Garden of Memories

Designing a Herbaceous border

Whenever I am asked to disclose my principal formula for a successful garden, I will invariably return the same verdict – to evoke an atmosphere is paramount. Many of the ideas I employ in garden design originate from something I have encountered at some stage in my life. When anything appeals to me for a particular reason, and I later find that it can be utilized within my design work, it isn’t merely the visual element that intrigues me, it is the experience of that previous incident that will always play a crucial role in its reconstruction.

Wherever we go, whatever we see and hear is an experience that has an associated ambience, which is personal and unique to each of us. It isn’t easy to re-create that precise ambience, as numerous factors may have to be taken into account. Location, terrain, topography, climate, weather, time, season and many other attributes may be significant in simulating the event. With skill, patience and reasoning, our experiences can be transformed into stimulating gardens.

For many of us the garden is a form of escapism, sanctuary, asylum. It is a retreat from the hurried, chaotic pandemonium of the modern environment and therefore a tranquil atmosphere must be provided. But gardens can also be created to induce other moods. Indeed gardens may be fashioned around a compilation of moods: mystery, mirth, frivolity, romance; even pathos, apathy and the macabre. I believe the mood to be the spirit of the garden. It is the foundation from which it evolves. But initially we must seek inspiration to enable ourselves to fashion such a garden.

Travel has been exceptionally valuable in providing me with inspiration, as it is in unfamiliar locations that we undergo extraordinary, curious and unique experiences. A haunting forest in Switzerland, an eerie, volcanic landscape in Italy, a bustling bazaar in Istanbul, the fascination and mystique of a medina in Tangier: these are just a few of the many sensations I have enjoyed whilst travelling abroad, and they have proved a valuable source of reference. However, my gardens aren’t solely conceived from visual experiences, but are frequently inspired by music, sounds, dreams, poems, scents or feelings. These I record and from my notes I attempt to comprehend their logic, later endeavoring to communicate their significance through my designs. This approach provides me with some very interesting projects, but occasionally it is just pure chance that yields the best fruit.

One of those rare chances emanated during a visit with a friend to a reclamation yard, where we hoped to purchase materials for a garden project. We found a considerable portion of the reclamation yard neglected and overgrown, and as we rummaged through the debris and weeds, my friend was suddenly taken back to an episode from his childhood. It was the particular scent of the wild flora that had triggered his memory, transporting him back in time to when he was a young boy playing in the countryside. The incident had such a remarkable effect on him that I was inspired yet again to pursue a fresh direction, which would hopefully extend my resources, inciting new and exiting projects. This experience prompted me to further explore areas that could assist me in fabricating gardens with elements capable of stimulating the mind, thus evoking past memories. Considerable and lengthy research has alerted me to some of the fundamental components that must be addressed when attempting to construct a ‘Garden of Memories’. However, continued study is essential in order to improve on what I have already accomplished.

If our intention is to stimulate the mind, it is important to acquire some knowledge of how the memory works; this will give a clearer direction. There are three important parts to the memory: encoding, storage and retrieval. Encoding sorts out the information going into the memory, storage makes sense of the information ensuring that it is retained, and retrieval is the process of recalling memories. The ability to retain information is extremely important, and some individuals are more capable of this than others. Significant personal events are usually processed at a deeper level than other incidents and are therefore more easily retrievable.

‘Memories’ or the retrieval of information can be ‘triggered’ by various cues. Context and association play vital roles in the retrieval of information: setting, season, time of day, emotional state, scents and sounds are all examples. This basic information provides a foundation on which to build. From here we can begin to think about the components that are required to construct the garden.

Plants can be considered the essential ingredients of a ‘Garden of Memories’ and they fall into two categories: those with the potential to trigger memories, and plants that stimulate the mind. A selection of plants may be compiled for gardens catering for many visitors, but this has limitations, as it is impossible to obtain knowledge of each individual. To know something of an individual’s background will give some indication of the type of planting that could produce successful results. The garden may be built for a family or for just one person, and a general rule would be: the greater the numbers of garden users, the greater the collection of plants. With large numbers of visitors, there will be a large diversity of life experiences, thus the necessity for a greater diversity of plant species. The garden cannot possibly cater for everyone. It would be impossible to create the conditions required to evoke memories from everyone’s past and the outcome of our efforts may unfortunately be a ‘hit or miss’ affair. Contrary to that however, there is the category of plants that has the potential to aid the memory.

