How to Design Meditation Gardens

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Meditation Garden Design

I suppose the first question we should ask is,

"Why meditate?"

Here at Permaculture Gardens we are eager to show you how to grow food well. But the true source of gardening success doesn't come from following a formula. It comes from bringing the garden project (or problem) you have to a time of meditation and observation.

And that time of prayer is a dialogue between you and the fountain of life.

When we meditate we go to very the source of nature itself, the Creator God.

Here are but a few benefits to meditation that you can easily Google:

  • Reduces stress
  • Controls and reduces anxiety
  • Enhances mental health
  • Promotes emotional health
  • Improves your immune response
  • Increases concentration and attention span
  • Reduces memory loss
  • Generates empathy and kindness
  • Improves sleep hygiene

But perhaps the deepest benefit is that of discovering our place in this world and our role to play in it.

As you well know, online reader, we live in such a plugged-in, high-tech world that leaves us little room for meditation.

Our world is so device-driven, that the trendiest health online summits are..surprise, surprise, on "digital dementia."

But I think the diseases we are currently suffering from are going to be solved only by going offline, in places where we can actually meditate and pray.

Different Garden Rooms

The vegetable garden, which is the main focus of our work at Permaculture Gardens, is more of a "working garden."

In contrast, meditation gardens must be places of rest.

I once listened to a podcast where the natural builder being interviewed had a very unique view on designing and planning outdoor spaces.

He felt there was a real need for us to recreate the different rooms of a home except have them,


Imagine having outdoor counterparts to your indoor home spaces!

I thought this was a pretty cool concept.

So you'd have a gathering area in your garden, just like you'd have a living room at home.

An outdoor cooking area.

And why not a prayer or meditation garden?

A place that has that sole purpose of centering us amidst our busy lives,

encouraging us to stop and ask God why we work (so hard) in the first place.

Elements of Meditation Garden Design

1. Overall Shape

Of course, all the elements of visual design must be taken into consideration when designing a garden for meditation

I generally defer to English garden designer, Rachel Mathews for design aesthetics.

She taught me a lot of what I know about bringing beauty into the garden.

And surprisingly, some of the elements of permaculture design intersect with those of visual design.

I say, surprisingly, because many people who garden for ecology find it difficult to make their gardens look pretty.

I am not exempt from this lot, as we have been cited by the HOA for having an "overgrown" garden ourselves!

Hopefully the following visual design elements will help you design your garden (and keep you out of HOA trouble):

In permaculture, we always try to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

When I design, I return to Christopher Alexander's book, "A Pattern Language" for the overall theme of my garden.

He writes:

"... no pattern is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exisit in the world only to the extent that it is supported by other patterns: the larger patterns in which it is embedded, the patterns of the same size that surround it and the smaller patterns which are embedded in it."

A few ideas...

In permaculture we design, "From Patterns to Details."

So find a shape that fits in well with the big picture.

Your garden will be a piece of that bigger puzzle.

Perhaps a garden room within a garden or series of gardens in your home.

A pattern within a pattern.

meditation gardens

Sometimes the entire area set aside for the meditation garden is intentionally designed in the shape of something meaningful to the person's faith.

As for instance, a prayer garden's cross-shaped path in a church in North Carolina

Or a spiral meditation garden in Peru.

Or a circle of stones in Wisconsin

Below is the Garden of Gethsemanewhich is in a grid pattern.

The Garden of Olives in Jerusalem

Gardens, meditation or not, are very personal designs.

So within the general guidelines you read here,

recognize that you have the freedom to create a meditation garden that is perfect for you.

2. Scale or Proportion

I just take this guideline on "Scale" to mean,  "Do not put gigantic elements in a small garden,

0r put small pots in a large garden."

Additionally,  you may want to limit any large features/sculptures in your garden to 1 or 2 so they can serve as natural focal points,

resting places for the eyes.

I am sure, much more can be said about this.

But Rachel Mathews explains these elements of beauty best!

3. Focal Point

As I mentioned above, it is good for the eye to rest on something in the garden.

