Genius loci: What does it mean to the modern gardener?

Roman gardeners turned to something called the genius loci — a call to the local spirits — in crafting landscapes that spoke to their time and place.

Designers continue to seek that elusive but vital aspect in attempting to make a garden that is authentic to its setting. All gardens that are made in this spirit, not just large, grand ones, feel more natural and sheltering as a result. But what is genius loci, exactly?

“The qualities of the site, which include both the natural features and the cultural traditions of the region,” said Reuben Rainey, professor emeritus of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia. “Any good designer is going to respond to those in some way.”

The choice of locally sourced materials adds to the idea, along with garden structures in vernacular styles and materials. But the connection may be with topography surrounding the garden, or the flow of a nearby stream or river.

“It has nothing to do with scale,” said Charles Stick, the landscape architect of Mount Sharon. “It has to do with finding out what’s special with where you are, and asking yourself, how can I emphasize what’s special?”

At Mount Sharon, it was the surrounding countryside, the distant looming Blue Ridge to the north, and the rolling farmland elsewhere. Most of the garden spaces at Mount Sharon frame edited views of the land.

Stick lists among his design mentors the English landscape architect Russell Page. Page, Stick notes, said that “I spend my life connecting people to gardens, gardens to houses, and gardens and houses to their surrounding landscape.”

Another of Page’s observations seems apt. He wrote that “we can make gardens if we understand the essential nature of the place.”

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden."
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