Janna SchreierWhich gardens make your heart sing?

When I first took an interest in garden design, it was all about the look. Some combination of colours, textures and forms would jump out at me from a page and I would ooh and aah about how beautiful it was.

And beauty is still extremely important to me. But it’s now only number two on the list. When I started ‘serious’ (or perhaps I should call it ‘serial’) garden visiting, I realised the really significant factor, in the very best gardens, was how they made you feel.

A number of years ago, I viewed a beautiful 1870s stone house in Bungendore, NSW. Having not long stepped off the plane from Heathrow, I was naive to Australian Saturday pastimes and was actually viewing with an interest to buy. As we finished up with the agent, our minds whirling with thoughts, she said ‘if it keeps coming back to you, you’ll know it’s for you’. It was the first time I had heard that phrase, but now I realise it applies to so many situations.

The lumpy act of garden visiting, for one. I say lumpy, because in spring or when you’re travelling (if you have a kind spouse) or during garden festivals, you often see lots of gardens in quick succession; unlike in winter when you may barely see a plant beyond your own garden fence for some weeks. And it’s very true that when you see a lump of half a dozen, there is always one that ‘keeps coming back’. The garden that, as I explored it, quite definitely made my heart sing the loudest.

It’s the one where time stood still for me. It’s the one where I forgot about my to do list. It’s the one where I felt so at peace with the world that I never wanted to leave. The feelings gardens provoke in you, whilst not completely divorced from their beauty, are what really have an impact on you; what really make them stick. We instinctively feel how special they are.

So what do these exceptional, ‘coming back to us’ gardens all have in common? Can we define it? Can we bottle it up and release it into our own gardens?

If I think through which gardens have most lightened my mood and brought me joy, at first they seem quite a disparate collection.

Dame Elisabeth Murdoch's Cruden Farm. Photo Janna Schreier

Dame Elisabeth Murdoch’s Cruden Farm. Photo Janna Schreier

Dame Elisabeth Murdoch’s Cruden Farm, is one that filled me with delight when I visited earlier this year. I could sense Dame Elisabeth in everything I saw, the words of Anne Latreille’s wonderful book of the garden coming to life. The focus was on colourful, exotic flowers, delivering beautiful scenes, but the values of its owner, of hard work, persistence and unpretentiousness, were what really touched my heart.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden. Photo Janna Schreier

Sissinghurst Castle Garden. Photo Janna Schreier

Then there is Sissinghurst Castle Garden in the UK. I remember walking around for the first time, in a state of disbelieving surrealism. The site, dating back to the Middle Ages, that I had read about so many times; the paths that Vita Sackville West had traversed so frequently; the corridors that Harold Nicolson had designed. It sent a tingle down my spine.

Te Kainga Marire garden. Photo Janna Schreier

Te Kainga Marire garden. Photo Janna Schreier

Te Kainga Marire, a native garden in New Plymouth, New Zealand, is a very different garden, developed from scratch over forty years by its owners. It is chockablock with plants–feeling like two or three acres rather than its true half acre–each looking so comfortable in its place that you’d struggle to believe it (or its parents) hadn’t been there forever. I felt like a small child exploring a newly discovered den in the woods.

Cameron Paterson's Toorak garden. Photo Janna Schreier

Cameron Paterson’s Toorak garden. Photo Janna Schreier

In contrast to these longer term gardens, is the designer, Cameron Paterson’s, Toorak garden. Having worked with his clients at their previous home, he knew them inside out and upside down and was given a free rein to design something fitting for their new property. What he has created, over the space of just a few years, sits so perfectly in its setting. You see it and you take a deep breath in and at once the busy roads behind you fade away. It’s not fussy, but it’s interesting and you just want to pull up a chair and soak in the peaceful atmosphere.

Great Dixter Front Entrance. Photo Janna Schreier

Great Dixter Front Entrance. Photo Janna Schreier

Great Dixter, in the UK, on the other hand, shouts ‘hello’ to you, as you approach the front door. The vibrant colours are certainly not restful, but they are so cheerful and so joyful that they awaken your inner soul, somehow. The plantings are exuberant and so much fun that you seem to lose all inhibitions and can’t help but want to dance about the place. When I was there in October, I was luckily enough to chat to Fergus Garrett, the Head Gardener (and so much more), and the quiet passion and immense love and skill just radiated from him, leaving me quite literally buzzing.

