Mid-Atlantic: Gardens of the Spirit

Glen Echo, Maryland, USDA Zone 7

While walking along a woodland path, meandering through a mixed border, listening to sounds of flowing water, smelling the sweetness of an opening rose, watching butterflies flittering about, looking out over a meadow of billowing grasses, or capturing beams of sunlight streaming through layers of autumn ferns, I often have a spiritual experience. For a serious gardener, it is an enormous challenge to create outdoor spaces where these personally moving experiences occur regularly. Nature has supplied us with a multitude of incredibly powerful scenes that are capable of rejuvenating the human spirit, but I believe that a well-designed garden right outside your back door can stimulate a similar positive experience.

For me, such a garden is one where everyone who visits feels excited yet serene. Upon entering this kind of garden, my senses are immediately awakened. The water sounds, the variety of plant textures, colors, and earthy smells, as well as the natural materials used as design elements, all contribute to this awakening. I feel transformed, both physically and spiritually, and I am able to enjoy the warm embrace such a wonderful place offers me. I leave the garden with a renewed spirit.

Achieving such an inspirational space is a lofty goal for any gardener. Elements of basic design must be combined with some surprises. Perhaps a secret garden with a grand vista, an enclosed courtyard with a playful fountain or a beautiful sculpture will make me stop and sit and attain a deeper level of pleasure in my surroundings.

Pure and simple beauty is so difficult to create. I believe that a key ingredient for achieving such an effect in the art of gardening is to strive for thematic continuity. One must fight the temptation to incorporate unrelated ornaments or to use too many disjointed materials. Restraint is sometimes the best choice. The cohesiveness and harmony of a garden are based on how it relates to its natural surroundings. It’s a good idea to be patient before creating a new garden. Often, this means living in a space for several months before grabbing your shovel or selecting plants. Patience and planning must be part of the process.

Inspiration comes from many sources, but regular interaction with the space is of vital importance. Views, water sounds, pathways, and layered plantings will enrich the area, and it will slowly evolve into something more than you ever imagined. You’ll know you have been successful when you and those who visit want to return to the garden again and again. 

Spiritual Gardening: Creating Sacred Spaces Outdoors
by Peg Streep; 1999; Time-Life Books

This book captures the essence of spiritual gardens and gardening, offering photographs and descriptions of a variety of different styles, including Zen, Feng Shui, Gaia, Celtic, or Labyrinth. Quotations used throughout the book explain many of the concepts. The chapter titled “Gardening for the Soul,” for example, begins, with this quotation by William Long-good: “More than anything else, a garden is a portal, a passage into another world, one of your own thoughts and your own making; it is whatever you want it to be and you are what you want to be.”


  • When building a water garden, study and arrange rocks to create soothing water sounds.

  • Use restraint in selecting decorations.

  • If moss wants to grow, let it upholster the landscape.

  • Use pruning as a way to keep plants in scale and to create sculptural plant forms.

  • Weeping plants add a sense of movement with their cascading habit.

  • Pathways and walls will add to the texture of the garden.

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