I find my back garden very relaxing and restorative. I was sitting there yesterday enjoying the display of spring blooms – orange clivias, yellow cymbidium orchids, mauve bromeliads, white rock lillies and yellow hibbertia – against the backdrop of differently shaped, coloured and textured vegetation.
My pleasure was tinged with regret because I was aware that the garden would not be mine for much longer. This prompted me to take these photos:
As you can see the garden is more informal than formal. I cannot really claim that it was planned to be this way. It is more an evolved than a designed garden, the product of intuition rather than horticultural expertise – of luck rather than good management you might say.
What I find interesting, however, is that the combination of intuition and luck seems to have produced a space that works very well psychologically for me (and others I have reason to believe). And this is really what matters.
As the pioneering psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung pointed out, “nature” and “landscape” (and “gardens” by implication) are psychological constructs or products of the mind. A contemporary writer on the psychology of visual landscapes, Maarten Jacobs, makes much the same point with this diagram:
One important thing this diagram tells us is that, as far as all natural landscapes including my garden are concerned, the “experienced” landscape is different from the “real” one. This can mean that what passes as a horticulturally excellent garden landscape can miss the mark psychologically.
This is demonstrated in a well-designed American study that compared the restorative potential of informal (or organic) versus formal (or geometric) gardens. The authors of the study did more than make a simplistic comparison between gardens at the extreme of natural and formal; variations within each of these broad categories were also compared.
The 295 male and female participants in the study represented a broad range of ages and ethnic backgrounds. They were each shown 40 photos of gardens chosen by a horticultural expert to form two sets – formal gardens from most to least and informal gardens from least to most. These are examples of the photos used:
Each participant ranked every photo according to four attributes:
- Perceived restorative potential (how good a place it would be for a break when you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed or anxious)
- Visual appeal
- Naturalness (degree to which natural versus built features are present)
A sophisticated analysis of the responses revealed that the gardens having the highest perceived restorative potential were:
- Visually appealing
- More natural than built
According to other research, features that give gardens their greatest psychological power include:
- Unaltered terrain
- Graceful curvilinear shapes
- Few architectural elements
- Many native plant species following their normal habits of growth
- Natural looking water features such as ponds and streams
- Partly open rather than dense vegetation
- The absence of geometrical shapes and properties like axes and symmetry
It is no accident that these are much the same features our earliest human ancestors would have recognised and welcomed in their savannah woodland homes. It is strongly suspected that we modern humans are drawn to informal and natural landscapes because of predispositions and preferences that are inherited from our forebears and encoded in our genes (the biological factors in Maarten Jacobs’ diagram). So it is probably the case that my back garden is as much a product of my green genes as of gardening guidebooks or anything else.