When it comes to creating a meditation garden, architect Jack Carman offers this advice: "It should be like those comfortable little places you had as a kid that made you feel protected."
These gemlike spots are meant to be escapes, places that help quiet the mind and unravel the tensions of the day.
At St. Paul's School in Brooklandville, the meditation garden is next to the chapel. Enclosed by ornamental grasses and boxwoods, it has several large trees and offers staff and students a secluded space to sit or eat lunch.
"When you're sitting there, you can see the [hills] and trees," says chapel assistant Mary Schneider. "It's lovely."
But meditation gardens aren't just for public spaces; they fit easily into home gardens and harried private lives. Because they are usually small, you can tuck one into the corner of a rowhouse yard, or add it as a private space off a backyard patio. And adding one shouldn't mean you've added major upkeep.
Unlike gardens that are designed for display, meditation gardens are meant to be low maintenance; they are not so much about looks as about how they make you feel.
"It should be serene," says Peter White, a partner in Zen Associates Inc., a landscape design and architectural firm in Washington and Boston.
Meditation gardens can take many forms. Labyrinths are used for meditative walking, which includes a prescribed breathing rhythm and pace. Some meditation gardens are austere. Japanese gardens, sometimes called Zen gardens, are often made of dry stone and wood. Still others can be shrub-enclosed hidey-holes, sheltered green nooks that look out onto uninterrupted meadow.
The form each takes depends on setting, individual needs, tastes, pocketbook and more, but meditation gardens all share these elements:
A sense of enclosure. The garden needs to be a cloistered little room. "It should be inward, and personal," says White. "You want to feel sheltered."
Few distractions. The protected nature of a meditation garden helps achieve the second critical element: eliminating, or at least diminishing, outside distractions. The sight of people going past, the sound of traffic, doors slamming, the neighbors having yet another high-decibel discussion, can all shatter the sense of separation from the world and propel you back to everyday worries.
Screening. Hedges, walls, grouped plantings or other physical barriers can help shield the garden and absorb noises.
White noise. A second layer of buffering can be added with steady, soothing sound.
"You want a sound that's very even and doesn't change tone," says White. "There should not be a lot of contrast."
The most common way to get this sound is through wind chimes and/or a water feature - a pond, a dripper, a low-energy fountain - which also helps draw birds and butterflies. But keep in mind that the sound shouldn't dominate the space.
"A water feature should be background noise not the main attraction," says Carman, owner of Design for Generations in Medford, N.J.
Unified materials. Both plant and hardscaping (wood, cement, stone) should be extensions of what is already there in the garden and buildings. This repetition of materials creates a calming and unobtrusive sense of continuity.
"We unify the garden with the [surrounding] spaces," says Scott Rykiel, partner in Mahan Rykiel Associates landscape architects in Baltimore. Unity also can be achieved through connection of the space with other parts of the garden.
For example, a stream or water feature may start elsewhere in the open garden and end up leading to the enclosed meditation garden (or vice versa). The main thing is you want to be sure not to use too many different things in one small space.
"We don't have a formula, but you don't want it to look like a mixed bag," says Rykiel.
A riot of materials creates a sense of busyness in a space where the objective is reprieve from stimulation.
"We like masses of three to five species of plants with one thing flowering at a time," says White. "So if iris is blooming, it is not competing for attention with four other perennials."
Plants with four-season interest. Consider crape myrtle for winter bark as well as summer bloom, hellebores and snowdrops for winter bloom and spring foliage.
Planting a few things to draw wildlife helps create a sense of escaping into nature. Butterflies and hummingbirds like red and orange blooms. Some favorites are cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), bee balm (Monarda didyma) and blackberry lily (Belamcanda chinensis). Birds can find habitat in open-armed shrubs like butterfly bush (Buddleia) and heavenly bamboo (Nandina), which offers berries as well as bloom and year-round foliage.
Sturdy, comfortable seating. Metal and wood are good choices. If you choose plastic, be sure it is heavy duty. And don't fix seating in place.
"You may need to move a chair or bench a little out of a shaft of light or something," Carman says. "People want to be in control of their own spaces."
Sculpture as a focal point. Carman recommends something representational so you don't spend a lot of time trying to figure out the artist's intent. White, on the other hand, prefers conceptual and abstract forms to give you a break from reality. Either way, the item should be something that reminds you of a pleasant time in your life or soothes you with its gentle, uplifting lines.
"It should all be about the feelings and emotions the garden evokes rather than the thoughts," Carman says.