Creating an outdoor oasis

Photos by Southern Scape, LLC
Written by Harvey Cotten

When it comes to being outdoors, summertime seems to beckon like no other season. For advice on creating the perfect outdoor spaces, we turned to garden-writer, designer and consultant Harvey Cotten, who retired after 22 years with the Huntsville Botanical Garden as Vice President and Chief Horticulturist.

Zen Zone

A garden is a perfect place for reflection, relaxation, and rejuvenation. The hustle and bustle of life bombards us each and every day (actually every moment of every day) with stimuli that we must respond to right now. More and more we desire, nay, crave to unplug, get away, remove ourselves from the constant noise that surrounds us. A garden, or more importantly, your garden can be that place of respite for you – even if it is only for a few moments each day. Creating a place to step away from all clutter of the world, to embrace the calming reality that nature can provide may be the best medication you can prescribe for yourself.

Carving out a quiet, shady spot in your garden where you can retire can be akin to going to your study, closing the door, putting on some soft jazz and curling up with a good book with a warm fire. The garden can provide the same relaxation you crave. I love to find a cozy spot underneath the canopy of shade trees that I can plop down in a comfortable Adirondack chair or even strap up a hammock to block out the stresses and clutter of the day.

When trying to relax, a background of green truly sets the tone. It begins to calm the senses almost immediately. Color can be provided by using varying shades of green and even incorporating plants with variegated foliage like Shady Lady Illicium, Variegated Soloman’s Seal or the many different hostas available with white or gold markings. Typically in a shady garden, flowers tend to be more in the cool color range (white, pink or blue) that complement the soothing green tones of the surrounding foliage. I love the blue color of Virginia bluebells, Woodland phlox or Blue cardinal flower to help soften the coarseness of the woodland setting. Choices for white flowers are abundant starting with small trees like Flowering Dogwood, Serviceberry and Grancy Greybeard. Fothergilla, Virginia sweetspire and white azaleas are just a few of the shrubs with white flowers followed by Foamflower, Shooting star and even Impatiens as wildflower or annual options.

While color stimulates the sense of sight, a Zen garden setting should involve the sense of smell to truly put one in the relaxation mode. Adding fragrance to the garden is easy with plants that have either fragrant foliage or flowers. Illicium has foliage that smells of licorice while Rosemary is wonderful to have close by your seating area to help perfume the air with soothing aromas. The flowers of Sweet shrub, Sweet olive or Gardenia will truly fill your surroundings with fragrances to calm the nerves and help remove the cares of the day.

One area that is often overlooked or underutilized is the addition of sound. This can be accomplished in many different ways – from the very simplistic approach of listening to the wind rush through the leaves of the trees. Adding items like windchimes can accentuate this but be careful to not use chimes that sound like a gong clanging, but rather choose the soothing tinkle of wood and metal. Lastly, my favorite way to add sound to the garden is to introduce a water element into the space. Simple water elements can be so calming to watch and listen to. Many water features are self-contained and can be installed without much construction. Listening to the splashing sound of water is very peaceful and often leads to eyes closing instead of reading that book you have on your lap.

It is easy to find that quiet, secluded spot that you can turn into your Zen Garden –just look for the possibilities and think simple.