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Water is an important aspect of a spiritual garden, as in this landscape design by Viriditas. (photo by Jay Markel, courtesy Viriditas)

These tips can help generate a spiritual essence in your garden.

By Tori Peglar

The ancient Chinese philosopher and poet Lao Tzu once wrote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And so it may be said that the path to creating a spiritual garden begins with a single idea.

“Find out what brings you joy and then have a heart-to-heart with yourself,” says Lauren Richardson, greenhouse manager at Growing Gardens, a Boulder nonprofit organization. “Some people find joy in order and some people tend toward chaos, or what I like to think of as ‘whimsical.’”

The good news is creating a spiritual garden can be fun and relatively simple, and the best part is you don’t need a large space or a huge budget. Think of your small garden as a beautifully made dress or an elaborately crafted wooden cabinet, says Jay Markel, founder and lead designer at Viriditas, a high-end garden design and landscape company in Boulder.

“Fundamentally, a garden is an individual’s opportunity to experience nature in an intimate way,” Markel says. “What we have in gardens is a convenient way to literally cultivate the earth and have a spiritual connection to the earth.”

This landscape design by Ecoscape Environmental Design takes advantage of water, an important aspect of a spiritual garden. (photo by Ecoscape Environmental Design)
This landscape design by Ecoscape Environmental Design takes advantage of water, an important aspect of a spiritual garden. (photo by Ecoscape Environmental Design)

Here are tips to help you create nirvana in your yard.

Create a Destination

Landscapers often refer to the “rooms” that make up exterior spaces. In the same way that your house is divided into rooms with different purposes, so should your yard. First, think about the types of things you need in your yard, in addition to your spiritual space. Do you need a fenced area for your dogs? A place for a rose garden? A tool shed? Answering these questions can help you decide where to put your spiritual garden.

“We love creating outdoor rooms,” says Bill Melvin, owner and managing director of Ecoscape Environmental Design in Boulder. “The farther we get away from our homes, the more our minds can wander, even if it’s 20 feet away rather than sitting on the patio right beside the house.”

But how do you fashion an outdoor room?

Start by making it a destination in your yard. Perhaps you create a meandering path of stones that leads to the space. At the entrance, consider placing an arch, an arbor, a gate, large boulders or even tall grasses on either side of the entrance to make yourself and visitors feel like they’re entering a private space.

Spiritual garden by Viriditas (Photo Jay Markel, courtesy Viriditas)
Spiritual garden by Viriditas (Photo Jay Markel, courtesy Viriditas)

Next, define your room. A trellis covered with clematis, trumpet vines or honeysuckle can provide a privacy screen to block unwanted views.

Plants and trees also help define your room, if you layer them. Use different-sized plants, starting with ground-cover plants on the edges, moving to medium-sized shrubs, grasses and flowers, and then to trees, space permitting. Doing this not only defines your space by creating a sense of depth and dimension, it also lets you enjoy light at different times of the day.

Spiritual garden by Native Edge Landscapes (Photo: Tom Sunderland, courtesy native edge landscapes)
Spiritual garden by Native Edge Landscapes (Photo: Tom Sunderland, courtesy native edge landscapes)

“The layering of plants offers a distinct sense of light, because plants diffuse light in different ways,” Melvin explains. “In Colorado, we have such intense sunshine. When you have larger canopy trees, like maples, they can create dense shade, whereas locust trees can create beautiful dappled shade that has a really interesting quality.”

Give yourself a place to sit to observe the light, whether it’s a bench, a boulder or a log.

Fragrant & Medicinal

Choosing the plants to grow in your spiritual garden is the fun part. Scent can be very powerful, and also therapeutic, Richardson says. She says tricolor sage and lavender are good choices for a spiritual garden, as is the vigorous nutmeg thyme that sprouts mauve-pink flowers in early summer. Thyme is great for planting in between cracks on stone paths. Mint varieties are aromatic, but be aware—they spread quickly.

Spiritual garden by Ecoscape Environmental Design (Photo by Jim Haswell)
Spiritual garden by Ecoscape Environmental Design (Photo by Jim Haswell)

Richardson also likes agastache (also known as hyssop), a beautiful fragrant perennial that blooms all summer and comes in an array of pinks, blues, oranges and lavender. Agastache’s leaves can flavor drinks, and the flowers are great hummingbird and butterfly attractants. Goldfinches love to munch on agastache seeds, she says.

Medicinal plants can also enhance your space with their healing qualities and fragrant blossoms. Echinacea, evening primrose, roses, wild licorice, yarrow and hyssop all have medicinal qualities. The elderberry shrub’s berries are strong antioxidants. Be sure to plant it in an accessible space to harvest the berries, Melvin says.

Borrow the Views

Looking at the world around you is important as you plan your spiritual garden. The Chinese and Japanese have incorporated the landscapes around them in their gardens for thousands of years.

Photo: jay markel, courtesy viriditas
Photo: jay markel, courtesy viriditas

According to the 17th-century Chinese garden treatise, Yuan Ye, written during the Ming Dynasty, incorporating “borrowed views” is critical in garden design. Also referred to as “borrowing landscapes” and “borrowed gardens,” incorporating borrowed views means you consider your surroundings and incorporate aspects of it into your garden.

Markel says he often uses the borrowed-garden concept. He points to one of his projects, Le Jardin de Mon Coeur, French for “The Garden of My Heart.”

Photo: jay markel, courtesy viriditas
Photo: jay markel, courtesy viriditas

Before he started work on the steep, sloped mountain site, he noticed the property had magnificent Flatirons views but the existing garden separated the patio and the home’s interior from the incredible views. Large shrubs emphasized this visual disconnect. To remedy this he used the borrowed–garden concept to incorporate the mountain backdrop, which involved building a structural steel and concrete foundation that connected his  rock work, walls, water features and the patio.

“The healing aspect of the garden is this connection to nature,” Markel says. “That’s how gardens serve people.”

The borrowing concept doesn’t need to involve a lot of construction or money. If large branches block your view, trim them to let your borrowed view become part of your garden. Simply adding a large boulder and some native plantings can help connect your garden to the natural landscape.

Essential H2O

Photo:ecoscape environmental design
Photo:ecoscape environmental design

Water’s healing properties make it a popular element in spiritual gardens. “People think watching their water feature is calming, be it a pool, a fountain or a creek, but it’s the sound that really creates the healing effect,” Melvin says.

Placing a water feature upwind from an open bedroom or office window allows the calming sound and humidity to be carried inside, he says.

Water features also benefit birds, bees, butterflies, moths and other pollinators. Whether you buy a birdbath or work with a landscaper to create a koi pond, water’s life-giving properties positively impact the local ecology.

Go Zen

If creating a garden brimming with plants seems daunting, consider a Zen garden. Buddhist monks originally created Zen gardens more than 1,200 years ago as places to meditate. Today, Zen gardens remain peaceful places that are extremely low maintenance. For the most basic Zen garden, all you need are edging materials, sand, rocks and just a few well-placed plants, small trees or statues.

To define your Zen garden, dig about 4 inches of earth out of your garden, using a level to make sure the area is flat. Create a border with edging material or railroad ties anchored securely into the ground. Next, partially bury your rocks, place your plant(s) and pour sand into the space. Use a shovel and rake to spread the sand. Add a statue or two, if you want. Then, rake down about 3 inches in the sand to mimic ripples of water.

Whatever route you take to create a spiritual garden, be sure to enjoy the process as much as the result.

“It’s so important to be able to appreciate nature,” Melvin says, “because so much of the world around us is loud and fast-moving.”