At the age of 12 I got my dream pet: a tortoise, who required a specific herbivore diet. I knew nothing about plants. I researched vigorously, learning what safe plants I could feed him and what I could plant in his enclosure. At the local nursery they affectionately called me “Tortoise Boy” as I came by so often. Eventually I left for college and the tortoise was re-homed, but the plants remained on my mind.
This early interest led to a growing passion which opened the door to several jobs related to gardens and landscaping. One landscape construction job allowed me to work on some of the most expensive properties in the South Okanagan, British Columbia, with at least one being valued over $12 million. These extravagant homes had some of the best views available with ample space for a large garden. The owners often wanted details like porcelain patios, rock features, electronic pergolas, and plumbed in fire-pits. With all the expense one would think that these yards would be everything you’d ever want. Yet they lacked something difficult to identify but profoundly important.
Just like a magazine these yards were great to look at but underwhelming in person. I came to realize that a great garden isn’t something you just look at, but something you experience.
We the gardeners
I am writing to you from the forests behind Summerland, where I’ve been for three and a half weeks. This past year has been incredibly difficult. I had become constantly fatigued, sometimes exhausted beyond the ability to accomplish small tasks. I lost my capacity to cope with stress, sometimes to the point of losing my appetite. I lost hope, joy and thankfulness for my life and where I lived. I needed a break, a time of rest. So I packed up my car, drove down a back road and found a river bend to camp on. In the forests the old way of life came to an abrupt stop. Eugene Peterson wrote in Jesus is the Way, “We stop, whether by choice or through circumstance, so that we can be alert and attentive and receptive to what God is doing in and for us, in and for others, on the way. We wait for our souls to catch up with our bodies” (97). This is the journey I am on. I am writing to you, the reader, reminding you that you have the choice to stop or pause for a moment. I am writing to you, the gardener, as the garden you tend may become a place for you and others to stop and contemplate.
A well planted garden, an experiential garden, is a picture of a forest. We, the gardeners, are not just holding a camera capturing a photo, we are also holding a paintbrush. We’re using our God-given creative expression as we organize that which is created into something that we see as beautiful. This work is quiet work. This gift isn’t to be taken lightly, it is a mighty invitation to create something beautiful, full of life, and contemplative for the soul.
The garden as miniature forest
The garden is a picture of a forest. It is full of life. A garden becomes a home for birds, insects, bats and other animals on top of the layers of trees, shrubs, vines, grasses and flowers. This layering becomes a natural enclosure, like a forest, creating a visual and auditory barrier from the world beyond it. This enclosure isn’t restrictive. It is a comfort to be surrounded by that which is created, yet not be boxed in. You are separated from the busy life yet you are not alienated. This area can become a place to sit and wait in, to be patient in, to listen in, to observe, and rest in.
It can be a difficult task to separate your thoughts from your world and be drawn into contemplating the Creator and nurturing your soul. Not all of us can devote an open calendar to this task like I have. Here lies the invitation to the gardener. This is where we arrive at the crossroads of the experiential garden. You see, the details of the plants that you plant can become a helpful tool for contemplation. Plants have a way of stimulating your senses through what you see (the blossom of a disco belle hibiscus), what you hear (wind through a maple tree), what you taste (the licorice-flavoured leaves of agastache foeniculum), or what you smell (English lavender blossoms in the evening). Through intentionally designing your garden, planting plants that may be connected to a memory or an enjoyable characteristic, this can help you in the task of separating your thoughts from returning to your busy life. With these details and the sense of enclosure, your garden can become the area where you intentionally stop from being busy and nurture the precious gift of your soul through considering God. Then you may endure life with greater joy, resilience, thanksgiving and rest.
Creating your garden
Unlike a forest, the experiential garden doesn’t need to be acres large, only as large as what you’re able to tend to and plant. Even a window box can become the garden that someone goes to, to stop and be still before the Creator. All that is needed is a humble gardener with a sense of creativity and intentional design planting their garden for the sake of contemplation with experiential details. This space acts as a wedge between the busy and difficult thoughts of life, and invites you into stillness, while you stop and find rest.
I invite you to create with intention this place of peace, this experiential garden. Don’t worry whether it is a forest glade or a planter box on your deck. I challenge you to then stop, observing the details and the life in this place of peace, considering the Creator. Sip your tea, find rest and discover the blessing of imperfectly trying a new practice.
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