Cairns are an ancient way to denote a path or memorial site.

Cairns are an ancient way to denote a path or memorial site. Photo credit; Alyson Ross Markley

Do you feel the need for a personal outdoor space to call your own and simply ‘be’? Are you looking for a way to carve out a quiet meditation garden where you can practice yoga or pray? Or perhaps like my client you seek an environment where you can be surrounded by a garden as you celebrate the life of a loved one while allowing yourself time and space to heal?

The circumstances may vary yet our desire for inner peace is a unifying theme. This is the story of how I set out to design a garden for a client we shall call Sarah. Sarah’s parents had both recently passed away and she asked that I create a memorial garden that would both celebrate their lives while also giving her a special place to reflect.

The journey

Short wooden posts will line the path at intervals. (Design seen at the Denver Botanic Garden)

Short wooden posts will line the path at intervals. (Design seen at the Denver Botanic Garden)

Life takes us along a series of paths, some unexpected, some carefully orchestrated yet each memorable in its own way. In this garden the main pathway of bluestone pavers  meanders at a comfortable pace, allowing time to enjoy carefully placed  ’garden moments’ of fragrance, sculpture or form. At intervals along this section of the journey a series of round posts flank the path, set in such a way as to suggest the rolling topography of hills and valleys. A miniature landscape of sorts that reminds us that life is never straightforward yet has a plan, a form, a design.

Like many of life’s paths this  diverges and one can choose to take a narrower path to a partially obscured seating area which is only fully revealed on venturing into the unknown.

A narrow path of hazelnut shells similar to this one will connect two private seating areas

A narrow path of hazelnut shells similar to this one will connect two private seating areas

A secondary pathway leads from this seating area, down through an area of mostly native plantings to a private arbor. This path consists of hazelnut shells, crunching underfoot as one takes care to stroll at a more leisurely pace. Boulders are used to retain the mulch as well as provide steps down the slight incline.

Seating

It seems that most of us feel most at peace when we are within a garden. We may each describe it differently- a sense of being connected to God or Nature, but there is something about being surrounded by beauty, by living things and by feeling the breeze and sunshine on our weary bodies that helps us to slow down, breathe a little easier and get things back into perspective.

I created three seating areas in this garden each with a unique character, view point and feel.

This Asian style patio by Far Hills Landscape Contractors Statile & Todd  gives a sense of the paver/mondo grass grid although the other elements are not the same as in my design

 

The largest of the three is directly outside the master bedroom, accessed through sliding glass doors. I replaced a small concrete slab with a much larger grid of bluestone pavers separated by dwarf green mondo grass. This immediately gives a sense of being in the garden rather than sitting back and merely observing it.  The view from here offers glimpses of most of the garden although one has to venture out to see things more clearly.

A second semi-private space is created on a small knoll with a gravel base and stone bench just large enough for one. This bench looks down onto a bubbling fountain and is sheltered by a large Japanese maple which will rustle in the breeze.

The most private space of all is an arbor set within a more naturalistic planting. An integral bench will allow Sarah to enjoy the fragrant vines  overhead while a small deck gives this a sense of being a viewing platform, looking towards the house yet with most of the garden journey hidden from view. Old, mossy tree stumps and ferns dominate this area.

The color palette

Watching ferns unfurl as the garden awakens in spring  brings a sense of renewal

Watching ferns unfurl as the garden awakens in spring brings a sense of renewal

This is not a place for overly bold and bright plant combinations in a rainbow of colors. Rather it has a restful scheme of shades of green from soft yellow-green to deep, dark shades with accents of burnished copper and burgundy.

The plant palette

Japanese maples will add color and texture throughout the garden

Japanese maples will add color and texture throughout the garden especially in fall

The backdrop to this garden is one of towering hemlocks, western red cedar and Douglas fir so this creation is essentially an understory. Many Japanese maples have been added; both upright and weeping forms with finely dissected foliage and broader more typical leaves. While summer shades are green and deep burgundy, fall will bring a blazing riot of fiery gold, orange and scarlet.

These deciduous trees have been balanced with many broadleaf evergreens including the multi hued Gulf Stream heavenly bamboo, the tall holly-like Charity Oregon grape and variegated rhododendrons transplanted from other area of Sarah’s garden.

Gulf Stream heavenly bamboo is a favorite for soft feathery texture and a blend of warm colors.

Gulf Stream heavenly bamboo is a favorite for soft feathery texture and a blend of warm colors.

Japanese black pines, a weeping blue atlas cedar  and prostrate deodar cedars bring the color and texture of conifers down to a more human scale and like the evergreen shrubs add year round color to the garden.

Swathes of Japanese forest grass line the primary path, first on one side then on the other, emphasizing the sense of meandering. Smaller clumps of variegated Japanese sedge will be planted loosely around the water feature.

This garden relies on foliage for color but I have included two varieties of winter blooming hellebores; the deep rose-burgundy Merlin and creamy white Monte Cristo, both of which I have grown and found to be hardy,  long blooming and easy care.

Winter interest is not limited to foliage and flowers, however. Several maples have colored bark most notably a coral bark maple and two clusters of Midwinter Fire dogwood shrubs.

Lions Head maple is best known for its tufty foliage reminiscent of a lions mane but the smooth olive green bark is equally beautiful

Lions Head maple is best known for its tufty foliage reminiscent of a lions mane but the smooth olive green bark is equally beautiful

Fragrance

A garden such as this would not be complete without the sensory element of fragrance. Each seating area offers something different; winter daphne, akebia, witch hazel and Oregon grape.

Water feature

Using natural elements was important  as was a simplistic style. A low basalt dish will rest on a stone slab. Water will pour from a bamboo spout onto the dish, sheeting over the slab and disappearing into a hidden reservoir . This will be seen and heard from the master bedroom as well as various points in the garden.

Artistic details

A stone cairn designed by local artist Luke DeLatour has special significance. Photo credit; Ashley Ross Markley

A stone cairn designed by local artist Luke DeLatour has special significance. Photo credit; Alyson Ross Markley

Cairns have been used for centuries to mark a trail or signify a memorial site so it seemed appropriate to include an artistic representation of  such a feature in this garden. A custom made cluster of three stacked rock sculptures, designed by local artist Luke deLatour  marks the trail leading from the main pathway to the hidden stone bench. The tallest of these will have an eye carved in the final stone. Portals such as this focus the eye and help us see things differently, an important element of meditation, reflection and healing.

My clients mother was an artist and so I wanted Sarah to have the opportunity to design and perhaps create something unique that would represent the Circle of Life. This art piece will hang on a wall and only be visible from the most secluded arbor.

Moving forward

The design is complete and my client is thrilled that I captured her vision and translated it in a respectful and thoughtful way. I hope I have incorporated elements that will make her smile as she celebrates her parents lives and heal as she reflects on special memories.

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