Gardens serve many purposes around human dwellings. They function as windbreaks and temperature controls. They provide visual and auditory privacy. But the primary function most people consider when planning a garden is the aesthetic.
While most gardens are designed for visual aesthetics, a wide variety of other sensory experiences can be enhanced by the careful selection of plant materials.
The sensory experience can start for any gardener with screening. Dense evergreens around a perimeter supply not only auditory and visual screening, but also serve as windbreaks.
Let’s not forget the standard of planting deciduous trees on the south side of the house. They provide shade and temperature during the summer, but allow the sun to warm the house during the winter.
With these basics for a start, let us see what else we can accomplish for enhancement of the non- visual sensory experience. We have already invoked the senses of hearing and temperature sensitivity. We can also create for touch and for the sense of smell.
1. Sound aesthetics can be the most diverse in nature. We can provide experience in:
- Solitude. Screening from street and other sounds.
- Wildlife sounds. These are primarily birds, but amphibians, mammals, and insects also make sounds.
- Wind. The wind sounds different when heard in different tree species. It takes acute hearing and some practice to appreciate some of the subtleties here.
- Water. Running water can be part of the garden. It serves its own aesthetic purpose as well as attracting wildlife.
2. We feel warmth through every part of our bodies. The warmth of the sun, especially on the face or the hands, the chill of snow, and the cut of wind through even the warmest clothing are experiences common to most of us. What we do for these senses is often simply to avoid discomfort, but we can do more. We can include an appeal to a variety of related sensations here.
3. The sense of smell is a powerfully evocative one. We often associate smell strongly with important experiences in our lives. Of course, the degree to which we do this depends on the acuity of our sense of smell and our training of it. For the sense of smell, like hearing, can be trained.
4. Tactile sensations provide a great deal of information about the world. Blind and visually- impaired participants in tree and plant classes can quickly learn to make distinctions among trees that are beyond the knowledge of most Americans. The tactile contrasts available in the plant world can provide pleasure and interest as well.
Screening: The screening effect of vegetation has been described. With the proper selection, evergreens can keep out much of the clamor of the cities in which most of us live. However, if you live near the runway of a major airport, earmuffs may be the only choice. Good trees for screening are those which grow rapidly and retain foliage to the ground. The best thing to do is consult a nursery or landscape designer in your area. You can often combine functions here and choose a screen that provides shelter, food, or nest locations for birds or an interesting scent — such as Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea).
Wildlife: Birds with their variety of songs, chirps, and chatter provide a life and movement to the world of the garden. We can attract them with the way we design our surroundings.
Books have been written on attracting songbirds by planting for them. The main things to remember are that birds, like all living things, need food, water, shelter, and places to breed. “Most yards,” says John V. Dennis in A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding, “are too open and lacking in the tangles of trees, shrubs, and vines that are seen in natural habitats.”
How to provide these features without making the yard impenetrable to humans is the art of wildlife gardening. We should start with trees, preferably those that also serve other functions as well, such as screening, temperature control, or other sound qualities. After trees come shrubs and vines, then perennials, and finally annual plants.
John K. Terres in Songbirds in Your Garden provides extensive lists for different regions of the country. Some general types of trees, shrubs and vines can be listed here. Consulting a nursery for what is available and will grow well in your area is a must, though. For Maine, the best overall choices include:
- Pines (Pinus spp.)
- Oaks (Quercus spp.)
- Cherries (Prunus spp.)
- Grapes (Vitis spp.)
- Dogwoods (Cornus spp.)
- Beeches (Fagus spp.)
- Cedars or junipers (Juniperus spp.)
Herbaceous plants include the sunflowers, various hummingbird attractors, and local specialties.
Nut trees can also attract squirrels which can become a problem in crowding birds from feeders and chewing insulation and wiring in houses. However, care in how bird feeders are arranged and protected can minimize the problems and the siding of many houses provides a good deterrent.
Insects are also attracted to flowering plants, and this can be both a blessing and a curse. The drowsy sound of bees buzzing in the garden is a soothing one strongly evocative of spring and summer memories. Being stung by a bee is not nearly so soothing.
Wind: We generally think of wind as simply something we want to protect ourselves against, but the feel of it and the sound of it can be attractive as well. The aspens (primarily Populus tremuloides) have flat leaf stems that produce a fluttering sound in the wind. Long-needled evergreens such as the pines (Pinus spp.) sigh, the exact sound depending upon needle stiffness and length. Others, such as oaks (Quercus spp.) produce a rustling sound. In warmer the various species of Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.) can be selected for year-round production of just about any wind- related sound that can be produced. On some trees, seed pods can produce a faint sound when striking together in the wind, though this is often drowned in the other wind sounds. Some consultation with a nursery person or landscape designer will be necessary here to find materials tuned to your own hearing and interests.
