Hartley Magazine

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Gardens as an Emotional Experience

Colin Cabot was standing at the edge of a steep ravine in the gardens of Les Quatre Vents (The Four Winds). A swaying Nepalese-style rope bridge hung in a downward arc between the ravine’s precipitous banks. “Who wants to go first?”

Colin was leading forty of us garden writers and photographers on a private tour of his family’s Central Quebec garden. His late father Frank Cabot, founder of The Garden Conservancy, had designed and worked on this landscape for more than 40 years.

At the edge of the precarious bridge the most intrepid fellow in our group grasped the rope railings. He staggered almost to his knees at the bottom of the curve, as the wood and rope contraption violently swayed and bounced. Colin turned to those of us who had promptly opted out of the crossing. “My father believed you should experience all kinds of emotions in a garden—including terror.”

Everyone laughed, but I thought—have I ever looked at my garden in terms of emotions? We divide our spaces into areas of use—the barbeque patio, or the greenhouse, or even the path to the garbage cans. But emotions? Yet here Frank Cabot included feelings as an integral part of his sweeping lawns, narrow hedge rooms, graceful woodlands, and long vistas.

Adding emotions might help focus our design choices. How would I arrange a barbeque patio to encourage congenial friendships? What plant design in a greenhouse would best convey an escape to peaceful serenity? What would gladden the heart by those trash cans?

Fall is the season for reflection and planning, so this is the perfect time to figure out how we might add emotional considerations to our garden spaces. Start with the use of a particular area. Then name an emotion that you would like to foster there. A rare plant might prompt surprise. A curving pathway that hides what’s around the corner elicits curiosity. Certainly a game area brings out all kinds of feelings like daring, bold, unhappy—if you’re losing—or playful.

For instance, on that barbeque patio, I might tuck the seating closer under a grape arbor for a feeling of intimacy. Or I could choose a monochromatic plant palette with a wider variety of leaf patterns in the greenhouse for a sense of calm. And the garbage cans? Why not grow night-blooming scented flowers nearby for delight. On second thought—put a few of those scents in the greenhouse for delightful tranquility.

While I opted out of experiencing terror, other emotions can help us create garden spaces with more intention. And that intention will heighten our encounters with the natural world.