A labyrinth garden should not be puzzling — that’s a maze. A labyrinth and a maze were once the same, but the labyrinth has recently grown to become a totally different animal.
Enter a labyrinth and every turn you make is the correct one, leading you to the center. The labyrinth might be considered a metaphor for a spiritual quest, a path that is mindfully travelled. While a maze has you scratching your head and retreating from dead ends, the labyrinth brings tranquility. No confusion, no disorientation, no tricks, no unknowns.
Rings within rings
A labyrinth does not have to be in a garden, or even outdoors, but what better place for a meditative walk with poised senses? The area need not be large, either. One of the best known labyrinths, on the floor in the cathedral at Chartres, France, is only 42 feet across, but the paths within it trace a distance of 850 feet. Twenty-five feet across is probably a minimum workable dimension for a labyrinth.
The design of a labyrinth is usually based on a series of concentric circles. For a simple design, put a barrier preventing further travel within the outer ring of concentric circles opposite the point of entry; but on either side of that barrier put entries into the next inner ring.
You can turn left or right upon entering this ring, just as you could when entering the outermost ring. This ring likewise has a barrier across from its entryway, with — again — new entryways on either side to enter the next inner ring . . . and so on, until the center of the labyrinth is reached.
Many other designs are possible, of varying complexity and visual effect. (For some other designs and more information, see labyrinthsociety.org). What they all have in common is that every turn leads, eventually, to a focal point.
From paper to reality
There’s room for simplicity or complexity in translating a labyrinth design from paper to the ground. For the simplest, least permanent approach, mow or rake clean a portion of your lawn and trace out the paths with flour or cornmeal. Dusting flour or cornmeal on the lawn and using a human compass in “drawing” is a fun project with a child. (One person is fixed in place, holding a string, and the other person, holding the other end of the string, can trace out circles to “draw” on the ground.)
For a more permanent labyrinth, one that requires slightly more effort, let part of your lawn grow long, then mow out your labyrinth’s pathways.
For a bolder labyrinth, get out your shovel for earth moving and/or planting. The grounding effect of a labyrinth is perhaps made more so if the paths are nestled slightly down into the ground or, alternatively, if the lines separating the paths are mounded up. If the mounds have a gentle slope, the whole labyrinth might be blanketed in nothing more than lawn grass.
How about some plants?
As a gardener, all sorts of plant possibilities enter my vision at this point. How about some ornamental grass between the paths? Something light and airy like blue grama grass or muhly grass comes to mind. Both are clumping grasses, so will not take over the paths, and both tolerate dry conditions, so would do fine on mounds.
Mounds are not a must; the paths can have their edges traced with plants rather than mounded earth. Low-growing plants with year-round interest include sedums, artemesias, thymes and lavender. No reason to rule out showy, flowering plants either. Picture swathes of daisies and alliums defining paths.
I would avoid plants that require a high degree of maintenance, though. As you walk your labyrinth, you don’t want to be constantly distracted by plants needing pruning, watering and weeding.