Culpepper, in his ‘Complete Herbal & English Physician’ describes the qualities of Spearmint, one of which is to aid memory. He also informs us that Sage will strengthen the memory when taken as a medicine. More recently we have rediscovered the benefits of other herbs, many of which are now used in the practice of aromatherapy. Lavender for instance, has been proven to induce relaxation. I am in my most creative state when totally relaxed and this is true of many individuals. Creativity is having the ability to generate feasible ideas; but these ideas cannot be ‘pulled out of a hat’ like a magician producing a rabbit, they are stored as information in the brain. We must therefore determine how to retrieve this information, and relaxation has proved a successful formula. The ideas we produce are in fact memories that we have unlocked and arranged to satisfy a specific purpose. Consequently, Lavender must be considered an essential choice for the planting schedule.

Since it was the scent of plants that initiated the idea of a Garden of Memories, scented species must therefore form the main body of the planting. Aromas will have varying effects on each individual. Some past experiences will be unpleasant ones and knowledge of what may trigger these unpleasant episodes can help us to avoid inducing them in the garden. It is the pleasant memories that are important, as most of us envisage a garden as being a pleasant environment. The scent of wild flora is quite likely to be beneficial to most of us, as we have been subjected to these aromas for much of our lives. Wild flora may be used to create an informal and natural setting, or in more ornamental gardens the native species may be mixed with hardy exotics.

The development of a scented planting scheme must begin with the compilation of an extensive plant list, from which those species regarded as advantageous are chosen. I find aromatic ‘cottage garden’ flowers and old-fashioned roses useful selections, as they have been prevalent in gardens for many years. Scented plants may be divided into three categories: those emitting scent freely, those emitting scent when ‘brushed against’ or disturbed, and plants whose leaves must be crushed or bruised in order to release the aroma. Each selected plant will have a particular and intimate effect on various individuals. Caryopteris x clandonensis is a personal favourite falling into the latter category of scented plants. When crushed the aroma is reminiscent of the ‘Vick’ ointment that was so popular during my childhood. The flower of the Moroccan Broom (Cytisus battandieri) has a pleasant, pineapple scent that may awaken memories of visits to exotic locations. This plant will always remind me of an intriguing visit to the village of Chefchaouen, high in the Rif Mountains of North Africa where it conspicuously straggles the rocky terrain. If the plant is merely mentioned, I can still picture Chefchaouen: the Rifian women in their striped tunics and conical straw hats, the bustle of the busy medina and the charm of the Andalucian architecture dominated by its 15th century Kasbah. The flower of this exceptional Broom constantly proves to captivate the beholder. Aniseed has an unmistakable fragrance, which whenever I see or smell it, reminds me of Menorca where it grows freely throughout the island. The potent fragrance of Ribes – the flowering currant, announces the arrival of spring. This was one of the first shrubs introduced to me when I began my career in horticulture many years ago, and that foregone event is faithfully revived for a few weeks each year as it releases its scent.

It should be noted that some plants are scented only in the evening; others emit their scent in winter. Considering the significance of context in triggering memories, we must subsequently pay particular attention to these species. Night-scented Stock and Evening Primrose are two suitable choices. The evergreen Daphne odora ‘Aureo-marginata’ (which I grow in my garden) produces a potent, lemon scent during winter. Visitors never fail to remark on this excellent plant. But many of us are reluctant to venture into the garden during the cold winter months, therefore the positioning of winter scented plants demands careful contemplation. Favourable locations are areas adjacent to doors and entrances, and along main pathways where the plants will be enjoyed by all who enter and leave.

