WHEN I VISIT someone’s home or garden for the first time I rarely notice details. General impressions seep in, like the gleam of wood floors, light streaming through the windows, sheltering trees. But I try not to look around or take in too much.
I just want to stand still, blur my eyes (which is easy these days — just take off the bifocals), breathe deeply and absorb the atmosphere.
Marinating in an environment goes far beyond the visual. It includes, but isn’t limited to, how the place smells, how warm, chill, stale, fresh, breezy, light or dark it is. It takes me a long time to notice any single piece of furniture, no matter how beautiful, or even a style of decorating or a color scheme. It’s all about a felt sense of the place. Do I want to stay and hang out, or get out of there as quickly as possible?
After this, I probably won’t be invited to your house or garden — or maybe anywhere else again. Yet, I think we all react to new places in a similar, instinctual, almost animalistic way. It’s not judgmental, this filtering a garden, a home, a room through the senses. It’s highly subjective, an individual reaction, made up of memories and our own sensitivities. It comes from our sense of scale, color, form and texture. It’s not about liking the materials, the architecture or the palette. It’s about how the space makes us feel.
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How can we create and refine the spaces we live in if we don’t even know what we love, what makes us comfortable? Every place we visit, whether it suits our tastes or not, is a take-home lesson.
So I’m as baffled when someone draws my attention to an appliance or paint color as I am when a garden owner wants to point out some new tiny treasure of a plant. Left on my own, I might not notice the details for hours, or a second or third visit. It’s not any individual component, but the atmosphere created by all those details that add up to a house or garden you love, or don’t.
Here are a few ideas on creating atmosphere that I’ve soaked up in other people’s gardens:
• Put a lid on outdoor spaces — with a tree canopy, arbor or pergola — so you feel shielded from the sky in some areas and exposed to passing clouds and sun in others.
• Blur the garden’s boundaries, curve paths behind shrubs, make sure the entire garden can’t be seen in one glance. Use scrim plants, like tall, sheer perennials, to obscure and reveal parts of the garden.
• Add auditory elements, such as rustling grasses and running water.
• Use the colors and textures you most admire to strong effect through repetition and echoes.
• Garden organically, mixing in a few native plants, leaving wild areas so that birds, bees and creatures will join you to animate the garden and keep it healthy.
• If your idea of the perfect garden is straight rows of vegetables, scatter a few poppies and nasturtiums to add a little randomness to all that delicious productivity.
When we make a garden, we’re sculpting with space and time, light and weather. We’re partnering with nature to make spaces that are as sustainable, as close to our hearts and as hospitable to humans and creatures as possible. No small order.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.