Design a Stroll Garden

If you have enough space, a stroll garden can be a rewarding replacement for much or all of your lawn. It will introduce secret delights and their anticipation, promote contemplation, and draw you and your visitors out among the plants.

The Physical Journey

In her motivational book The Inward Garden, landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy writes:

The single most useful image that I know for composing the elements of a landscape into a coherent and interesting whole is the journey.”

Messervy studied the art of garden design in Japan, where the stroll garden is a well-known form. Its key requirement is space—not to produce sufficient exercise, but rather to give ample stimulation for the stroller’s mind.

A stroll garden can take several forms:

  • a path to a destination, excellent for a long skinny yard
  • a loop past a series of destinations, for a wider space
  • a network of loops and branches

The Anticipation

Suspense and discovery are key moods in a stroll garden, which should not be entirely visible from any point but should hold hidden elements to be discovered around bends, over rises, in the shadows, and behind bushes. This allows the stroller to experience the garden as a series of events, not just a static view–to participate and not simply observe. Alvin Horton explains in Creating Japanese Gardens:

The idea of anticipating and then discovering beauty, detail by detail, is central to the stroll-style garden. Such beauty is often subtle, so its discovery requires a pleasant effort by the stroller.”

The Discovery

What the stroller will discover are your garden’s focal points. Anything sufficiently interesting can be a focal point: a sculpture, a dramatic plant, a group of plants, a section of the garden, or a view of a distant scene. As the garden’s designer, it will be your job to create these focal points.

Instead of trying to fit many focal points into a smaller garden, you can build it around one major element, having that come into and out of view from several well-chosen vantage points along the path. This change of perspective, seeing something from a new side or within a new context, can generate sufficient surprise and mystery to reward strollers.

To capture a viewer’s full attention, allow only one focal point to be visible at a time. Obscure the view until you are ready to reveal it. You can do this with tall plants or a section of fencing, by causing the path to go up or down a hill, or by curving the path.

Curves give the added benefit of making your garden seem larger. The trick is that, to discourage short cuts and make the path feel natural, every curve must have a clear purpose, either turning toward a goal (a bench, a statue, a gate) or curving around an obstacle (a boulder, a shrub, a clump of grass).

The Mind Journey

Messervy suggests that when people view your garden, they “unconsciously take a journey through it in their minds.” To invite meditation, include a comfortable seat or a sturdy surface from which to view each focal point. The vantage point should feel safe; you can achieve this by having walls (of living material or hardscape) at its back and sides to “enfold” the viewer, relaxing the body and releasing the mind to wander.

Unplanned focal points can appear in your garden. A flock of cedar waxwings descends on your highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) and strips it of berries. A rabbit or frog leaps across the path. Dew touches the giant web of a skilled spider. These chance events make strollers more alert and add to their sense of discovery.

The Road Traveled

Your choice and placement of path materials will significantly affect a stroller’s experience.

With stepping stones, you can influence the speed with which strollers progress and the attention they pay to their feet, and therefore indirectly the attention that remains to give their surroundings. Small stones with rough surfaces set farther apart will keep people’s eyes on the path. Place larger stones where you want them to pause, look up, and appreciate the view.

Wide, clear paths foster a slow pace and constant observation of the garden, while narrow or overgrown paths increase the stroller’s speed. Widen your path at viewing areas to allow strollers to notice your focal point.

Changing your path material can signal a change in the mood or character of the garden. In fact, if you do change your path significantly and the garden doesn’t follow through on the promise, your visitors may be subtly disappointed.

One well-designed urban park in Saint Paul, Minnesota, includes two paths that deliver contrasting experiences. Around the edges of the park, the country path of crushed gravel meanders under trees footed by wildflowers, then crosses a brook on stepping stones. The city path, wider and laid with rows of brick, flows past benches and open paved areas in the park’s center. Using well-chosen path materials, the park offers two distinct journeys within the same city block.

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Heirloom Gardens, LLC

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