This blog is about growing tropical-looking plants in the Phoenix, Arizona area

April 14, 2013

Designing a garden in the desert for serenity

I had the privilege of visiting Saint Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence, Arizona yesterday. I went with a group from the Arizona Palm and Cycad Association, although it wasn't an official meeting. Most of us had never been there, but had heard of its amazing grounds.

Whatever made these monks choose an empty patch of desert in Arizona for a Monastery in 1995, I have no idea. But clearly they knew. It is indeed a holy place, and a place of deep serenity. And the group that I was with are some of the most knowledgable people on the subject of the interesting plants there. But it was clear to me that just about everyone had missed the point of the design. The most common remark I heard later was that it was a "hodgepodge" of design.

As a designer, I am used to hearing people make judgements about design. I suppose it's everyone's prerogative, like criticizing music, or anything. And I respect whether someone likes or dislikes something. But it saddens me to realize that what I saw yesterday was mostly invisible to the group that I was with today, and probably many of the people who visit. But I saw it, and more importantly, I felt it. I'm sure that the men and women who live, work, and worship there feel it too.

If you would like to design a garden in the desert for serenity, start with tall trees. At the Monastery, there were so many palm trees that it created a canopy. Have gentle paths where people can walk without worrying about running into anything. Have places to sit. Mix up the plantings. Have annuals here, a yucca there, maybe next to a rose bush. You are not designing for a parking lot, you are designing for dappled shade, for different textures, for the "weaving" of colors and patterns.

Sure, there will still be some people who will totally miss it. They will stomp through areas that are clearly meant not to be walked into, just as a shortcut to another building. I saw some people do this, but not many. All of the monks and nuns, and most of the visitors, showed respect for this place.

I can still feel the serenity. Turn off your cell phone and go there.
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