Pontifex University's provost David Clayton 's advice on what focal points to use will be helpful for Christians, Catholics in particular:

"First," he says, "I have statues and images that can be the focus for my prayer.

Ideally, images organized in the traditional format of Our Lady on the left, the suffering Lord on the cross in the center, and the Risen Christ on the right.

I would then design the garden so that this is in some way the focal point."

Sadly,  I do not have a statue of the Mother of God nor of Jesus in my own garden.

I do have a 2-foot St. Francis in my backyard garden's "prayer corner."

I only mention this to encourage anyone with little growing space, that part of considering "Scale & Proportion" is also taking into account that your meditation garden, if it is small,

may turn out to be a meditation nook.

And that's ok.

For Christians, Clayton (who is an artist himself and writes on the "Way of Beauty" continues,

"Christ himself is the Tree of Life, the fruit of which we consume in the Eucharist. All Christian prayer is derived from, and points to Christ."

So something as simple as a tree (or more literally, a cross), could serve as both a focal point in your garden and a reminder of this tenet of faith.

What kind of tree, is completely up to you!

Here some guidelines for your consideration:

Stacking Functions

In permaculture, we like to "Stack Functions," so the choice of tree can be governed by the many numbers of functions it can fulfill.

  • Will it give shade? Or comfort to the those in the garden?
  • How long do I want it to last?
  • Will it bear fruit?
  • Is it a leguminous tree that will provide nourishment to other plants around it?
  • Will it be a beneficial habitat for pollinators, birds and other animals?
  • Does it spark joy?

Why choose only one element to solve only one kind of problem in your garden.

One element, many functions, is the permaculture way to go!

For me, all trees are beautiful and fulfill many more functions beyond aesthetics.

4. Access or Movement

It's a long-standing tradition in many faiths to do something repetitively while praying and meditating.

Sometimes, this physical or vocal repetition provides a sort of backbone to our mental prayer,

helps us get "into the zone" of meditation.

Walking is a natural repetitive action that we can do while meditating.

So take the time to design paths for walking while praying.

Add in stopping or resting points that are good for reflection.

An example of this would be stopping in front of a grotto or shrine.

Even though I am Christian, I love the Chinese idea of "chi."

If a path is blocked,

That is a problem.

It hinders your access, for sure.

And your prayer!

In the meditation garden, you shouldn't be concerned about whether your path is rocky or wobbly.

You should be drawn to consider the created beauty around you,

and to think more deeply about what matters most in life.

So be sure to keep those paths wide, free, and easy to traverse.

5. Balance & Diversity

Keep the "pests" in balance

Indeed, meditation gardens should be beautiful places that open up the entire ampitheater of the sky for us.

They should encourage wonder at the cosmos.

Thomas Edison's Orchard in Monticello

When we consider the magnitude and diversity of plants, fungi and animal species. It is just mindblowing.

So meditation gardens made with permaculture principles should showcase this diversity of creation.

As we've said on this blog in the past, this very diversity, also brings with it a deep and lasting balance.

Not just a visual balance,

but a balance wherein we keep the pest population in check.

What are pests, but the dominance of one species over another?

As permaculturist, Geoff Lawton likes to say,

"You don't have a mosquito problem. You have a lack-of-dragonfly problem."

And how are we to encourage the dragonflies to fluorish, if we don't provide them the food or shelter they need?

I like to think of pollinator plants that host a diversity of wildlife as the backbone of a garden.

David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier, authors of the tome Edible Forest Gardens, write:

"If minimizing pest problems is important to you, then so is this pattern...

Beneficial predatory insects and pollinators require year-long energy sources if they are to stick around and do their job."

So always something flowering in the garden.

Always something beautiful to contemplate.  Whether flowers or foliage or fruit.

Always something of interest.

Sedums spill onto the paths in Oak Springs

Even in the winter, garden designer and philantropist, Bunny Mellon, intentionally planted sedums in Oak Springs, her Virginia estate.

6. Beauty, Serenity & Joy

The meditation garden must indeed be beautiful.

We've talked a lot about elements of visual design:  Shape, form, scale etc.

But we must find particular ways to work with these elements of artistic design as well as with the natural laws governing plants.