My inventory of aromatic plants gives prominence to those species collectively known as herbs. These include Chives, Balm, Feverfew, Thyme, Rosemary, Lovage, Sage and Mint, all of which have unique aromas. The numerous varieties of Mint each have their own characteristic fragrance, and anyone who has visited Morocco will recognise the pleasant smell of Mentha viridis, an herb used to make mint tea – the popular Moroccan beverage. Because of their important medicinal and culinary qualities, herbs have been cultivated in gardens for countless years. Their extensive use has ensured that we have all experienced the effects of herbal scents; accordingly, their inclusion in the planting schedule should be assured.

Once a suitable and appropriate selection of plants has been finalised, we may then ponder over the choice and usage of materials. We can, in all probability surmise that the introduction of modern paving and brickwork into the garden is unlikely to procure recollections of bygone events. It is more plausible to assume that reclaimed materials such as cobbles, York stone and wrought ironwork will assist in prompting association with specific eras. When selecting materials we must consider the garden users. Will they belong to a particular age group or will they be of differing age groups? Will they have similar or diverse backgrounds and social circles? Certain periods may be notably significant to some individuals. Strong trends and movements have had an effect on each generation. Careful study of these events and knowledge of the architecture and styles of those periods will give the designer some guidance. The use of materials must be scrupulously examined and temptation to include anything and everything ancient that is available must be avoided. Only those materials deemed to be relevant to this type of project should be considered.

Apart from hard materials such as paving and brickwork, we may also consider the properties of softer materials for use in the garden. There are many mulches which, like many plants, possess aromatic qualities, each having a distinct aroma. These mulches may be applied to beds and borders where they will suppress weeds. They may have aesthetic links to our past and it is possible that their bouquet could arouse memories. The choice of mulches includes forest bark chips, cocoa shell, coir, spent mushroom compost and leaf-mould. From personal experience I can confidently advise on the brewery residue, ‘spent hops’ as a mulch. There may be temptation to introduce spent hops into the garden, perhaps perceiving a link with certain professions or pastimes. However, this offensive substance should be thoroughly avoided, as the pungent stench is guaranteed to deter any prospective garden visitor – choose with care!

There is potential to create various moods within different sections or rooms of the garden by introducing particular artefacts. An old school bell for instance, would for many people re-create the atmosphere of the schoolyard and arouse recollections of schooldays. Such artefacts may be used as main features, focal points, or can be partially hidden, thus becoming pleasant surprises when discovered. I have introduced specific items into my garden, which are associated with distinct periods in my life, and these objects often appeal to my visitors, prompting from them interesting anecdotes. An old mangle which I found in my cellar is now located within a shrub bed, half hidden by the planting. This proves a popular conversation piece. Some people have either owned a mangle or, like myself they remember their grandmother using one. I also have an iron shoe last, which is there to remind me of my early working years as a cobbler; I have an abundance of tales to disclose whenever I am questioned about its significance. A collection of ancient pots and bottles is displayed in a shady corner of my garden and close inspection reveals the diversity of substances the vessels once contained; stout, spirits, varnish, ink, cough medicine, blood tonic, ginger beer, ketchup, cod liver oil, – even poison! Each pot and bottle has a story to tell and every one of them is of particular relevance to myself. I can often recall in detail the locations where I found them, and the associated events of the time. Such is the extraordinary capacity of specific objects to induce recollections of past incidents.

Having pondered at great length over a suitable choice of centrepiece for my ‘Garden of Memories’, I have determined that the feature especially appropriate for this situation is that ancient and provocative edifice, the labyrinth. I will summarise the labyrinth’s importance, but I recommend that designers carry out further examination into its history, purpose and construction before endeavouring to undertake its delineation on site. The labyrinth is frequently, but improperly likened to the maze; indeed many dictionaries assign identical definitions to them. When initially viewed, both layouts may well appear similar; nevertheless, there is a considerable difference. Within the maze one must figure out the correct route, with many paths terminating in cul-de-sacs, here the mind is totally focused on solving this enigma. The labyrinth on the other hand has no blind alleys; the pathway is continuous and one is led into its centre without having to make choices. This liberates the mind, allowing more important dilemmas to be resolved and indeed it has been used to assist in problem solving for countless eras. The labyrinth is a place to meditate whilst quietly ambling along; a sense of calm is experienced, tension is relieved, the mind is relaxed, ideas materialise – memories are unlocked!

