Unit 6. Creating Your Own Sacred Garden

As a first step in creating your own sacred or symbolic garden, I suggest that you decide what sort of mood or atmosphere you wish to create in the garden as a whole or in a particular part of the garden. There are of course an infinite number of possible moods, but in my book Gardens of the Gods I list the following thirteen and also describe various actual gardens that embody these moods and can provide ideas and inspiration for your own garden (Gardens of the Gods, London: I. B. Tauris, 2005, p. 150) :

  • 1. Serene vibrations, spiritual harmony.
  • 2. Reflections of paradise, divine order.
  • 3. Modest simplicity.
  • 4. Lightness, joy sensuality.
  • 5. Drama, grandeur, visual rhetoric.
  • 6. Philosophical, contemplative, emblematic.
  • 7. Lyrical, dreamy, poetic.
  • 8. Initiatic, esoteric, hermetic.
  • 9. Haunting, mysterious, enigmatic.
  • 10. Fantasy, make-believe, fairy tale atmosphere.
  • 11. Playfulness, wit, humour.
  • 12. Archaic, druidic, Celtic.
  • 13. Arena for nature spirits and earth energies.

Let’s now assume that you are starting from scratch with an empty plot facing east from the house and measuring about 70 by 50 feet (roughly 21 by 15 metres), and let’s say that, for the overall mood, you decide on a mixture of 6 (philosophical, contemplative, emblematic) and 8 (initiatic, esoteric, Hermetic) with perhaps a dash of 7 (lyrical, dreamy, poetic). The accompanying drawing shows one possible scheme for such a garden. It may be that you have a very differently shaped or much smaller plot, but many of the steps and ideas I have described in this case can be applied in a wide variety of diffent plots. The trees and bushes in this garden would, of course, take many years to come to maturity. You may be fortunate enough to take over a garden containing already mature trees, in which case you will have to take them into account when planning the layout.

Having established the general parameters, you need now need to plot the positions of the key features: the centre of the herb garden, the grotto, the obelisk, the principal trees etc. One way to do this is by intuition, the way you might walk into a restaurant and choose the table where you feel most comfortable and relaxed. Alternatively you could do it by divination, using a purpose-made dowsing rod or a forked stick or a pair of angle rods, which can easily be made from a pair of wire coat-hangers. Holding the dowsing rod horizontally or the angle rods pointing straight ahead, walk slowly up one side one side of the garden until the rod rises or falls or the angle rods converge or diverge. Mark the spot, then walk down the other side and repeat the procedure, again marking the identified point. Now walk down the line connecting the two points and mark the point where the dowsing tool reacts. That will give you the location you are looking for. Repeat the operation to find positions for other features.

We could call this an “as-above-so-below garden”, alluding to the old Hermetic doctrine that what is in the heavens is reflected in microcosm here on earth, e.g. every planet has its corresponding herbs, and each of the four compass directions has its associations here below and can be symbolically represented.

Let’s now survey the main features of the garden, starting at the entrance, which leads into a circular gravelled area and then into the herb garden, which is also circular, the two circles together forming a figure of eight or infinity symbol. The herbs are arranged in a circle according to their planetary correspondences, and in the middle is an urn with a rose bush, symbolizing the mystic centre. Going clockwise around the garden we pass a fountain, placed on the west side corresponding to the element water. On the north side, corresponding to the earth element, is a small grotto with a curved bench inside it. Behind the grotto is an area of mixed evergreen and deciduous shrubbery. In the north-east corner is another bench and a table, set into an alcove in the shrubbery. In the middle of the east side (air element) is an arbour with climbing plants. Here the air element could be symbolized by a bird or wind chimes – if the neighbours don’t mind. In the south-east corner is a flower bed built in a zig-zag pattern, evoking the Norse kenning (poetic metaphor) of sunlight as the “sword of the gods”. Close by is an oblisk in lattice work with climbing plants and, against the south side, a pergola, also with climbing plants. On the tour of the garden we will have passed many trees and shrubs of various kinds, as shown on the plan.

So far there are not many overt symbols in the garden, so now you might think about adding some more. Here are just a few examples that might be used or might help to trigger off other ideas in your mind. Starting with the entrance, here you could place a pair of hybrid guardians like those described in Lesson 1: e.g. fauns, sphinxes or gryphons. And you might think about a gnome for the earth grotto – not one of those garish Disneyland dwarfs but something more like the one shown in Lesson 1. Concrete or terracotta statues of all of the above can be obtained from many stores selling garden statuary, or you might be lucky enough to find one or two in stone at a sale or a shop selling salvaged architectural features.

Here is a symbol that expresses the overall as-above-so-below theme of the garden: an armillary sphere, a representation of the solar system with the obits of the different planets. It conveys the idea of an ordered universe and the notion of the microcosm being a reflection of the macrocosm. This example stands in the park at Louisenlund in Schleswig-Holstein, which was the residence of Prince Carl von Hessen Kassel (1744-1836) a Rosicrucian, alchemist and leading Freemason. Armillary spheres are attractive objects and can be bought at many garden centres. One could be placed either at the centre of the herb garden, instead of the rose urn, or on the lawn to the west of the arbour.

Here is a spiral incorporating the golden ratio (allowing for some margin of error in my drawing). That is to say, if you measure two adjacent spaces between the lines, the smaller space and the larger one will be in the proportion of 1 to 1.618. This is the so-called golden ratio, which is present throughout the whole of creation: in the DNA molecule, in the pattern of sunflower seeds and snail shells, in the proportions of the human body, and in our galaxy. An ideal spot for such a spiral would be the round entrance area, which could be laid with contrasting cobblestones rather than gravel. The visitor could pause here for a moment and reflect on the infinite manifestations of this ratio in life and the universe.

Another possibility for the same spot would a labyrinth, a multivalent symbol, found in many different forms all over the world. Strictly speaking there is a difference between a labyrinth and a maze, the former being unicursal – i.e. having one way in and out – whereas the latter has false turnings and dead ends and is designed to confuse. A labyrinth can be seen as a kind of mandala, such that the journey to the centre becomes an active meditation.

Two types of labyrinth. Left to right: the classic Cretan pattern and the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France.

Then again, why not have a motto, a poem or other short text that conveys some message relating to the garden? An obvious one for this garden would be “As above, so below”. A striking message in Latin, over the entrance to the Temple of Flora in the park at Stourhead in England, reads: “Procul, o procul este profani” (Be off, be off, you profane ones), emphasizing that the park is a sacred place and must be entered with reverence.

Here is an example from our own garden. The owl stands close to the front door beside a path leading into the garden. The inscription in German reads: “Athenes Eule spricht: Sei willkokmmen, Freund! Blicke um dich mit den offenen Augen der Eule und die Weisheit der Göttin.” (Athena’s owl speaks: Welcome, friend, look around you with the open eyes of the owl and the wisdom of the Goddess.)

Concluding thoughts

I hope my reflections in these seven lessons will have triggered off some ideas and inspiration for creating your own sacred or symbolic garden, bearing in mind that I have only scratched the surface of an infinite subject. Also bear in mind that a sacred garden is an interface of nature and art, and that one should know how to work with the former as well as the latter. In this course I have not talked about the practical matters of gardening, such as soil quality, fertilizer, planting, pruning etc. If you are new to gardening I would recommend reading some practical gardening manuals. Since I wrote my book Gardens of the Gods back in the early 2000s much has been written the subject of sacred and symbolic gardens, and below I have included a suggested reading list. Now I wish you an enriching adventure in creating your own garden of sacred or symbolic meaning.

Selected reading

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