For a designer, the first step toward creating a garden is meeting the client and seeing the garden space. I’ve learned to tread lightly when commenting on various plants I encounter in this initial meeting. I’m trying to avoid conversations that go like this:
Designer: Well, I do think this spot is far too shady for the eastern redcedar. We should probably remove it.
Client: My mother gave that to my husband and me when we moved in together.
Designer: Typically, I don’t plant Cedrus deodora 24 inches away from a house. It’s a bit too big for this space.
Client: I planted that when my son was born.
Designer: I think this area is ideal for the pool, but we’ll need to remove that crapemyrtle.
Client: I planted that when my mother passed away.
We all want to make our gardens personal. Planting memorial trees to mark the milestones of life is one popular method, but the practice is fraught with risk. What if the tree becomes diseased or dies, or the Amazon driver hits it during a snowy day? And, really, there are only so many spaces for trees in one garden. As they grow and cast their shade, where will you find ground suitable to roses and basil?
Yet the motivation to make a garden more personal, more reflective of one’s life, loved ones, worldview and even one’s whims, persists. Happily, there’s a more flexible, creative way to personalize any garden: Start with the senses.
Smell is often referred to as our most primitive sense. Humans can recognize and catalog up to a million different smells. When one sniffs, the sensory information is sent to the part of the brain that stores memory without additional processing. It’s the only sense that works that way, and as a result, odor triggers the strongest, most pure memories. A 40-million-dollar perfume industry is further testament that people like to smell nice things.
People often like gardens to feature fragrances that remind them of childhood, or perhaps of a special moment in one’s life. A garden can be home to the same lilacs (Syringa) or sweet box (Sarcococca ruscifolia) that a beloved grandmother once grew. Depending on one’s climate, wedding-bouquet plants like rose, jasmine, hyacinth and gardenia can just as easily be featured in a garden. And don’t limit scent to flowers—the foliage of lavender, rosemary and, perhaps most controversially, boxwood—all have strong smells that can evoke feelings and memories.
You can’t get more personal than incorporating favorite flavors in the garden. It gives us a chance to nourish loved ones, to share the literal fruits of our labors. Perhaps we plant tomatoes because we simply cannot stop eating tomatoes. Or perhaps lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) reminds a gardener of a hike in upstate New York, when their family came across a wild patch and ate until their teeth turned blue. Does the mint you grow (in a container, of course) allow you to serve up Southsides—your specialty cocktail—all summer long?
I don’t think there is a child alive that doesn’t delight in the silky fuzz of lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina) or become transfixed by sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) folding and unfolding its leaves. A garden path lined with muhly grass could transport one to purple clouds each fall. Other touchable plants include dusty miller (Jacobaea maritima), Artemisia, Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima), chenille plant (Acalypha hispida) and pussy willow (Salix discolor).
Touchable plants not only create engagement with a different sense, but they also create a stopping point in the garden—a moment to reassess the environment and take stock. When we touch things, we process our surroundings more thoughtfully and better capture the experience.
Opportunities for this kind of processing aren’t limited to the active touching of plants. Spaces can be crafted to feature sun or shade; spots can be left open to wind or sheltered from it, for stillness. Don’t overlook the tactile nature of these elements.
A water feature such as a bubbler or fountain is, no doubt, the go-to example for incorporating sound in your garden. More literally, some people will wire their gardens with speakers. But garden sounds can be revealed rather than manipulated, and then represent where your garden exists in the world.
For instance, creating a habitat for birds will bring birdsong. The sound of wind through pines can be transporting (and the smell of the pine needles isn’t too bad either). Consider the natural sounds in a garden, and build on them, to personalize the space profoundly yet invisibly.
Sight is the most obvious stimuli in any garden, but it doesn’t have to be limited to plant selection and garden gnomes. Lighting, art and furnishings are all chances to create a personalized space.
Consider inventorying your prized possessions inside the house and think of how you can reinvent them outside. Statuary, driftwood, gazing balls, spheres, sundials and more can be selected with the same care and thought as your interior selections.
Always consider vista. Where does the sun set? Can you capture a piece of sky, or is there a remarkable tree that should be showcased? Equally important: Is there an unsightly view you wish to hide (maybe your neighbor’s flock of plastic pink flamingos)?
Many of the personal choices one makes for a garden are about memory and nostalgia, but consider the new memories you will establish in this space. If you can experience a garden in all dimensions, you’re creating the deepest, most detailed memories for your future self. Years from now, you can fondly recall breezy summer nights when you listened to a bullfrog sing and sipped on Southsides.
Jennifer Horn is a landscape architect and horticulturist based in the Washington, DC area. View a sampling of her design work at http://www.jh-la.com.