Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Contemplative Spaces

Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Contemplative Spaces

Other than the fact that I was an extra in a roller derby scene in a Jackie Chan movie when I was 17 (I totally know you're jealous), another little known fact about me is that I went to seminary and got a Master's degree in theology. That one seems to shock everyone, while few have a problem believing the roller derby scene. Hmmm. Anyway, I digress. While I have never used my theology degree in the way I originally intended, I could never have imagined how it would become a part of what I do today. I started out in psychology, added theology to the mix and wound up being a garden designer and writer. Over the years, I developed an interest in meditation spaces in the garden, and went to a weekend workshop in Denver to learn how to build labyrinths. I even made one of my seminary professors cringe when I said if it weren't unorthodox, I'd totally be in to pantheism. Pretty sure he didn't pass that one on to the Bishop. So I was very excited when The Garden Designers Roundtable decided to do a monthly post on Contemplative Spaces! If you've been looking for some space in your garden to pray, meditate, contemplate or simply de-stress, there are many ways you can go about it, from the simple to the much more complex. And no worries--this is not about religion, per se. Although there may be religious terminology in some of the ways we talk about it, this is about creating a space within your garden to focus your thoughts, calm your mind, and revel in a little peaceful connecting. Here are my Top 4 Ways to Contemplate in the Garden: 1. Garden Altars: I've done this in my house, but you can easily create a very focused space outside to gain some peace. Gather items that you find inspiring or calming--a candle, some flowers in a vase, smooth river stones with meditative words etched onto them, a shallow bowl of water--and put them on a bench, a tree stump or a large boulder. Whatever it is that you find restful and meditative.

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2. Prayer Gardens: For those who prescribe to a more biblical perspective, try incorporating plants from the Bible into your garden spot. Lilies, cypress, hyssop, mint, roses (Rose of Sharon, actually, but feel free to take some liberties), olive trees--complete lists can be found easily online to create a more encompassing garden theme. The theme may not be immediately recognizable to visitors, but this spot is for you.

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3. Yoga Deck: I know yoga is a great exercise for flexibility and stretching, but it's also very calming and meditative. With emphasis on movement and breathing, you can easily get into a contemplative mood. Tai Chi works much the same way--I used to practice it for a couple of years, and no other activity had me so "in the moment" as that. If you love these forms of exercise and contemplation, why not create a space in your garden so you can do these things outside? I'd make mine out of composite decking instead of real wood (to avoid splinters), construct it low to the ground, add a possible side wall for more challenging poses and have a small water feature nearby. Sounds like nirvana to me!

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4. Labyrinths: Labyrinths can be created in your yard on a large or smaller scale, and for a lot of money or for just a bit of cash, depending upon the materials you choose. Pave, plant or place rocks in between the pathways, and walk your worries away til you reach the center. Stay for a bit at that point, then turn around walk the same path out. The bilateral movement is known to promote a sense of peace, calmness and tranquility. I found this labyrinth when on a walk in Rancho Santa Fe, CA this past January:

  And last fall, my son Luke constructed a rock-lined labyrinth as his Eagle Scout project for a local church--all of the rocks were already on site in the woodsy area; we just had to clear out the trees and add decomposed granite to the pathways:

Please read more about creating a contemplative space in your garden by reading what my colleagues on the Roundtable have to say: Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

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  1. says

    Hi jenny,
    Really loved these suggestions especially the altar one. We once had some fun with a roman altar in a garden in Bath. We added plants that romans would have known which is similar to your biblical idea. Yoga outside is fab. I did it in Turkey on a purpose built platform overlooking the Aegean. Unforgettable. You made me laugh with your ‘Challenging poses’. I remember those!

  2. says

    Love the post Jenny, and your delightful humor. Creating tranquil spaces is such a wonderful aspect of what we get to do as garden designers. Namaste πŸ™‚

  3. says

    I think it’s fascinating you have that theological background…must really add an extra dimension to your design practice. Your selection of projects here is also a nice represenation of the different ways “spirituality” can be expressed in garden design, which can mean vastly different things to different people. A yoga platform would actually INDUCE stress in me because I’d always feel guilty for not using it; but a Biblical garden or a labyrinth would be very meaningful to me. Thanks for a great post!

  4. says

    Jenny, lovely points here. I love your unique ideas about using biblical plants – this is awesome “The theme may not be immediately recognizable to visitors, but this spot is for you.” That’s a perfect mantra for contemplative spaces.

    I also love the yoga deck and the labyrinth gardens. I walked a labyrinth when my grandpa died and it was such a nice way to commemorate his life and think about him. I’ve also enjoyed walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in SF when I wanted insights or a new perspective. There is something very calming about contemplating with purpose and the labyrinth is such a great way of doing that. If I had the room I would ask you to create one for me!

  5. says

    So happy to have found your post, Jenny (thanks to Susan Morrison.) Love all the images. There is so much to learn as a designer, and I need to keep reminding myself of the need to relax. Recently ran across sort of a casual labyrinth in the Santa Monica Mountains, top of Big Rock Trail, Tuna Canyon. It has a gorgeous view of entire Santa Monica Bay. Such places do seem quite spiritual. Your post is a good reminder that spiritual connections can be made anywhere, even in a tiny garden.

  6. says

    Thanks for comments, everyone! I’m glad you’ve found something to contemplate here (pun totally intended)–in my own space, I intend to build the yoga deck and continue to have our annual Luminaria Labyrinth party every December, and I’ll likely move my indoor altar outside as well. Wherever we can take a few deep breaths and connect to the world around us–that’s a good thing.

  7. says

    Theology! What a perfect background for a garden designer. Someone should create a combined theology/garden design program. I’d sign up in a heartbeat. Fascinating post.

  8. says

    I’ve never really thought about a prayer garden, Jenny, and LOVE the idea! This is a great introduction to different types of calming spaces that I’m sure will resonate with most any gardener. Bravo!!


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