By Toni Leland
“...One is nearer God's Heart in a garden Than anywhere else on Earth,” wrote Dorothy Frances Gurney in her poem, “God's Garden.” And so can we be nearer a departed loved one through the beauty and spirituality of nature. Creating a memory garden to honor these treasured people is one way of coping with grief.
A Group Project
When the time is right, when you are ready to think about a permanent reminder of your loved one, there are several things to consider. Sometimes, grief isn't borne alone, but shared by other family members. Is there a sibling or favorite relative or grown son or daughter who might want to participate in this loving venture? Share your plan and seek positive involvement. Perhaps one of them has a memento they'd want to contribute, or knowledge of something special about your loved one.
If there are young children, help them see this as an extension of their love and connection to the missing family member. Encourage them to help with the planning, the site preparation, and the choice of plants. Most children adore planting things and watching them grow. What a special project this could be.
Creating the Vision
Before embarking on your project, set down your goals on paper and prepare a plan using the following guidelines.
The most important will be your level of experience and/or interest in gardening. Not everyone loves to toil in the soil, so plan something based on what you are willing to maintain. Best advice: keep it simple. But if you are an avid gardener, then create to your heart’s content.
If what you seek is a special place to find your own strength – that inner power that will take you through the long grieving process without destroying your faith in being alive – you may find it in a secluded corner of your yard, beneath the sheltering branches of a lovely tree. A dappled grassy spot with a comfortable place to sit, far away from the public world where you can shed the mantle of bravery. . . A bench near a pond where one can watch the koi or the dragonflies. . . A place to meditate or read. . . A place to simply remember.
Will you open new ground and create something specifically for this purpose? Or perhaps there’s a suitable spot in an existing landscape bed or garden. Did your loved one have a favorite spot in the yard? Or a favorite view from a window or porch? Will you want to add something new on birthdays or anniversaries? Whatever location you choose, be aware that the light and water requirements will dictate what you are able to grow with any measure of success.
Choosing the Plants
Annuals are those that only grow for one season. Perennials, shrubs, trees, and most bulbs and vines come back year after year. Think also about the future size of what you plant, and how quickly it will grow. If you choose a variety that spreads rapidly, such as ivy or ajuga, be sure to assess the boundaries past which you do not want it to grow. The spot you choose should accommodate the size of the plant in four to five years, and beyond. This is especially important with trees and shrubs.
The purpose of a memory garden is to honor the departed, to create a space that they would have loved looking at or tending. Of course, your loved one’s favorite plants would be a first choice for your memory garden, but if you've chosen a shady spot in an existing bed, then those beloved daylilies, irises, or roses will not flourish. Likewise, in a newly-prepared flower bed in full sun, you’ll not be able to use things like bleeding hearts, coral bells, or astilbe. Your local garden center can be a big help in making the right choices.
Consider using plants that echo your loved one’s name. Many flowers and shrubs have “human” names, such as peony ‘Sarah Bernhardt’, or clematis ‘John Paul’. Another idea would be to choose flowers in your loved one’s favorite colors. This provides an almost endless choice.
You will also need to consider the zone and growing season for where you live. Unless you’re a true gardener, don’t plant things that need to be dug and stored for the winter (such as dahlias or gladiolus), or shrubs that require special pruning (such as hybrid tea roses) or short-lived plants that will eventually die out (such as coral bells). Remember, the key is to enjoy and remember – keep it simple. Make it a joy for you to behold and maintain. Some suggestions are listed at the end of this article.
Large or small, a memory garden can be beautifully enhanced by the addition of statuary and mementos that reflect the passions and interests of your loved one. Did he or she have a “thing” for roosters?. . . frogs?. . . golf? These pieces give special meaning to the spot you’ve chosen for the garden – always there to trigger a fond memory.
Garden centers across the country have a wide variety of statuary made expressly for being outside in the elements, and this is important. You might possibly use treasured indoor pieces in a garden setting, but even in good weather, moisture or strong sun could destroy them. Other places to look for statuary and garden art include craft fairs and festivals, dollar variety stores, super discount centers, or freight overstock stores.
Even if you have only a small spot near the back door, consider planting a single beautiful rose bush or dwarf flowering shrub. You will smile with fond memories every time you pass by.
Here are just a few suggestions for plant choices to fit most situations. All are readily available and easy to grow and maintain. (These criteria are based on regions with moderate to cold winters; the same specimens will behave differently in warmer climes.)
Astilbe: Shade, moderate water, moderate growth rate.
Type: low perennial. Wonderful colors and feathery flower stems over lacy dark green leaves.
Azalea: Part shade, moderate water, moderate growth rate.
Type: woody evergreen broadleaf shrub. Dwarf varieties are suitable for small garden space and grow more slowly than larger varieties.
Black-eyed Susan: Full sun, light to moderate water, moderate growth rate.
Type: tall perennial. Bright yellow flowers with dark brown centers nod over lance-shaped dark green leaves. Beautiful and so easy to grow.
Bleeding Hearts: Full shade, heavy water, moderate growth rate.
Type: low perennial. Pink and white heart-shaped flowers along a graceful stalk, over fern-like light green leaves; a pure white variety is also available.
Butterfly Bush: Full sun, light to moderate water, fast growth rate.
Type: woody deciduous shrub. Blooms best if cut back to ground every spring. Can outgrow space quickly. Sprays of pink, purple, yellow, or white flowers over olive-green leaves.
Clematis: Full sun, moderate water, moderate growth rate.
Type: vine. Needs shaded roots to perform well. Requires some pruning attention to variety to assure bloom. Any color or flower form imaginable.
Coneflower: Full sun, light to moderate water, moderate growth rate.
Type: tall perennial. Showy purple flowers with brown centers over lance-shaped leaves. Hardy in almost any region.
Coral Bells: Full shade, heavy water, moderate growth rate.
Type: low perennial. Large scalloped leaves of purple or peach or orange or blue-green are the focus, more than the tiny flowers. Easy to grow, but short-lived (about five years).
Coreopsis: Full sun, light to moderate water, moderate growth rate.
Type: low perennial. Strong butter-yellow flowers over lacy leaves. Clumping habit, beautiful from spring to first frost. Easy to grow.
Daylily: Full sun, moderate water, moderate growth rate.
Type: tuber. Clumps grow larger over several years; will need to be divided. Myriad colors and flower forms.
Hosta: Part to full shade, moderate water, moderate growth rate.
Type: low perennial. Foliage is the attraction with hundreds of different varieties in all the greens, yellows, and whites imaginable. Flowers in late summer, usually purple. Some fragrant varieties are popular. Hostas grow themselves.
Iris: Full sun, moderate water, moderate growth rate.
Type: tuber. Once established, will perform year after year without much special attention. Every color imaginable.
Lily-of-the-Valley: Full shade, moderate water, fast growth rate.
Type: low perennial. Can be invasive and very difficult to eradicate. Consider using in-ground planter to contain growth. Dark glossy leaves, sprays of fragrant white flowers are irresistible.
Peony: Full sun, moderate water, moderate growth rate.
Type: tall perennial. Magnificent large, ruffled flowers in wide range of colors over dark green lobed leaves. Grows larger each year. Should be planted where it will stay; does not like to be moved. Cut stems to ground in the fall. Easy to grow.
Rose: Full sun, moderate water, moderate growth rate.
Type: deciduous shrub. Hybrid varieties tend to need more TLC than climbing or bush roses. Beautiful colors and shapes.