In short, there are ways to make a permaculture garden look pretty.

As another garden designer, Michael King, senior botanist at Kew Gardens writes:

"Inevitably, every plant in a natural community is there because they have found a way of using resources not being claimed by other plants in their vicinity. As gardeners, we generally ignore such complex relationships and instead assemble plants into borders based upon aesthetic principles: colour, form, scale, texture etc.."

He's right.

Some plants don't like the sun.

Others thrive on the specific soil pH that is in your garden.

While yet others grow bonkers no matter what you do!

King's solution to this problem sounds curiously like a permaculture one.  He advocates utilizing different layers for plants to grow in.

"By occupying each of these physical layers we start to create artificial plantings that reflect the same sorts of relationships found in natural plant communities which may serve the wider ecosystem beyond the boundaries of our gardens and not simply our own artistic aspirations."

Designing with Layers

If you want to know more about these 7 (and more) plant layers, we happen to have a free webinar on that very topic.

But I digress.

David Clayton balances the apparent conflict between ecology and traditional garden aesthetics by suggesting that...

"the imposition of design on a garden so that it not simply the appearance of local wilderness can raise the beauty of it to something even higher. When man does this well, he is acting in accordance with his nature, as part of the natural world."

Basically, the solution to making permaculture look pretty...

lies in intentional design.

Planning a Pretty Permaculture Prayer Garden

How do you make permaculture pretty?

That is exactly what I've attempted to do in designing the following  prayer garden.

My first aim is to bring comfort and solace into such a garden.

In the winter, there should ideally be spaces to bask in the warmth of the sun.

And in the summer months, rest and shade play a major role in such gardens.

You should not be deterred by heat or cold, (or mosquitos) to sit and contemplate awhile.

Instead, you should be encouraged to take the gorgeous scenery in.

Encouraged to slow down.

How this Meditation Garden Blog began

Below, is a video of a garden lovingly dedicated to the Mother of Christ in a retreat house in Culpeper, Virginia called, Longlea.

Someone who had previously attended a spiritual retreat there was moved to install this alcove.

Having just attended a retreat there myself, I was inspired to improve upon a small portion of it.  Just the choice and location of plantings facing the statue of Mary.

More Design Considerations 

Choosing Plants for Your Meditation Garden

Since recording the video above, I've thought a lot about its design.

Below you will find my initial planting scheme.

Naturally, if you are planting zen or Buddhist gardens, your plant selections should reflect meaningful connections to your religion or spirituality.

In this case, since this is a garden dedicated to the Mother Mary, I've selected flowers that are named after her, as well as plants that appear in the Bible and are the subject of Jesus Christ's parables.

To keep in line with the formality that this place exudes, I would also recommend swapping out the blue plastic planters that you see in the video, for larger, more formal ceramic, metal or stone containers.

I would then plant fig trees in the containers to shade the patio benches as this is quite a sunny area.  I found I couldn't stay here and reflect for very long because it got too hot after 12 noon.

Here is a video of me doing an initial sketch and researching what plants should go into the design.

I'm sure my initial plan will look very different from what happens "on the ground."

But that's the beauty of garden design.

Unlike architecture, gardens improve with time.

In permaculture, the first year, is all about observation,

learning what likes to grow where.

I intentionally left room for the plants to grow into.

Here is my "Plant List":

  • 1 - White lilies (Lilium candidum) - 7 plants per area.  Incidentally, the same flowers on the altar paintings inside the Longlea chapel.
  • 2 - White prince tulips or Purple crocuses (Crocus speciosus) - 9 plants
  • 3 - 'Royal Virgin Triumph tulips -15 plants
  • 4 - Purple irises (taken from corm cuttings on the grounds) - 4-5 plants
  • 5 Russian Rhapsody daylily (Hermerocallis 'Russian Rhapsody')- 9 plants
  • 6 Perennial candituft (Iberis sempiveens) - 7 plants
  • 7- Purple Campanula (Campanula carpatica) - 7 plants
  • 8 - Lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina) - 3 plants per area
  • 9 - Joe Pye Weed - (Eutrochium purpureum) -3-5  plants in the center

Finally, I would like to grow figs in each large container pot between the benches!

