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What defines the ultimate garden visitor experience?

Janna Schreier

Janna Schreier

March 3, 2017

Gardens are as much emotional constructs as aesthetic compositions.” Ogden and Ogden

I’ve always been attracted to the idea of gardens with ‘soul’. I’m amazed how a seemingly perfectly designed garden can leave me absolutely cold but another with supposed imperfections here, there and everywhere can have the most profound effect on me.

Photo Janna Schreier


But the idea of ‘soul’ does not sit entirely comfortably with me. It’s a little too intangible to be very useful and has many associations that are unhelpful in a gardening context. Still, I’ve been so fascinated with understanding what makes a gardening truly engaging for so long, I decided the only thing for it was to embark on a master’s degree; to put some objectivity and discipline into the question. If we can understand what really makes a garden engaging and share this widely enough, we have the potential for many more gardens to foster profound experiences and all their associated benefits.

I started with a definition of soul:

“emotional or intellectual energy or intensity”

which immediately began to pin down a more tangible focus for research.

Photo Janna Schreier


I have read, read and read some more on this subject. I’ve read about design theory, place-making, beauty, philosophy, well-being, psychology and even physiology, both in the context of gardens and more broadly. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I’ve found little that directly relates to the passive experience of gardens (as opposed to the physical activity of gardening) but I have found learnings from other disciplines which has helped develop hypotheses. I’d love to test these with you now.

Clearly, all gardens are different (thank goodness) and all garden visitors are different, but I have aimed to develop common themes. My focus looks beyond the day trippers who love colour of any sort–and are, in truth, more interested in their lemon drizzle cake and a nice cup of tea–to explore gardens that deeply engage.

Photo Janna Schreier


There are a number of areas I have investigated, including:

1. Why do plants have such a positive effect on us?
Theories range from the evolutionary dependency on plants; to the need to escape stimulation overload; the connection to cultural norms; and learnt responses; most of which are primarily subconscious processes and hence difficult to articulate. Understanding these more fully could help identify key characteristics that foster engagement.

2. Does the landscaping industry lead on best practice visitor engagement?
John Dixon Hunt states that ‘modern landscape design tends to narrowly focus on form, rather than on its effects or reception’, whilst Ogden and Ogden talk of ‘plant-deprived, homogenous landscape architecture curricula’. Andrew Wilson argued, back in the 1990s, that ‘modern design is not necessarily sterile and uncompromising’, but have we become a little formulaic in our approach?

3. What enables us to connect with a garden?
Does it have to be familiar in some way? Or perhaps completely unique? Philip Sheldrake appeals to us to connect ‘place, memory and identity’. Perhaps a garden needs to be quite personal in some way to really engage us.

So how do we create gardens that leave visitors captivated and with a yearning to return?

What are the characteristics that foster emotional and intellectual energy and intensity?

Today, I’m asking questions so you can inform the thinking. Next time, I’d love to share with you my conclusions.

In order to keep answers as scientifically robust as possible, I’d be super appreciative if you could share your thoughts via this short, 10-question survey today, rather than via a comment below. When I update you with my conclusions, I hope it provokes an energetic, open debate within this forum itself. Please click HERE for the survey; many, many thanks for taking part.

The survey closes on 22 March 2017.


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Pat Webster www.siteandinsight.com

Janna, I followed the link in your piece about Vergelegen and completed the survey a few days ago. Now, I see this piece where the survey is introduced in quite a different way. The striking difference in the set up to the survey makes me wonder if, or how much, your preface will influenced responses to the questions. If I remember correctly, there is a question about how a respondent linked to the survey so perhaps this difference is deliberate… or at least will be factored into the results. I look forward to hearing what those results are.

6 years ago

Pat, thank you so much for filling in the questionnaire. I really appreciate you taking the time. You are very sharp to pick up on the different intro; indeed that is exactly why the last question is in there! I can’t wait to analyse the responses too and very much look forward to sharing them. Thanks again.

Cate McCahill
6 years ago

Hi Janna, I’ve just completed your survey.
I want to add that I have found a garden designer whose work fairly well sums up my response to yor questions.
Spirit Designs I think it is, located in Bourke Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney.
Best wishes,

6 years ago
Reply to  Cate McCahill

Hi Cate. Thank you ever so much for filling in the survey. I’m quite blown away by how many people have taken the time to complete it already and can’t wait to do the full analysis on the information you’ve all given.
I’m so pleased to hear you have found a garden designer that is such a good fit for you. It’s amazing how much the approaches of different designers vary and finding one that’s just right for you is so important. Good luck with your garden and thanks again for helping with the survey! It’s much appreciated.

Ruth Murphy
Ruth Murphy
6 years ago

I looked through the questions in your survey but did not answer the questions as I thought my wife might enjoy completing the survey. Alas ,it is not possible to go back to the start so you have 10 blank( answers). Did it not occur to your survey designer that many families have two or more gardeners,with differing opinions? Regards Barry Murphy

6 years ago
Reply to  Ruth Murphy

Dear Barry
Thanks very much for your comment. I’m sorry the survey did not go back to the start when your wife logged on. It does only allow one response per IP address to avoid the (admittedly, unlikely in this instance) circumstance of somebody with a strong opinion repeating it many times and skewing the response.
There are a couple of ways around this. You can use the same link from any number of devices – the survey is mobile friendly so any smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop etc you have can each run it once. Or, if you still have the energy, if you could let me have your email address (you can send it securely via my website contact page (https://jannaschreier.com/contact/)), I can generate a personal link to the survey for you.
Thank you very much for taking an interest in the survey and I’m sorry it was a frustrating experience; hopefully we can fix that.
Kind regards

6 years ago

I liked that article – modern landscaping often looks so boring and sterile! I call the plants used “boring landscape plants”.( I completed your survey)

6 years ago
Reply to  Nicola

Thanks ever so much for completing the survey, Nicola. Much appreciated. Glad you liked the article!