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Design Ideas from Butchart Gardens: Creating Serenity

September 26, 2009

Recently, I wrote that there are three things that can make a garden worth visiting for me (see Gardens Worth Visiting). The first is beauty that wows me; the second is being introduced to plants that are new to me; and the third is new design ideas A Serene Spot in the Japanese Garden (Photo credit: Jean Potuchek)that I can make use of in my own garden. As my photos of Butchart Gardens attest, I was wowed by the beauty there (especially all those dahlias). I have also written about the new varieties of rudbeckia that I was introduced to there (Rudbeckia Update). But what made Butchart Gardens most worth visiting was the design ideas it gave me for my own garden. This is the first of three blog posts that will discuss those design lessons.

Like most gardeners, I always have new projects in various stages of dreaming and planning. One of the projects I have been dreaming about for several years now would be a new planting area under two tall white pine trees at the far end of a mossy opening behind my house. I think of this as the “secret garden,” and I want it to have a serene and meditative ambiance. The Japanese Garden at Butchart Gardens was particularly helpful to me in thinking about how to create that kind of feeling in a garden. Here are the ideas that I took away to apply to my own garden:

Make Foliage the Star Player

Foliage in the Japanese Garden (Photo credit: Jean Potuchek) If you want to create a feeling of serenity, you need to make flowers supporting players and make foliage the star of the garden. It was striking to see how many different types, sizes, shapes and colors of foliage were included in the Japanese Garden. There were trees that varied from huge coniferous redwoods to dwarf deciduous Japanese maples. There were shrubs with foliage of diverse colors and textures.  There were a variety of ferns. And there were perennials like hosta and rodgersia that are grown primarily for their foliage. There were also flowers – rhododendrons that must add quite a bit of color when they bloom in early summer, water lilies blooming in a pool, a cluster of bright colored fall crocuses blooming at the foot of a tree. But these flowers called your attention to the surrounding foliage rather than overshadowing it. It was the foliage that dominated the garden. The lesson for me here is to focus on foliage when I’m choosing plants for my secret garden.

Restrained Use of Garden Ornaments

Statuary blending into nature in the Japanese Garden (Photo credit: Jean Potuchek) The Japanese Garden also used ornamental sculpture and statuary to create a feeling of serenity. I have always been wary of garden ornaments, because they can so easily slip over into cute garden kitsch (which is definitely not my aesthetic). I was struck by the way that the restrained use of sculpture and statuary in the Japanese Garden blended in with the natural environment rather than competing with it. Most of the ornaments in this garden seemed to be made of natural materials like stone or of materials that mimicked the color of natural materials (as is the case for the metal herons in the photo at the top of this post). The scale of the ornaments in the Japanese Garden also added to the sense of restraint; the Buddha in this photo is actually quite large – but it is framed by two huge redwoods. I will keep my eyes open for the right piece of sculpture to include in my secret garden.

Provide Quiet Places to Sit

If you want a garden to have a meditative feel, it needs to include a place for mediation. The Japanese Garden was dotted with seating areas, usually tucked away in quiet corners and made of natural materials. There was a stone bench under some trees near a pool. A gazebo made of twigs was reached by a stone staircase and invisible from below. Another wooden gazebo was at the end of a side path and overlooked a stream.  I have always planned a bench for my secret garden, one tucked away under some trees facing the planting area. Now I need to think about what materials will make that bench blend into the environment rather than stand out from it.
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