Home & Garden

Gardens: turning the yard into a participatory experience

The moving bamboo fountain certainly commands attention and offers the sounds of moving water.
The moving bamboo fountain certainly commands attention and offers the sounds of moving water. TNS

If you are contemplating changes to your landscape, strive to make the garden one of participation. This is the ultimate in design and enjoyment.

By participation you might think I am referring to the outdoor cooking area or perhaps the fort or treehouse where the children play. Both of these could certainly be applied in the concept, but a garden of participation is much more than that.

The concept comes from getting your visitors, whether they are family or friends, to have a participatory experience by being pulled from one part of the landscape to another. Important to this design is not to reveal everything at once. You can’t see the whole garden from any one point.

Once out in the garden and in the first outdoor room, you notice another location revealed through a “door” or “window.” It’s not really a door or window. Looking through frame-like placement of trees or shrubs is like a window. It could be a gate, but probably just as easily served by a curved path or walkway.

As you and the visitors are enticed to go to the next location, you have become an active garden participant. In the new room or location, the room that was your starting point is now concealed. Whether or not the garden ends there is up to you, but hopefully it will continue to another room or two. Even in a small garden, curves play the role of hiding what is ahead.

These gardens can be ones of fragrance, encouraging visitors to stoop to catch an exotic aroma. Around a corner hidden by evergreen shrubs might be a water garden, a bench, statuary, herb planter or something whimsical. All invite participants to sit, touch or taste.

The conceal-and-reveal method of creating a garden of participation not only makes the garden interesting, but it transforms the home like almost nothing else can do. The play area may indeed be around the corner. The path that takes you to a woodland seating area or a hidden gazebo has not only revealed a hidden gem but becomes participatory by encouraging the visitor to sit and relax, taking in all that nature has to offer.

Take a look in your neighborhood as you drive to work or school, or peer into a real estate buyer’s guide to see the homes for sale. It becomes woefully apparent that landscaping was put on the back burner at many homes. When you look at nice houses that have the mandatory five shrubs, two trees and little else, you get the feeling that the owner never really considered it a home, but only a stopping-off place on the road of life.

Look at your landscape and ask yourself if it is a garden of participation. Perhaps you are starting with what might be considered a blank slate. If you still have your native trees, consider yourself lucky.

If you feel a little overwhelmed, consider starting with trails. Let things like trees, shifting patches of light, berms and water guide and inspire you. Notice if animals have already given you some creative suggestions or your children who have already adopted the space. Take it in bite-sized increments, and the gardening experience will be much more rewarding as it develops into one of participation as the months and years go by.

Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South.”