Can you guess why?


Choose a "Star Player"

You may think it funny that I chose Joe Pye Weed tas the central floral/plant focal point in this small garden.

Here are some of the reasons for my doing so:

  • Joe Pye Weed happens to be a native perennial grass. That means I can depend upon in to keep coming back and not dying on me. Since this retreat house is not staffed by a full-time gardener, perennials are a must for all the plant choices.
  • I like incorporating natives in my plantings when it makes sense in order to support the pollinator and wildlife species that will support my plants.  We've spoken much about the benefits of pollinators on this blog post.
  • The tulips and lilies surrounding this plant will be in full bloom during the spring months.  Joe Pye Weed does not bloom until the fall and that gives you something interesting to look at in this garden all year round.
  • The stiff, tall, stalks of this plant will remain a great focal point during the winter months when nothing else (except the sedum) will be alive in this garden.
  • Finally, the story of Joe Pye Weed is one of healing.  And this is what I hope all meditation gardens to be: Places of healing.

From Wikipedia:

"Joe Pye (Jopi in the Native tongue), an Indian healer from New England, used E. purpureum to treat a variety of ailments, which led to the name Joe-Pye weed for these plants.[10] 

Folklore says that Joe Pye used this plant to cure fevers. Folklore also states that American colonists used this plant to treat typhus outbreaks.[11] 

The author Hemmerly writes that the Indians used Joe Pye Weed in the treatment of kidney stones and other urinary tract ailments.[12] 

A peer-reviewed study suggests that Joe Pye of plant fame was a Mohican sachem named Schauquethqueat who lived in the mission town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts from ca. 1740 to ca. 1785 and who took as his Christian name, Joseph Pye.[13]"

Since this was going to be a very low-maintenance garden. I used this book on perennials, for some of my plant choices:

Choose Supporting Species

I certainly don't need to limit my plant choices to only one medicinal plant.  Apart from the flowering beauties, I can also add healing herbs in pockets of the design that need it.

But I can start with this plan as my baseline and improve upon it next year.

Whatever spaces aren't planted with something intentional should have sedum and creeping thyme. (That's shown as number 12)

Covering the soil with "living mulch" such as the sedum and creeping thyme in this planting has many benefits.  Doing so will:

  • prevent soil erosion
  • keep the moisture in the soil, lessening the need to water
  • ensure the soil is warm during the winter months

Sedum will still be an interesting feature during the wintertime.

Plus, creeping thyme doubles as a great culinary herb!

Completing the Work of Creation

One of the many "lights" of my retreat was this:

That we have been placed on earth to complete the work of creation.

In many cases, it may seem a daunting task.

A task that we will never finish.

One in which now, more than ever, we are faced with serious obstacles, that no one person can seem to surmount.

Climate change,  wildfires, desertification, GMOs, Roundup.

And yet,

Amidst all this bad news,

we often neglect to highlight all the good being done by so many to counter these dire trends.

There is so much climate hope out there.  Now, more than ever.  Organic is becoming increasingly en vogue and the number of organic farms has skyrocketted in the past decade.

Permaculture is greening the desert.

Schools are incorporating gardening spaces into their curriculum.

1 in 3 American households grow their own food!

Jonathan Bates, on the blog, Paradise Lot writes:

"If you grew a one acre food forest, using our methods (permaculture methods), someone living an average carbon wasting lifestyle could easily offset their carbon use."

You and I have a chance to intentionally design 1, maybe 2, maybe more permaculture gardens in our lifetime.

Our little patches of well-designed land,

which, coupled with prayer,

can indeed renew the face of the earth.

Click below to listen instead of read this lengthy blog 

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Comments 2

  1. Thank you so much for your hard work and inspiration! This post is full of so many motivating and inspiring examples and information! I love the idea of having the plants for with a theme to add even more to the garden experience.

    1. Post

      Sandy! People like you are the reason we keep on doing this. Thanks so much for the kind words and I would love to see your meditation garden choices as they develop!

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