Time passes differently in the garden. Not slow, not fast exactly, but more like it’s not even there. The body performs its simple tasks, while the mind has permission to wander freely, or sometimes become quite still. You notice small things. The robins are back and singing in the apple tree, and the light is tinged green under its foliage. The garlic is thickening, and the bright green fern fronds are unfurling their tight spirals …
I can be alone in my own garden for hours, and will often avoid my husband’s gaze through our glass doors that lead to the backyard — I am afraid that he might call me inside to help with dinner. After some time, and nearly always with great reluctance, I come back in, filthy, peaceful, satisfied and even just a little bit proud. I definitely/absolutely/100-per-cent feel better than I did before I put my gumboots on and grabbed a shovel out of the garage.
What is that about? How is it that my own little piece of messy, manufactured nature can be so healing? Most importantly, how is it possible to create a garden that will nourish and restore you?
Historically, nature was seen as something terrifying and uncontrollable. We beat it back from our towns and cities to create gardens with tightly pruned hedges and sheared, short lawns. Gardeners saw themselves as masters of unruly nature. This style has really stuck around, and we see it still in many front gardens and public spaces. But more and more, architects, designers and homeowners are creating landscapes that work with nature rather than against it. These ‘nature’ gardens are wild, fascinating places with billowing shrubs and feathery grasses, rain gardens and green walls and plenty of birds singing in trees.
Following Nature’s Lead
In a natural landscape, the gardener is not master, but steward. Nature rules here, and the gardener takes his or her cues based on what the land needs, rather than what he or she wants. So there is no frustration, only interest. This garden is a place of refuge from judgment, and from the demands we all face.
Of course, it is one thing to say that a nature garden has restorative qualities, but quite another to know just what that will mean for each individual, and how to be sure that once built, the garden will be a place of healing.
That process begins with you. Your first and most important step is to observe — this means knowing not just the intricacies of your particular site (such as its size, soil type, sun exposure and views), but also knowing what you want your garden to look like, or more importantly, what you want it to feel like.
To understand that, it is often helpful to close your eyes and go back in time to find the place where you were most at peace. In his book American Eden, Wade Graham writes that “our gardens tell of deeper personal stirrings: of romantic love, of nostalgia for lost times and places, certainties, dreams, securities and especially for childhood, that place of refuge.”
Often our place of refuge, when given time and space to formulate in our minds, is the landscape of our childhood, or an amalgamation of landscapes from childhood, whether they are real or fantastical. These landscapes stay with us throughout our lives, helping to inform the people that we eventually become. It is these beloved landscapes we retreat to in our minds in times of stress or sadness, and it is these landscapes that over and over again, we try to create in our own backyards. Through our gardens, we hope to shed our adult selves, so often riddled with worry and stress.
So first, forget that you live in the real world. Forget garages and driveways, municipal by-laws, ugly views of the neighbour’s garage, busy streets, other people’s demands — just put all that aside and let it sit somewhere else. Now, what is the landscape you see when you close your eyes? What is the place in nature where you were most at peace?
As an example, here is what I see: We called it the gully, and we escaped there whenever we could. It was an in-between place with hand-painted ‘no trespassing’ signs that we ignored, but with some measure of fear. We’d tuck into the trees there and make our way to our favourite spot along Joseph’s Creek, where the water pooled and calmed slightly, and the willows hung over a tiny pebble beach. Everything happened here. Mysteries were solved, fairy gardens created, dams built and torn apart again. This place had nothing to do with school, teachers, parents, rules or any strife at all. We came home filthy of course, and in spring we were banned from the place when the runoff rushed down from the mountains. There was then the difficulty of explaining the mud on our jeans.
Creating Your Sanctuary
What does your place look like? How can you recreate the feel of it in your own garden? At this point, it is helpful to jot down or sketch some of the elements that your place contains: trees, water, birds, escape, play, rest, etc.
And now you can get practical again — to lay out your nature garden, adhering of course to a few ground rules. In their article “Restorative Experience: The Healing Power of Nearby Nature,” Rachel and Stephen Kaplan look at the garden’s capacity to restore to us a feeling of peace and satisfaction. After conducting hundreds of interviews with gardeners, the researchers came up with four factors necessary for a garden to have true restorative powers.
• It must be away from regular stresses. Read: anything you put gas into, plug in or need batteries for does not belong here.
• It must hold one’s interest with effortless fascination. This means ever-changing foliage, trees, flowers, grasses. Clipped hedges and lawns do not count.
• It must be explorable, yet coherent. There should be something to discover here, but all is not chaos. Repeat patterns and plants for coherence, but make sure there is interest and variety in your layout and your plant choices.
• It must be compatible with nature and with the lifestyle of the gardener. Stay away from anything that requires heavy maintenance to thrive, or a skill level and time commitment beyond what it realistic. This will help you avoid frustration and let you feel like a part of the cycles of nature in your garden. You are working in harmony with the natural world.
You may choose to design and build your entire yard as a nature garden, or simply find a quiet space with potential and go from there. Many yards have unused corners that are perfect for quiet areas. Also look at your side yard. Although often narrow, a side yard can be great for creating an intimate ‘scene’ with a comfortable bench, a couple of pillows and some plantings. Walk around your yard and notice if there are any views you enjoy, even peek-a-boo views to a neighbour’s pretty tree, or a far off view of the mountains. You should be able to observe nature from your quiet place, so make sure that if there are no plantings there now, there is room to plant them when you build your garden.
Ideally, the part of your nature garden where you will spend the most time will have a ceiling of foliage, or even a small arbour with a vine growing on it, to create a feeling of protection and privacy. Make sure that you place your seating so that your back will be against a wall of sorts, whether that is the fence, a hedge or the side of your house.
If you are working with a very small yard or balcony, design your entire space around the idea of restoration. Make sure that the seating you do have is comfortable. Place cushions on chairs and incorporate a table for books, magazines, plates or cups. A side table will do the trick just as well if that is all you have the space for. Also, be sure to provide yourself with at least one structural plant that will hold your interest all year.
Include plants that grow well in the soil you have, and with the sun exposure and access to water they will enjoy. Native plants are often great choices, so long as the conditions of your yard are similar to the conditions that the plants experience in nature. Absolutely plan for trees — or at least a tree. People tend to be afraid of potential damage caused from trees, but I believe this is ill advised. There is nothing so lovely as the dappled shade under a tree in summer.
The nature garden is an easily accessed place that you can visit to let go of worries about work, money, family problems, the global economy, the declining natural world, etc. There is of course no shortage of things to worry about. What there is is a shortage of places to not worry about things. This garden is the place where you can simply observe, or work the earth in your hands; where you can be quietly fascinated, and utterly peaceful.
By Erin Renwick