A Sacred Garden Primer by Jan Johnsen

Imagine a warm, bright day. You walk through a wide gate and behold a garden filled with flowers. The trees in the distance form a shady backdrop to this colorful scene. The birds chirp and a small fountain bubbles intermittently. The vanilla fragrance of heliotrope and spicy scent of musk roses fills the air. You breathe in deeply and let your worries leave you. You sit in a comfortable chair in the filtered shade of a locust tree and feel replenished. Slowly, you begin to tune into the natural world around you and become aware of the activity in this small green universe: the insects whirring, the birds flitting about, the leaves moving amidst the gentle breeze.

Then you go one step deeper… you close your eyes and ‘hear/feel’ an inaudible “hummmm”. It is not really a sound but a faint vibration. It is the ever present ‘humming” of the plants and earth — their energetic frequency — that you feel. It is the heartbeat of nature and, whether you know it or not, is what you attune to when you sit in a quiet place outdoors. It is this ever present life energy of plants, water, rocks, animals and earth that impacts us all and lifts us up out of ourselves and into the oneness of Spirit. This feeling is the heart of a sacred garden experience and the basis for all sacred gardens around the world, whatever their religious affiliation.

‘Sacred gardens’ is my term for outdoor spaces designed specifically to promote a communion with Spirit through attunement with nature. Gardens designed to enhance a person’s awareness can be both beautiful and transcendent. Just as a walk in the woods can be much more than a pleasant stroll, so can a pretty garden be more than just a lovely place. The difference is both in the appreciation and awareness of the visitor and the intent of the garden maker.

The visitor able to recognize the underlying ‘aliveness’ of the green world can freely absorb the essence of what nature has to offer. And the garden maker who is conversant with the magical and healing powers of nature’s bounty can shape outdoor space to augment the innate power of the earth. In this article I will touch upon some of the things you can do to elevate the energy of a site. If nothing else, it will whet your appetite to learn more about a garden’s power to heal.

Sacred gardens are not new. History is filled with our ancestors’ attempts to transcend the mundane and touch the divine through shaping the earth and honoring the natural world. Derek Clifford describes this phenomenon in his seminal book, The History of Garden Design.

“These sensations of awe led men to worship the genius of place from which it emanated. To such spots, men returned again and again, ostensibly to please the Spirit with offerings, but really in order to enjoy the sensation, a sensation akin to fear yet not fear, a sensation dwarfing yet ennobling, not unlike that which a note might feel when included in a symphony. Not only were the more remarkable scenes the homes of great deities, but every small stream became, in time, the manifestation of a nymph and every tree had a resident dryad. Where this spirit was alive a garden was not only a sanctuary but also a temple for the gods. These two emotions, joy in relief from stress and hunger for spiritual reawakening, are the remote source for leisured man’s garden making.” (Clifford, p.24)

The two aims described by Clifford — stress relief and spiritual reawakening — is the impetus for the ‘sacred gardens’ of today. Not content with pretty landscapes, we are now seeking to ‘touch the earth’ in a deeper, more satisfying way. The great American front lawn does not fulfill this need nor does the pretty perennial border. But what kind of landscape does? The answer is a simple one: a garden expressly designed for communion and attunement with nature, or as Derek Clifford describes it, “a temple for the gods”.

In this article I suggest five garden features that can aid in elevating the natural energy of a site and /or add enhance the energetic frequency of a garden. These five elements form a partial framework for sacred garden design.

Insulated Space

Gardens designed for introspection should be havens of retreat. The historic gardens of Pompeii, frozen in time in 79A.D. by the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius, show us how their small, open air rooms called ‘peristyles’ fulfilled this need for quiet, isolated spaces. The peristyle, enclosed on four sides by shady colonnades, featured statues, fountains, and brightly colored pots filled with herbs and other plants. These pillared porticos served as safe harbors from the noise of the street and offered a peaceful space; open to the sky, in which to meditate.

Today, we can create a ‘peristyle’ of our own by setting a aside a small (or large) piece of ground and defining it’s perimeter with a combination of plants, mounding, walls, fences, water or any other means of space containment. The enclosure does not have to be penned in by a solid wall or fence. Peristyles were defined by evenly spaced columns which created the same effect as a wall. You can create an ‘insulated’ space by strategically taking advantage of the side or rear of your house and using this as part of the garden — the remainder of the enclosure can be a grouping of standing rocks or a mounded plant bed that separates the area from the rest of the garden.


Water is the lifeblood of our blue planet, makes up 80% of our bodies and constitutes much of our vegetative growth. More importantly, as we are now learning, water has an energetic ability to imprint from our consciousness and vice versa. In other words, water is an energetic medium that is affected by our thoughts and awareness and likewise can impact us with its subtle energies. This has been known to millions who visit Lourdes in France for its healing waters. Now this phenomenon is being scientifically validated by Dr. Masaru Emoto who wrote the remarkable book,  The Hidden Messages of Water. Understanding that water is a powerful medium and is tuned into our consciousness, as Dr Emoto so vividly illustrates with his photos of water molecules, is key to sacred garden design.

