense of revelation etched onto our all too human bones. That is why so many of us are gardeners. The garden is a place where the bang and clatter of our lives is stilled, where we catch a glimpse of the extraordinary beyond the ordinary din.

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