Gardens are a refuge, a solace from the world. We all at some stage, have been awed by a place where the buildings and landscape just seem to feel right, where a sense of harmony exists. In areas like this by simply being or planting a seed, or watching a rose bloom, or glimpsing a native bird in its habitat may be all that is needed to restore our mindset and sense of balance in life and gain equilibrium. An hour in a garden, either tending plants or observing as we relax, we can restore parts of ourselves that may have been lost. There is also an extra abstract sense more than our five senses that brings a feeling of comfort and belonging from a garden- a sense of place.
I like to think of a sense of place as a lens that we look through to describe the distinctive character of our locality. This essence of a place gifts us with an emotional bond or attachment and can be experienced as a feeling of belonging, comfort, safety and well-being inspired by our home, garden, or area.
The Andalusian Gardens surrounding the Moorish Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, was the first genuinely breathtaking gardens I had ever seen. I came across some photos this week and was once again stunned by the garden’s beauty. What struck me was the deep sense of place this garden imbues and how perfect the spaces’ structural design showcases the surviving remnants of the Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula (711–1492).
The Alhambra Palace Gardens include formal areas and extend to the surrounding areas, particularly the General life or Summer House. It is an unequalled example of the use of structure to form a magnificent garden space that connects the viewer to the history, culture and essence of the gardens. Previously on my return from Spain in 2018, I wrote about the Summer House, often called the Gardens of the Architect. The gardens are perfect.
In Roman literature and mythology, a sense of place was referred to as a deity watching over the area called ‘genius loci’, a Latin term meaning spirit of place. Although, sense of place, I think, is more a feeling or an emotion, not something supernatural but intangible, a 6th sense. A feeling stimulated by a place’s distinctive atmosphere or essence. The materials that define a garden space, the walls, trees, buildings, and plants, all have visual appeal, texture, and function. But a sense of place will help connect us to the culture, geography, and history of the area in which we live and garden.
What aspects create a sense of place in a garden? Is it the collection of unique and individual facets of life in the area or just one characteristic that stands out? At the Alhambra Palace Gardens, you are immediately aware of the sense of place with the perfect use of design elements; form, texture, line, scale, colour, repetition, simplicity and symmetry. The extraordinary landscape marries historical, cultural and religious characteristics exceptionally through the added use of geometry, mirrors, water and hard surfaces that create balance and unity.
Every garden will have features that create a sense of place, and at the heart of the garden, what grounds it and gives it its richness and substance, are the unique structures in the landscape. The trees, house, hedges, fences, steps, walls, arches, pergolas, arbours, garden shed, greenhouse, summer house or outdoor recreational space as in a gazebo, barbeque area or a pond. Some of these structures are intrinsic in a site, and others may need to be built or made ourselves. Whilst, on the other hand, there may be structures that are historical or utilitarian. The structural components are more intrinsic aspects like cultural or historical features and the broader visual appeal
If I think of a sense of place in my garden, the first thoughts that come to mind are the extraordinary numbers and sounds of birdlife. The orange tree in Spring where native crested pigeon’s nest and once hatched move to teach their young to fly from the Tea garden arch or the warning cries of the white sentry cockatoo when a goanna approaches. The deafening sounds of thousands of frogs at night or the raucous laughs of the kookaburras to herald a rainstorm? And then there are the long-distant views to the horizon across rural land at sunset that create a lace effect in the trees and the low lying twilight that highlights the colours of the roses at dusk.
It may take time to discover a sense of place after living through each of the four seasons and getting an emotional feel for a place, but every site will have a story to tell. It may be best to be familiar with the natural layout of your land, the features and ecosystems- drainage, catchment areas, watercourses, wetlands etc. or any unique geological, wildflower and wildlife features. And to research the aboriginal and history of early settlers on your land. The historical background of ruins or structures such as barns and old sheds, stone walls, dams or orchards can create tangible links to the past. Then decide which unique aspects are most relevant to you to maintain and preserve for your garden design.
Being passionate about and authentic to the character of where we garden is essential because if there is one place in life, we can be ourselves it is by designing and growing a garden. There is no point in planting a beautiful native garden; for example, if you prefer a landscape of Mediterranean herbs and lavenders as I do.
A garden without Rosemary, Lavender and Thyme, would be unthinkable, not to mention without roses! I see no reason that we cannot live harmoniously with plants from all over the world that do nothing but improve our local species, are not invasive or threatening, just enjoyable. These plants and thousands of others thrive in our climate and seem proper and fitting to their new settings, so who would want to give them up.
In my travels, I love to see the Eucalyptus in Greece, Grevilleas, Bottlebrush and Wattle growing in far-flung gardens overseas. They seem quite at home, as do the vast numbers of species from overseas that we grow in Australian gardens. On the other hand, there are thousands of invasive and unlikeable plants considered noxious weeds; Chinese privet, Prickly Pear, Common Lantana, Morning Glory and Milk Thistle, among others that we need to be extremely careful with.
A sense of place is born by the clever composition of personal tastes, the features of the locality, and visual clues or history. The hard building materials and the soft plantings and designs facets all come together to create a special place that is functional, workable, has a strong identity and character. and makes you feel comfortable and at home.
All content and images Di Baker 2021