The available area within the garden will determine the size and type of labyrinth that can be built. In the larger garden, the pathways may be bordered by pleached trees or tall, yew hedging. Dwarf Box would be suitable for a smaller scheme, or the pattern may be cut into a lawn creating a ‘Gazon Coupe’ effect. In a restricted space the labyrinth design could be incorporated into the paving detail, where only the eye will follow its route. Small pebbles, flints or ‘on edge’ tiles are all suitable materials for this purpose. A perfumed labyrinth of mint or lavender could potentially hold exceptional ‘memory-evoking’ properties, and its aesthetic, aromatic and provocative qualities would prove encapsulating to both gardener and visitor.

Water has prevailed in gardens as an eminent feature since ancient times and has such a mesmerising quality that it undoubtedly warrants consideration. Since childhood we have all been fascinated by water; the tranquillity of a still pool, the sound of a running stream and the sensation of crossing water over a bridge or by stepping stones. The possibilities with this exhilarating medium are infinite, from tiny self-contained fountains to vast lakes, from soothing trickles to raging torrents. If the intention is to introduce a water feature into the garden (and I believe it to be an essential element) then I would apply the following rules to its use. Peace and serenity are often interrupted by the sound of roaring water, and this can be frustrating. In quiet locations the gentlest of trickles would perhaps be a wise choice. On the other hand, where a garden is situated close to a busy main road for example, the noise of the water will have to be increased in order to draw attention away from the annoying vehicular clamour. The sound of water can be very pleasing and therapeutic, but to some people it is irritating. There is noise and there is noise pollution; the designer should always be aware of this and must make calculated decisions. In the gardens of Japan, experts fine-tune running water to attain the desired effect. To ensure that the mind isn’t totally focused on the water, a timer switch can be introduced to give periodic rather than continual water movement. It is imperative that water complements the garden and does not detract from it.

Consider the merits of still water: when calm it is like a mirror reflecting plants and buildings, and adding another dimension to the garden. A light breeze will initiate gentle surface ripples, and that wonderful aquatic plant the water lily requires calm water to ensure its success. We have experienced the effects of water in many ways throughout our lives, through fishing, swimming, sailing and numerous other pursuits, making it a serious consideration for inclusion in the ‘Garden of Memories’. It can speak to us and it can tell us about our past.

The information I have gathered to date is probably just a foundation stone on which to build the garden. I feel that there are many avenues yet to explore – perhaps colour for instance. When ideas cease to flow, to presume the project is complete is a big mistake. A good artist is never entirely satisfied with his or her own work; otherwise there can be no progress. During the gathering of material for this article, a friend suggested that this style of garden might prove helpful to those suffering from severe lapses of memory and other related conditions. I certainly hope that it can assist in bringing about a recovery, and although I can’t guarantee it, I can reveal that the introduction of some of the previous mentioned elements into my own garden has undoubtedly had a positive effect on myself.

Memories are very important, especially to those with few possessions. Unlike material wealth, memories cannot be taken away; they may sometimes be misplaced but can always be retrieved. All the episodes of our lives are stored in our minds, waiting to be recalled. Our past is never lost; we occasionally visit it by accident, but there is the potential to recapture and experience all those previous sensations once again. The ‘Garden of Memories’ may prove to be a powerful tool, and perhaps the idea of time travel that is depicted in so many books and films isn’t so ridiculous after all.

John Richard Harris © 2001

Note: some of the terms used in this article may be unfamiliar to people outside of Britain. I am happy to answer any of your queries.

Your comments on this article are welcome and will be gratefully received. Please either e-mail to or post to:

JRH Garden Design Bagh-i-Khalvat,
3 Douglas Road,
Wigan, Lancs.
WN1 1XT, England

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