Garden Beauty That the Eye Can't Behold

A fountain can be pleasing to the ear, as well as mask unwanted noise from elsewhere.
A fountain can be pleasing to the ear, as well as mask unwanted noise from elsewhere.
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By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, December 20, 2008

It's understood among landscape designers that the aesthetics of a garden go considerably beyond visual beauty to encompass sound and touch.

Hearing snow crunch underfoot, leaves rustle overhead, or a brook babble can bring back memories and enhance a walk. If you soak your feet in a stream, you're also bringing your sense of touch into play. Because water enhances the pleasure of a garden so much, it is often added to a landscape design in the form of a fountain or other aquatic feature. The sound of water, such as a cascade or waterfall, offers interest nearly year-round.

Pets, moving water, singing birds and whistling wind melded with a passing train, plane, truck or automobile, even neighbors talking in yards close by, can combine to create a symphony in the garden. But sound also can be a cacophony you want to keep out, such as airplane and highway noise, playgrounds, dogs barking or construction.

Design your garden to incorporate or disguise noise. Engineering a fountain or other water feature can act as camouflage and conjure up images of a vacation -- eating alfresco in an French cafe or being in a quiet meditation space where the sound of water becomes your mantra. Adding sound and retraining your ears to hear nature can add a new dimension to the landscape. Water is the most popular way to do that, but there are others.

With the slightest breeze, the thick evergreen leaves of longstalk holly (Ilex pedunculosa) make a rustling sound. You can also use wind chimes, available in wood, bamboo, ceramic, glass and metal. My favorites are stainless steel, tuned to a specific cord, that ring like a town clock or pipe organ when the wind blows.

Design weatherproof outdoor speakers into the landscape. Some are built of fiberglass but molded to look like rocks. The concept seemed strange to me until I had the spellbinding experience of gently swinging in a hammock over a speaker in a garden with "Phantom of the Opera" playing. Until then, I felt that the natural effects of birds singing, wind and water in the background were enough.

As with sound, there are pleasant and unpleasant experiences associated with the sense of touch. The pleasurable characteristics can be subtle, like the contact of ferns brushing, almost tickling your ankle as they spill over onto a pathway. Or maybe it's the texture of a leaf that encourages you to touch it, such as soft lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina). The furry, silvery foliage makes a pleasing perennial border where its soft downy leaves can be "petted," something I do almost every time I see it.

If you'd rather not bend down to pet fuzzy leaves, install olympic mullein (Verbascum olympicum). This tall (four to seven feet), long-lived perennial can be used in the border for architectural interest (six- to eight-inch-long leaves), as much as for its interesting, long-lasting flowers. Its yellow flowers are grouped on one- to two-foot-long panicles and remain colorful for six to eight weeks in summer. There are about 300 species in this genus. Almost all have green to whitish-green leaves that are soft and downy to the touch. The most common plants I have seen are the invasive European native, usually seen in full sun as a tall roadside weed. The spikes of small yellow flowers in mid-summer are on tall stalks (four to six feet) that sport the characteristic large, soft leaves.

Some plants are less pleasing and extremely unpleasant to touch. You may be willing to suffer the prickle of the Chinese holly because of its extremely handsome foliage or American holly because of the handsome pyramidal evergreen form and showy winter berries on the female. Both of these shrubs offer deer resistance, as well.

If your yard has become a shortcut for the after-school crowd, thorniness can be desirable. If eroding soil and foot traffic is a problem, a thicket of native Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana), which offers flowers, fall color and thorns, may solve the problem. Another shrub that makes a good barrier is hardy orange (Poncirus trifoliata). It has thick, tough thorns and grows to about 12-feet high and wide in maturity. It can be pruned to keep it smaller.

I saw a clever use of a weeping blue atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica "Glauca Pendula") at Wave Hill garden in Bronx, N.Y. It was trained along a shade trellis, with its weeping branches hanging down to form a curtain that required you to part them to walk into the next garden room. Features such as this can take years to achieve their purpose but will eventually become innovative outdoor structures providing tactile design.

You can also make your garden sound and feel appealing by breaking it into rooms using plants, sitting walls or any other means of spatial enclosure. Make one of the garden rooms a drum or resonance room. A tom-tom shaped drum and padded stick set could be placed among the plants. You create the tonal quality in the space with the drumstick or simply let the drum play to the beat of a rainstorm.

Another room could house a garden railway, especially popular during the holidays. You can leave garden railway trains outdoors 12 months a year. Get an engine with a whistle and snowplow. The "G" scale train is the most popular type and can be designed and built into the landscape.

Children's gardens have become some of the most sensory gardens I have seen. The Children's Garden at Hershey Gardens in Hershey, Pa., has steppingstones that play musical notes when you walk on them. Imagine composing a tune as you stroll -- melding touch and sound.

Longwood Gardens' Indoor Children's Garden in Kennett Square, Pa., has created an atmosphere using water curtains, pools and shooting streams of water from sculptures that children activate, providing a unique connection of sound and touch with water and interesting plants. Feeling the spray of water from a fountain, spring, lake or water curtain can create an alluring atmosphere -- not just for children. Perhaps that's why water is a preferred landscape design element in general.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site,

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