Water is a reservoir of energy and has a giant impact on our awareness and on the immediate area around it. It is essential component of a sacred garden. A small cascade, a recirculating fountain or a quiet bubbling pool can energize an outdoor space and lift your spirits at the same time.


A third element useful to sacred gardens is a more subtle aspect: stillness and silence. The human need for ‘grounding’ is little understood but is an essential component for communion with nature.. The best known examples of grounded gardens are the Japanese Zen gardens of natural boulders set in strategic locations in a sea of raked gravel. These gardens emanate a sense of depth, silence and repose due to their connection with the earth.

The energy of a garden is perceptibly more tranquil if it is ‘anchored’ by a grounding object. These objects transmit earth’s solid energy frequency into a garden. Good anchors for the garden are rounded, heavy objects made form natural materials such as large, smooth boulders, stone urns or terra cotta ‘jar’ planters. Cast stone spheres make excellent grounding elements. I often place spherical stone finials on top of a wall to counterbalance its verticality. Lightweight elements such as balls made of willow branches or glass are a nice touch but they do not have the heft to anchor a garden.

Silence, which some say ‘restructures’ our being, goes hand in hand with the stillness and tranquility of a grounded space. It is this silence that confers the air of specialness into a sacred garden. Quietude is a rare and treasured commodity these days and is vital to our wellbeing.


The special power of scent upon our body chemistry and emotional state has been well documented. The fragrance of roses has been shown to stabilize heart rhythms. The esters in the aroma of lavender are responsible for their calming, sedative effect on people. And Japanese researchers found that a citrus scent is more effective in alleviating depression than many prescription antidepressants. Perhaps that is why the citrus based perfume, Happy, has been one of the best selling perfumes in the U.S. Fragrance’s efficacy has to do with the ability of scent to penetrate the blood/brain barrier and enter the limbic system of our brain directly. Following this thinking, a garden planted with fragrant plants such as thyme, roses, lavender and eucalyptus can be a veritable apothecary for your soul!

Sacred gardens should be filled with sweet smelling plants to take advantage of nature’s gifts. Breathe in the perfume of the evening primrose to allay anxiety. Crush the leaves of cranesbill geranium for a quick pick me up. Isn’t it a wonderful thing that Mother Nature has packaged her drugs in the most beautiful packaging of all — flowers? As Iris Murdoch, the British novelist once wrote, “People from a planet without flowers would think that we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.”

Garden Layout – Shape and Proportion

Another integral element of sacred garden design is the knowing use of shape and orientation in the garden’s layout. There has been little study of the impact of certain shapes upon our consciousness but we can look to the Native Americans to understand one aspect of this phenomenon.

Native Americans consider the circle to be a sacred symbol representing the Circle of Life. The circle can refer to the circle of family, circle of tribe, or the circle of birth and death. The powwows and council rings of the Native Americans always meet in a circle because they believe that the circular layout can help harmonize and balance everyone who participates.

Similarly, the Native American medicine wheel, which appears to be simply a circle of rocks upon the ground, serves to honor, among other things, the Four Directions: North, South, East and West. The Four directions each represents different parts of our being, as JT Garret and Michael Garret explain their gem of a book, “ Medicine of the Cherokee — The Way of Right Relationship.”

  • East for Spirit
  • South for Natural Environment
  • West for Body
  • North for Mind

The four directions are also reflected in Feng Shui’s 8 sided octagonal shape, the Bagua. The octagon corresponds to the 4 cardinal directions and also the 4 secondary directions, southeast, northwest, etc. It is also interesting to note that the temples of the Bahai religion are all based on an octagonal floor plan.

Layouts incorporating closed, rounded shapes such as ellipses and ovals are also powerful in sacred garden design. These rounded shapes facilitate energy to flow continuously, like water, within the defined garden shape. To some, this might seem far fetched idea but even Thomas Jefferson laid out his rear garden in Monticello in an oval shape and to great effect.

This brief article touches briefly upon the mysteries and wonder of sacred garden design. These outdoor sanctuaries can be created by anyone and in any space, large or small. The chief requirement, as I have noted before, is in the intent of the garden maker. It is paramount to honor the connection we all have with nature and to invoke and thank the Spirit of the land as you develop your piece of earth. Every plant, tree and rock has a story. It is a story worth sharing and sacred gardens can be wonderful and beautiful story tellers.

For more information visit Jan’s website at www.johnsenlandscapes.com


Jan has been in the landscape design profession for over 30 years. She received an undergraduate degree with a major in landscape architecture from Friends World College and a graduate degree in land planning from University of New Orleans. Her experience includes working in landscape architecture and planning offices in Kenya, Japan, Hawaii, New Orleans, Vermont and New York. Ms. Johnsen was named 2003 Instructor of the Year by the New York Botanical Garden. She has also received an AICP achievement award and a Progressive Architecture award for rooftop greenhouses in NYC.