Water: Running water holds a fascination for human beings. The variety of fountains in public places carry their musical message to visitors. Water recirculating to splash and gurgle over rocks is a familiar part of the individual garden also. Here, consultation with an experienced person is vital. Once you have the waterfall or fountain, though, wildlife will make use of it. It is here that you will find your main source for amphibians. All frogs and toads have their distinctive call. The American toad sounds like a thumbnail run down an old fashioned comb that was of quality to produce a musical trill. Wood frogs quack. Peepers peep. Others bellow, belch, squeak, or even roar. The sounds may not be as pleasing as, for example, the song of the Hermit Thrush, but they are sounds of nature and add something to the evenings of spring and summer.
Here also we can mention such completely manmade devices as windchimes. These are a matter of taste, but should not be selected to be so loud as to drown out all other sounds.
WARMTH AND SIMILAR SENSATIONS
We have already touched on the feel of sun, wind, and snow. We can add cold water to the contrasts we can feel. A garden with alternating shade and sunlight will be a place where we feel in contact with the world. Even shade can have different qualities. The shade under a dense, heavily needled evergreen is usually warmer and more humid than that under a light, high-canopied hardwood. Good trees for these contrasts can be found in the lists of food and screening trees. Pines (Pinus spp.), Spruces (Picea spp.), and Firs (Abies spp.) often produce a warm shade, though the more columnar forms, unless tightly grown, may produce too little to show the effect. Maples (Acer spp.), Oaks (Quercus spp.), and Beech (Fagus spp.) are among those which can produce a high canopy with a cooler shade, partly because of air movement. Consult your nursery or landscape designer.
Here again your nursery is your best friend. A few general comments can be made, though. Some cherries (Prunus spp.), apples (Malus spp.), and other plants in the rose family produce a sweet fragrance every year. Some do not. Ask. The common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) is quite fragrant while other lilacs may not be.
Many common kitchen herbs such as sage, wintergreen, mints, and others can be grown throughout much of North America. These are generally perennials and will provide their particular scents in increasing abundance year after year. Pick your favorites. And then you can use them for fragrance in your kitchen — and in cooking. Roses provide a wide range of choices of fragrance.
The Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), where it will grow, produces the scent commonly associated with the north woods. ‘Pine’ some people call it. Of course, most people don’t distinguish between pine and fir or spruce, anyway.
In producing fragrance, the choices are almost unlimited. Get what you like that will grow in your area. Try to select plants such that a changing kaleidoscope of scent will greet you each time you step into your garden throughout the year.
The sense of touch can be stimulated by differences in leaf texture. Each species of plant has its own characteristics so that it is impossible to cover the whole gamut. However, some evergreens have long, more or less flexible needles. These are mainly the pines (Pinus spp.) Others, including some pines, but more often spruces (Picea spp.) and firs (Abies spp.) have shorter, stiffer, and sometimes sharper, needles. Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) can draw blood if you grab it too firmly. Here, as with the various thorny plants, the tactile can be a liability.
The bark of trees can be profoundly interesting. Trees are sometimes called the structural units of the ecosystem or garden. As such they provide a feeling of solidity and should be a major focus of your efforts.
The various textures of bark are endlessly fascinating. The white pines generally have smooth bark when young but blocky and platy near the base of older trees. The oaks usually have deeply ridged and furrowed bark. Some ashes (Fraxinus spp.) have an almost diamond shaped pattern as does Norway Maple (Acer platinoides).
Beech (Fagus spp.) is smooth. So is young Red Maple (Acer rubrum). Some bark is shreddy like the Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and Northern White-cedar or Arborvitae (Thuja canadensis). Some is smooth and fluted like American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana). Much birch (Betula spp.) is smooth with horizontal peels, but several species are not like that. Betula papyrifera, Canoe or Paper Birch and Yellow Birch (B. alleghaniensis) shred, but Gray Birch (B. populifolia) and most of the European species do so much less, though they are still smooth and interesting.
In short, the bark of any tree trunk will provide interesting tactile sensations as well as a feeling of stability and permanence. Take your pick.
SELECTION AND CARE
Unless you have the services of a gardener or are an enthusiast yourself, pick minimum maintenance plants. For myself, I like to plant them and then appreciate them. For intensive care, talk to somebody else. But everybody is different.
Seasonality: Different seasons produce different effects. Try to plan for the times when you will be in the garden — or when wildlife you have invited will. Birds need a year-round food source because some remain in even the harshest winters. The only fragrance you will get in winter is from up- close contact with such trees as firs, but plan for changing scents for the spring through fall.
And have fun. There is a lot more to gardening than meets the eye.