Painterly colours at Government House, British Columbia. Photo Janna Schreier

Painterly colours at Government House, British Columbia. Photo Janna Schreier

Two recent gardens I saw just last month, whilst not having world class status, have also remained prominent in my mind. The first, British Columbia Government House gardens, I visited at the end of a warm, brightly lit, summer’s day, almost no-one but my husband and I present. Having just visited the ‘in-your-face-bright’ Butchart gardens, the subtly of planting here was utterly magical. I felt as though I was floating about between this wonderful, ephemeral, exuberant, delicate plant life and as I look back over my photos more and more layers reveal themselves. Each segment of this large, diverse garden nestled perfectly into its space.

Nitobe Japanese Garden, Vancouver. Photo Janna Schreier

Nitobe Japanese Garden, Vancouver. Photo Janna Schreier

The other Canadian garden that remained with me is the Japanese Nitobe garden in Vancouver. Everything moved into slow motion as soon as I entered the garden. No-one shouted, no-one ran, everyone, of all ages and nationalities, was in a state of contemplation, just taking everything in. Quite a static garden, with no dramatic seasonal change, it somehow gave a reassuring air of continuity. It certainly wasn’t the most beautiful garden I had ever seen, but I was staggered how it affected me emotionally.

So what are the themes that run through these gardens?

I think there is something about history and an ongoing story. These are not instant gardens that have popped up. They have developed out of true connections, with the land, with the people, with a cultural philosophy. But I wondered if there could be exceptions to this.

Stunning naturalistic planting by Dan Pearson at Chelsea 2015. Photo The Frustrated Gardener

Stunning naturalistic planting by Dan Pearson at Chelsea 2015. Photo The Frustrated Gardener

Dan Pearson’s Chelsea garden this year, is missing from the list; it does things to me every time I see a photo and I didn’t even get to experience the garden in the flesh. But this was an instant garden, assembled in a matter of weeks, disassembled less than a week later. So how does that fit in?

The question, I think, is, “was it really instant?”. The inspiration came from the long established, natural landscape on the outskirts of the Chatsworth estate. The wildflowers were seeded many months earlier, grown and transported as intertwined sections of turf. The rocks, however many millions of years old, were ‘borrowed’ from the estate and the depth of true understanding of this landscape by the designer, second to none. There is history, a story and connections in abundance.

I still wonder if different things prompt different feelings in different people. I’m quite fascinated by this subject and would love to hear what is it about a garden that really makes your heart sing. Perhaps it’s the haven of your own garden that makes you feel truly at peace with the world? And if you mention a garden I haven’t yet seen, I’ll no doubt be reaching for my car keys before I’ve finished the sentence!

Like this post? Why not share it with a friend?


Janna Schreier

About Janna Schreier

Garden designer, writer, and blogger, Janna has designed and created hundreds of gardens across the three countries she has called home—the UK, Australia and Malaysia. Currently based in London, she loves to travel and explore gardens all over the world. Her passion is to capture beautiful garden images wherever she goes and evaluate what it is, precisely, that makes each garden work so well. She uses this knowledge in designs for her clients and in her aim to enthuse all whose paths she crosses on the wonderful, vast and diverse merits of gardening. You can find Janna’s blog at Janna Schreier

13 thoughts on “Which gardens make your heart sing?

  1. Daniel Doherty on said:

    Great photos! I like the NZ one, gives me a sense of the feel of that garden. Japan one is cool too with the dappled light.

    • Thanks, Daniel. You really can feel that New Zealand garden, can’t you? Admittedly, it was raining whilst I was there, which made it feel all the more lush, but it felt like a garden where you couldn’t prevent things from growing if you tried! So different to the harsh Australian climate, but it’s these differences that keep gardening so interesting and provide so many opportunities for creativity.

  2. Rose on said:

    Got to visit Sissinghurst for the first time this April. Roses were not out yet but it was amazing. Must go back at different time of year

    • Yes, Sissinghurst can be almost unrecognisable when comparing it across the seasons. You will have enjoyed all the spring bulbs in April, whereas the photo above was taken in October, a full six months later. I do hope you get a chance to go back again soon!

