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The Search for The Ideal Garden PDF Print E-mail

How People Hunger for Natural Beauty

by Peter Bochenek RLA 

I noticed early in my career that there were spaces that some people loved and some really hated. And other spaces that many would consider to be beautiful yet produced a feeling of indifference in some of my clients.

I realized that I also had varying reactions to different types of outdoor scenes and I began to wonder … why? What is the spark that ignites the passion for gardens?

I thought that if I could discover the origin of what sets our personal aesthetic, I would be able to create the perfect unique personal outdoor spaces for my clients. I wanted to create gardens for them that were more than just a pretty face.

I wanted them to have gardens that meant something to them, and made them glad to come home from the pressures they were facing at their jobs and in their lives.

Gardens where they could make memories with their spouses, children and parents. Gardens they would want to enthusiastically share with their friends. And gardens they could call their very own.

So, for many years I studied this issue. As I worked to uncover this mystery, I found that my question went deeper than I had anticipated. While they didn’t understand it at first, each of my clients not only wanted a garden, they needed one.

Recreate the Experience

During the first minutes of my initial interview with them, we would tour their property and in a serious business-like tone they would tell me of the various functions they wanted their property to provide, such as solving drainage problems and adding curb appeal, for a day somewhere off in the future when they might want to sell their home.

But, something would happen when we looked at my portfolio of garden pictures. There were clues I had to listen for very closely.

Their shoulders would drop, their eyes would brighten and they’d say things like:

  • “Oh, look at those Black-Eyed Susans – my grandfather always called every flower a Black-Eyed Susan. Do you think there could be a spot for them?”
  • “That arbor is beautiful! I’ve always dreamed of what it would be like to sit in the shade and read for hours, like I used to with my mother.”
  • “Oh, and I’ve always been fascinated by water. Do you think a pond would look good next to my patio?”

Their vision for their landscape was deepening. They were breaking through the clouds of practicalities of everyday living and connecting with their passion, their enthusiasm, their imagination – with themselves and those they loved and who loved them.

What I discovered was how to reproduce the elements in a garden that induce a deep feeling of happiness – of paradise.

What people are hungering for is to re-experience these deep feelings of happiness and connection that occurred in the past during special moments outdoors.

What is touching them is the connection between the place and a profound personal relationship in their life – with someone else or with themselves.

An example of this process is a project I designed for a client who had a strong attachment to a stream when he was small. His experiences by this stream included adventure and blissful solitude.

He would sit by this stream with his father who told him wondrous stories and made him feel very warm and loved.

As we talked about ideas for this garden, he mentioned this wonderful stream and inquired if I could recreate such a stream for him - even though there wasn’t the faintest hint of one on his property.

As the plan unfolded, the stream became a central element linking the various parts of his property. We made a small waterfall, and a series of riffles and pools as the stream fell down a slope to a pond at the bottom.

We planted birches and ferns around the stream, much like those near my client’s childhood stream, and placed some stones to sit upon, much like the stones he had sat on to listen to his father’s stories.

In a few years his garden took on the natural feel of a wild spot. As my client sits by his stream now, he has strong associations of his experience of being with his father, as well as enjoying the beauty of this spot.

It brings sensations that had been very important to him that he had forgotten about. These are the things that evoke his passion for his garden. It isn’t something that merely looks pretty, it is a part of him in a way that is woven into his being.

In my own life, one of the strong moments in my relationship with my wife occurred climbing the heights of Mt. Diablo in Danville, CA. Being high on the mountain, climbing tremendous stones amid wildflower fields higher than the circling hawks, taking in the view across to San Francisco on one side and the Sierras on the other, produced a moment of incredible connection with my life’s companion.

Imagine Your Ideal Garden

I’d like to allow you the opportunity now to get in touch with your personal paradise. I’m going to take just a couple of moments and give your imagination a chance to run free, while we do an exercise called ‘visualization’. You may be familiar with the visualizations used in many situations these days -- goal setting and stress reduction among them.


