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Gardens – the new sanctuary space

This article was published in the May to August 2017 issue of Rapport magazine.

Award winning garden designer Hannah Genders reflects on how our gardens can become the spaces that provide a sanctuary from this modern, fast paced world

If anyone asks me what I do, my response is: ‘I’m a gardener’, and although I’ve had the privilege in my career as a landscape designer of creating many wonderful spaces for other people, I still relate strongly to my own garden and the role of tending and caring for it. I love to dig the soil and inhale its fresh, earthy smell. To plant seeds and bulbs with all the hope and imagination it takes to think how they will look in the months ahead. I relate to this gardening role as ‘stewardship’ and stewardship is by definition ‘the responsible overseeing and protection of something considered worth caring for and preserving’. And I believe our world, our gardens are worth caring for. It certainly sums up how I feel about my own garden, this plot of land that I’ve been given to care for, as long as I continue to live here. So why does this role resonate so deeply with my soul? What is it about caring for plants and engaging with the natural world that speaks to me so profoundly about my place as a child of God?

A place to stop and slow down

I’ve come to understand, in my twenty-year career as a garden and landscape designer, that we need our gardens and outside spaces more than ever before. In our current age of tablets, computers and smart phones where we are constantly, but remotely connected to people, whilst so often being disconnected from real conversations and from the natural world, it’s my understanding that our gardens can become, and are for so many of us the spaces that provide a sanctuary from this modern, fast paced world. They are the places where we stop, we take time to breathe and slow down and once again contemplate our humanity and our relationship to a God who made the world and started the story by putting us in charge of a beautiful garden.

Vital part of care

The word ‘therapeutic’ crops up much more now in garden design than it ever used to. In the early years of my career, when I was studying at university I wrote my undergraduate paper on therapeutic gardens and I struggled to find examples in the United Kingdom of institutions like schools, hospitals and hospices who were taking the garden element seriously. Now it is recognised as a vital part of care and provided for whenever it can be, although there is still a long way to go. There is so much more research available now to show that people thrive if they have access to a green space; they recover more quickly if they are looking out on trees from a hospital bed, rather than grey buildings. If you love to garden, you will instinctively know this to be true, but the ‘therapeutic’ label is so much wider than institutions and sometimes understanding the sanctuary role of a garden helps us to define what it means.

Sanctuary for wildlife

And for me the sanctuary ideal is not just about us human beings, but in rebalancing ourselves with the natural world, so the garden must also be a sanctuary for wildlife and a space that encourages wildlife to thrive. We have all read the stories of how the bee population has dropped so drastically in the last decade; news that bees are said to be in danger of disappearing is startling. Modern farming practices, which create a monoculture in our countryside, give little opportunity for providing nectar and continue to disturb the natural habitats and forage of solitary bees and bumblebees.

If you have a garden you will be aware of the truth of this. With less overall numbers of bees visiting our gardens, we need to be planting flowers that will attract our bees, butterflies and beneficial insects. Flowers that provide the vital nectar in the early spring like snowdrops and crocus, simple flower heads that give easy access to the nectar, rather than the modern fancy cultivars. What we call old-fashioned cottage garden perennials are ideal for this, for example Achillea and Scabious, and they look beautiful too.

Butterfly borders when planted in an individual garden may seem insignificant, but if enough of us plant them up, a patchwork of gardens becomes a vital source for nectar joining up across the landscape into a corridor of flowers.

Looking at our cityscapes the statistics are equally depressing, with one third of all front gardens being paved over as a parking space, reducing the amount of vegetation and flowers overall; this practice also increases water runoff and flooding. Front gardens can become great places to interact with our neighbours if they are designed and executed well.

Energising the workplace

Green space and gardens are equally important in the workspace. Research shows we regenerate more quickly from tiredness and fatigue related to work, particularly screen- based work, if we take our breaks in a garden or park. I’ve been involved in a project at the headquarters of a major company, where the director sought to redress this balance. He realised his staff were just locking themselves away for hours on end working on screens and not engaging with the gardens around the building. Although the landscape was green, it didn’t encourage bees or butterflies and had few areas to sit and enjoy the gardens close up. It tended to be something viewed from the window and not engaged with by the employees. I redesigned the landscape and we went ahead and ripped out the evergreen hedges that surrounded the office buildings, and the new borders were planted up with flowers to attract bees and butterflies. Seating was positioned in and near these beds to allow individuals and groups to see the planting close up, to hear the bees and watch the butterflies even if they only had a twenty-minute lunch break. The results have been remarkable: the employees spend more time outside in their breaks, they talk with colleagues and actively seek out an experience of the natural world, taking ownership of these spaces and an active interest in the insect visitors.

The truth is, as human beings we come alive in green spaces, whether it is maintaining a garden or losing ourselves in a childlike wonder when we observe the beauty of the world we live and garden in.

Hannah Genders

For more information see:

On this subject at Lee Abbey Devon…

Mon 17 to Fri 21 July 2017

This series looks at the key role our gardens play in helping us reconnect with nature, re-invigorate our souls, and appreciate our natural world and the creator God behind it.

The workshops will look at imaginative and creative ways we can use gardens and landscape as sanctuary spaces in our overly busy, frenetic world.

If you love gardening and want to explore ways to refresh your soul, this series is for you.

More information and booking

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