  3. JenniP on said:

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Janna! It’s how we feel that etches a memory into our head. This idea struck me first many years ago was when our family visited Monet’s garden in spring; having studied art and being an obsessed gardener, it probably affected my perception of the place even more so. I recall we had been there for around an hour; the kids ran off together to explore, and my husband and I walked off in different directions but bumped into each other on a track between the two lakes an hour later – he said to me “thank goodness you are all emotional about how beautiful this is too, I thought I was losing the plot” – we both were completely overwhelmed with the place to the point of tears!

    • Gosh, how romantic! A lovely story. Monet’s garden is very high on my list but I haven’t managed to get there quite yet. I will elevate it even higher, in that case, and just keep my fingers crossed that my husband also enjoys it as much as yours. I sometimes feel I am losing the plot–they are only plants, after all–but where would we be without these simple pleasures?

  4. Janna
    I am a garden designer and adore garden visits overseas. I have more recently connected on a very deep with the Baroque Pazo de Oca in Spain’s north western region of Galicia. It unfolds into many sublime lush spaces enclosed by lofty trees and hedges, where water is a theme and centuries old sculpted stone, the ornament.

    For an absolute blast after tiring of the well trodden tourist sights of Sintra, Portugal, duck around a corner to discover the delights of Quinta da Regaleira. Our family felt worn out and tetchy until we located, and let this garden absorb us into its depths of incredibly exciting grottos and tunnels amongst tall trees and banks of hydrangea.

    We departed on a high and it reinforced to me the importance of dedicated design and execution of gardens. I am so grateful to the wealthy property owners of years gone by who have invested their energies and funds to provide such a legacy to adults and kids alike. And I encourage families to take their children into gardens. They inspire and give long term benefit to the young very different to the instant gratification of other more child friendly entertainments.
    Lisa Stafford

    • Lovely to hear from you, Lisa. We are indeed very lucky that throughout history, there have been plenty of people who have appreciated good design and horticulture. Both Pazo de Oca and Quinta da Regaleira sound quite magical. I love exploring these sprawling places, never quite knowing what you might find around the next corner. Looking at google images they remind me a little of my trip to Italy last year. Sadly, I’ve hardly seen any Spanish gardens, although Spain is one of my husband’s favourite countries, so I do stand a good chance of getting visits to these estates ‘over the line’. Thanks for the recommendations…I’ll let you know!
      I’d also love to see more children enjoying gardens. It seems such a shame that so many people only discover the pleasures of them later in life; they have missed out for so many years.

  5. Your article really touched a chord with me Janna, as it is something I have pondered on for some time. I totally agree that it is the emotional response to a garden which is the strongest indicator of a ‘great’ garden, and this is a very personal and intense thing. Sissinghurst did it for me, yet other iconic gardens have left me cold. A garden which ‘makes the heart sing’, as you so aptly put it, also inspires. I have recently visited a relatively small garden which has driven me to get plant books off the shelf, plan projects and new planting schemes. Seeing what can be achieved can be totally inspirational – and it has nothing to do with stripy lawns and weed – free borders!

    • Thanks, Jane. It’s true that you can’t always predict which gardens will evoke that emotional response. Sometimes your expectations are very high for iconic gardens and then the overriding emotion is disappointment that it didn’t quite live up to them. I agree that it’s often smaller gardens which truly delight and inspire; perhaps I haven’t represented those sufficiently above, now I think about it. A really inspiring garden visit provides you with weeks of happiness (and often hard work, as in your case!); it’s like the best present you could be given.

      • So true – the best present! Food for thought for a long, long time …

  6. Anne King on said:

    Hi Janna
    I’m a bit slow off the mark to respond but your article got me thinking about what it is that makes good gardens such special places. I decided it had something to do with the breadth of sensory delights they can generate. Not just visual (colour texture shape light shade scale) but smell, sound, touch, even taste. I can’t think of any other art form that is so all encompassing. Or where seasonal changes can generate such contrasts.

    • Lovely to hear your thoughts, Anne. As you say, there aren’t many things that affect all five senses; perhaps we connect with things on a deeper level in these scenarios. So much of our brain activity is subconscious, it’s hard to work it all out! I’m definitely with you on the seasonal changes, too. Not only do they provide interesting contrasts but they make garden design a moving feast; no wonder I find it endlessly (and equally) challenging and fascinating!

Leave a Reply (no need to register)