I’ve been designing gardens professionally for over 20 years. Many clients ask for a peaceful garden and I’m increasingly interested in how places can affect emotions and how I, as a designer, can help to create restorative gardens.
So, I spent time in a number of Quiet Gardens and talked to their owners and visitors to try to discover more about how they work. What qualities do these gardens possess and how do people interact with them? Here are a few of my discoveries.
First of all I had to take off my designer hat and leave it at the garden gate! The gardens were beautiful but almost all had evolved over many years and very few had been ‘designed’. However, once I had overcome my impulse to re-arrange the lay-out and change some of the plants I was able to relax, quieten down and tune in to what was there.
The important thing was to look, listen, touch and smell. When I was quiet something in the garden would draw itself to my attention, be it birdsong, a spider spinning a web, the scent of damp earth or a slight breeze moving grasses and brushing against my cheek. The world fell away and I was connected to something else. The garden was doing its work.
This happened most easily when I reached a certain kind of place. It would be a secluded corner, usually out of sight of the house. There was a seat with something behind it providing safety and enclosure. I was usually near trees and was able to look out into the garden or countryside. Close by there was always something to focus on, plants or water or simply moss covered rocks.
A beautiful setting undoubtedly helps. I was bowled over by an exquisite garden nestling in a fold of the Cotswolds and I was spellbound by huge poplars rustling in the breeze by a fast flowing river. However, I also had a magical experience by a busy main road under the Heathrow flight path, walking a labyrinth in a London churchyard. The noise and the need to concentrate only intensified the sensation of quiet within the garden.
Talking to owners produced insights. It was universally agreed that some disorder is important, as a pristine garden is often intimidating. Perfection and symmetry are irritating because the eye is always searching out the mistake. Too much evidence of the controlling hand of man creates a barrier to the natural world. Unsurprisingly all the gardens I visited were quite informal.
Owners are important. One visitor told me firmly “You can’t separate the place and the people. Without the people a place may be beautiful but it’s the people that make it special.” I certainly found I appreciated gardens better after I had spoken to the garden makers; they are half of the pact between man and nature.
Several people told moving stories about how gardening had helped them overcome a difficulty. They derive their Quiet Joy from the intimate connection that comes from working their plot. These are the gardeners who can ‘let the work be the practice’ as the Buddhists say. Others find it hard to be still in their own gardens. They prefer to go to another Quiet Garden where they can step out of their normal world for a few hours.
Many people regularly visit the same garden. The intention to visit a Quiet Garden and the memory of previous occasions fosters a receptive mood even before arrival, so finding the ‘connection’ is easier. A lady I met, who had attended many Quiet Mornings decided one day not to go outside at all. Knowing the garden was there was enough. It seems Quiet Gardens can sustain even at a distance.
With my designer hat back on I now wonder how my skills can help a garden to speak more clearly. The task must be to slow people down and draw attention to all that will intrigue, delight and transport us if only we can stop and look. We can create enclosures, open views and use the light to help the magic. We can chose and place plants for movement and scent and attractiveness to wildlife. What we are doing is helping people find something that was always there!
My thanks to all those Quiet Gardeners that I visited, I have spent memorable and enlightening hours with you and your gardens. I shall be continuing my investigations and would be very happy to hear from anyone who would like to contribute to the conversation.