  • Please, lower your eyes for a moment, be quiet and imagine a beautiful place.
  • Just let images come to you ……. (Pause)
  • If some of you are having difficulty with seeing a place in your mind, don’t worry. Not all of us are visual. Just relax and let your mind drift. Perhaps certain words or sounds will come to mind.
  • Now, notice how large the space is.
  • What colors do you see?
  • Is this a place that you’ve been before or is it brand new?
  • What is the quality of light in the space? Is it all sun? All shade? Patches of each?
  • Is the space open or enclosed? Is it in the woods, or in a meadow. Or both? Or somewhere else?
  • Is there water?
  • Is it in the mountains? On a plain? In a desert? By the ocean? In a marsh? In a garden? On a lake or river? Or another place?

Now, raise your eyes again. This has been just a brief suggestion of a way to tap into your personal aesthetic. You can apply some of the elements you saw in your visualization to your own backyard. This is what is called – taking the ‘creative leap’.

If a beach came to mind, you don’t take the ocean and put it in your yard, you take motifs that could be at the ocean and use certain details that could fit in your space -- for instance, certain grasses, a sense of calm simplicity, very little color except for a bright umbrella over your patio table -- things that would be found in a beach setting.

For the mountains … you might include stones, shade plants and possibly a little brook that falls into a pool.

Mountains have been important to me and have produced my clearest thinking and deepest understandings. In my visualization of a wonderful spot, I experience myself in the middle of a 200 ft. waterfall surrounded by ferns, hanging vines, wildflowers growing out of crevices of the dripping rock face.

This is my image of paradise. I urge you to think of yours in more detail and find ways to bring those elements into your life everyday. It’s the key to happiness and by using the power of natural places, you will tap into your own passion for gardens.

I am not the only one who has been seeking the answer to the question of what sets our personal aesthetic. Recently, a new field of study called ‘design psychology’ has been cropping up, most notably in the realms of interior design and architecture. For example, Jane Pauley, the well-known NBC talk-show host, recently designed her office using similar concepts geared toward interior spaces.

Drexel Heritage, a well known furniture company recently invited Toby Israel, the author of “Someplace Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places” to be the scholar in residence at Drexel University’s College of Media Arts and Design.

And on Mother’s Day, my local newspaper, the Raleigh News and Observer, ran a large article on the effect that our mothers’ gardens have had on us. We are awakening to the understanding that environmental memories are food for our souls.

Keep America Beautiful

By keeping America beautiful, we increase the chances for the people of our nation, both young and old, to have powerful images of beautiful places in their memories, thereby producing sparks of hope and emotional support.

We’re so enthusiastic about these concepts that we’ve developed this website, devoted to helping people understand design psychology and how they can use it to produce their unique paradise in their own backyards.

We all have experienced the huge visual impact of National Parks or other dramatic views in different parts of the country. The power of these places is to bring people closer together. Children are closer to their parents, lovers are closer to each other, and friends are bonded to a greater degree than before by the magnificence of a large natural space.

These experiences remain with us always but are often forgotten in the ordinary run of daily living. However, they can be sparked into life again by a simple beautiful view. This explains the strength of a small garden to produce passionate feelings.

After a lifetime of immersion in beautiful spaces with thousands of experiences locked in memory, almost any view of something attractive in the smallest way will ignite a memory of something else. However, it’s only the views that have had a major impact on one’s life that can endure the process of forgetting and remain strong enough to be ignited again by visual association.

Each moment builds on others so that a person is a storehouse of experiences with natural beauty reverberating with memories and associations. When these experiences have been predominantly of one type, it is that type of space a person will prefer. Anything else will seem to be O.K. but will not produce a strong personal feeling.

Spaces that are dramatically different or opposite from the one the person has the most experience with, may seem objectionable. Somehow it will not feel right.

These are the mysteries of passionate feelings about outdoor environments. Their sources are hidden in the maze of what we have been and encountered.

Flashes of recognition occur here and there as moments of small beauties break into our consciousness. Natural beauty is food for the spirit. It fills us with the associations of a thousand days spent in beautiful surroundings. It fires our imagination, brings greater depth to our personal relationships, and causes us to penetrate our own being to find out why these spaces are so important.

In short, we learn about who we are in a greater way. This, in the end, is the real heart of the matter. Our passionate feelings about space and nature beckon to us to explore the complexity of our own truth.

Peter Bochenek