Life + Outdoors » Down and Dirty

Digging Deep

Adding a personal dimension to your garden



How do we experience a garden? Probably the first thing we notice is the visual aspect — the colors, textures and overall design that appeal to us. We may also enjoy fragrant flowers and plants with aromatic foliage and the scent of newly mown lawn or freshly turned earth. Fruits and vegetables delight our sense of taste, plants such as furry Lamb's Ears invite us to touch them and then there are soothing garden sounds such as running water, bird songs and the buzzing of busy bees. The more senses we can bring into play, the more deeply we can enjoy our garden.

But a garden can have another dimension — what I think of as the ultimate dimension — if it is also a place with some personal significance, so that it appeals to us not only physically but emotionally, intellectually or spiritually. Imagine stepping into a garden that reminds you of people, places or ideas that are meaningful to you. Here are four suggestions to try.

Plants with Meaningful Associations

These are plants that remind you of people or places you love. In my garden I grow sweet peas, which remind me of my grandmother's garden and the vases of fragrant sweet peas it provided. And I grow freesias and butterfly iris, which remind me of Santa Barbara, where I lived many years ago and first encountered these plants. Plants that were given to you by friends are also plants with meaningful associations. You can grow them scattered throughout the garden or group them together in a "friendship garden."

Yet another approach to meaningful plants can be seen in the ancient Catholic tradition, still alive today, of planting flowers associated with the Virgin Mary. There are many plants known as "flowers of the Blessed Lady," including roses, Madonna lilies, Lady's Mantle and Virgin Bower.

Handmade Garden Art

Plants are wonderful but adding human touches such as art are a great way to add interest to a garden, introducing different colors, materials and textures. Of course, you can purchase statues or other garden ornaments, but I suggest making something yourself. Creating a piece of art is uniquely satisfying. And it doesn't have to be art with a capital "A" — it may be a whimsical junque art piece made from recycled/repurposed materials, for example. If the artwork is something you've created, when you catch sight of it you can appreciate the piece itself and recollect the excitement you felt making it.

Symbolic Gardens

If a symbol resonates with you, it can be powerful to translate it into a landscape feature or use it as the basis of a landscape design.

Spiral gardens are one example of symbolic gardens. Spirals are ancient and widespread symbols that can represent energy, movement and the dynamic unfolding of life. The photo above shows a spiral garden I designed for a landscape in Fortuna. Several years ago, I also made a simple garden plaque by attaching colorful beach stones in a spiral design on a 12-inch square black slate tile.

The mandala — the Sanskrit word for circle — is another ancient symbol that can be used as the basis for a garden design. Closely related to mandalas is the image of a circle in a square. The circle is often understood as representing spirit, wholeness and eternity, while the square stands for the body, earth and matter. Together they symbolize the union of opposites.

Labyrinths can be a metaphor for the soul's journey on Earth. Images of labyrinths have been found in prehistoric pagan carvings, in Egypt, in Jerusalem and in medieval cathedrals in Europe, as well as in some modern-day churches. Labyrinths make striking landscape features at both large and small scales. They can be constructed using rocks, bricks, concrete, or even simply mowing paths in a lawn.

The Chinese principles of feng shui can also be utilized to organize a landscape. I am not a feng shui expert, but from what I know about this approach, I think it could be a useful way to arrange landscape features in a way that reminds us of the importance of balancing all the aspects of our lives. The tree of life symbol in the Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabala can also be used as a template for laying out plants in accordance with what are believed to be "power zones" within a stylized tree form.

A favorite extreme example of a symbolic garden is the Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Scotland. Charles Jencks and his late wife Maggie Keswick created this landscape to celebrate the scientific discoveries of the 20th century. The couple attempted to portray some of these abstract ideas, such as quantum mechanics, in structures and forms that people could experience in the landscape. For instance, the garden contains a dizzying Black Hole Terrace illustrating how both time and space are distorted near black holes, and in another area of the garden there is a large cast aluminum sculpture of the double helix DNA molecule.

If you are interested in symbolic gardens, I highly recommend Gardens for the Soul by Pamela Woods, an English landscape designer. This book contains beautiful pictures of many of the symbolic gardens mentioned here.

Garden Words

Lastly, if you are a person who likes words, I suggest creating a personally meaningful garden by including a well-chosen word or phrase. This technique was practiced in ancient China, where gardens were often laid out as a series of courtyards enclosed by walls. Beside a gate that led from one courtyard to the next there was often an evocative phrase: "Linger and Enjoy," or "The Place to Cultivate the Friendship of the Moon." I'll end with a poem by the Japanese poet Basho that I think would be a lovely addition to a garden:

The temple bell stops

But the sound keeps coming

Out of the flowers.

Donna Wildearth is the owner of Garden Visions Landscape Design in Eureka. Visit her website at

Add a comment