Mood in the Landscape

April 14, 2006

Looking through the threads on this forum certain themes seem to present themselves. It seems everyone's looking for a presentable landscape design. Something neat and attractive. Something low-maintenance and with hardy plants. There are certainly standard guidelines for using texture, form, rhythm, color etc. to create a pleasing design. And paying attention to the site when selecting plants and hardscape materials goes a long way toward making a landcape fairly easy to care for. But where does the practical bump up against the ethereal? Does anyone design for mood in the garden?

I'm not talking about a vague idea of "the peacefuless of nature". Nor am I referring to any particular garden style although one could certainly make the case that a cottage garden, for example, with its abundance and riotous colors is cheerful. That cheeriness seems to be a by-product of the design rather than its guiding principal. I am also not referring to theme gardens like those that feature plants mentioned in the Bible or in Shakespeare or which include only, say, black plants. It seems to me those border (or fall over the border and scatter the mulch) into pure kitsch.

I'm talking about designing with the idea to create a specific mood in the experience of a landscape. For example, I've recently been reading about a certain period in Italian landscape design where gardens were meant to be startling or to provoke wonder  there was one amazing garden with a grotto that somehow echoed with the sounds of the dead rising (not too sure actually what that would sound like. I suspect the sound may resemble my neighbor screeching at her husband. Or maybe I'm just confusing that with sounds that wake the dead). Another obvious example would be a traditional Japanese landscape which is designed for reflection and contemplation.

I'd be interested to learn if anyone here designs with a specific mood or feeling to be experienced in their landscape. If we do not, should we consider doing so? Are our landscapes the poorer for missing emotional content?

Comments (22)

  • The_Mohave__Kid

    "I'd be interested to learn if anyone here designs with a specific mood or feeling to be experienced in their landscape."

    A landscape is a lot like a buffet .. you can lay out the food but there is no guarantee that anyone show up and eat and when they do who honestly can say what they are experiencing since we are all different .. different brains .. eyes .. ears ect..

    "Are our landscapes the poorer for missing emotional content? "

    I assure you it is not our landscapes that lack emotional content it is the people that visit a landscape that "lack" or better still have forgoten how to feel or listen to their own hum and the hum of the world.

    What do you bring to the landscape ? A wise man once said .. "With our thoughts we create the world".

    I always design from within .. never ruled by a system ... my goal before setting out to design is to be one with the world around me ... no greater .. or less ... I take dictatation .. I don't dictate. I try to be like the dust ... no more significant in the design process then the trailings left on my drafting paper by my eraser. In that state one is ready to design the most grand of landscapes.

    ... but you need to be there.

    Good Day ...

  • accordian

    I see. I think. So you lay out the grand buffet of emotional content that already exists in nature and I'm just so stupid or vacuous or maybe addled in some way that I can't see it. It's entirely possible and a reasonable assumption to make on your part I guess. I suppose I worded my post badly. I was not criticizing landscape design and designers at all. I have the greatest respect for anyone who can assimilate knowledge, taste and talent with the skills required to translate their vision into reality. I'm certainly ignorant about these things. I just don't often hear anyone on this forum talk about emotional content but maybe because that's such a given that it's too stupid to even wonder about.

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  • dirtdoctortoo


    Emotional content is not stupid. Your questions are valid. It's just so difficult to translate what may be "romantic" or "peaceful" for me into what it is for you. And if I have read other posts correctly my perception of what Mojave was trying to convey is going with the gut, not some formula that "This is romantic" or "do this for a peaceful effect". I am saying this badly so please forgive me.

    Unfortunately, it does seem that many people "out there" have the emotional depth of a wading pool and wouldn't appreciate a beautiful thing if it hit them between the eyes so to speak. They never see the scenery on the journey cause they are preoccupied with the destination or too busy showing off. They buy a painting not because it moves them but because it goes with the drapes or because its obviously expensive. The garden shouldn't be like that.

    That being said, I am in the practical/function mode. Right now I am struggling with an area of my yard. I ahven't decided really what I'm trying to accomplish other than blocking an ugly view and providing a little more privacy for the area I like to sit in. But if you know what you are trying to accomplish such as "a peaceful little nook" there probably are combinations of plantings/hardscape that most persons would accept as "peaceful". Some of the designers have this internalized so well that they don't need the gyrations that the rest of us struggle with. It is intuitive for them. They have a gift I do not. I am no professional designer and I may just be full of hooey but ultimately the only one that your design truly matters to is YOU.

  • aegis1000

    I dare say that landscapes which are designed by (or for) lovers of landscapes ... are full of emotional content.

    Each of us (lovers of landscapes) likes and looks for different qualities in our landscapes. I would venture that we (perhaps often unconsciously) ... design our landscapes to meet some measure of our emotional need.

  • Saypoint 7a CT

    I'm not sure how many of us achieve it, but I think that a lot of the people who post here looking for help in realizing the vision they have for their landscapes are trying to accomplish just that, whether they realize it or not. Sometimes we don't have the vocabulary to convey what we're after, sometimes we just know that something isn't right, but can't put our finger on it. Some may not have enough experience or exposure to know what the possibilities are, but I think that we'll all on the same path, only at different stages of the journey.

    What you might consider a cheerful cottage garden might feel chaotic to someone who craves a more restful scene. My mother's very undesigned cottage style garden with one of this and one of that makes me nuts, but she knows every plant personally, and particularly enjoys the broken pieces she rescues from the nursery or garden center floor and brings back from the brink of death to flourish in her little plot.

    I know that while I can appreciate bright colors in small doses, it is the cool colors, and white and silvery tones arranged in an elegant but overflowing garden that send a pleasant chill up my spine. There are a couple of views from my windows that are just so beautiful (to me) that I linger for a moment every time I pass them, just to soak it in.

    Of course, there will always be those who are landscaping to impress the neighbors or to improve resale value with minimal tweaking for curb appeal. But for a lot of us, I think it's a lot more personal than that.

  • gottagarden

    What are the moods have you felt that were invoked by a garden? I have felt tranquillity, energy, whimsy, hope, cheeriness, melancholy, power, spirituality, mystery, and a sense of history. That being said, most gardens I visit don't move me at all. Not that they aren't nice gardens, but they don't seem to have a lot of emotional content, just smatterings of flowers. Is that me or the garden? Maybe some of both. In the past I could "feel" some of these gardens, but I've only recently started to take more notice of "how" they accomplish this. It is an extraordinary talent.

  • sujiwan_gw 6b MD/PA

    I suppose the major mood I have experienced in gardens is one of ancestral spirits. Of course, this is because the "Let me show you my garden" people are usually in my family and the plots of land were nurtured for generations and imbibed the spirits of the taste of those who preceded me. Also, passalong bits invoke memories of family connection.

    I used to pass a garden spot we nicknamed "Six Flags" because the obvious theme was pure fun and indulged the gardener's whimsy for including hard structure--bridges, ponds, lookouts, figures, playhouses modelled on Victorian homes, etc. and lots and lots of riotous flowers.

    OF course, contemplation or tranquillity in parts of the Japanese Gardens at Fort Worth are notable.

    I would think what a person can accomplish may depend on the site "airs". I was trying to imagine a garden of peaceful meditation while the local hot rodders out here in the country go 100 mph mufflers blaring up the road. Or to the sound of tractors hauling. Or the goats next door bleating. Guess I'll stick with heritage country porch settin' themes!

  • mad_nil

    My garden has a lot of emotional content for me, but there's no one consistent theme. There are a couple groupings of plants that evoke pleasure because I achieved such a great combination of texture, size and color -- I feel organized and talented when I look at them! There are others that are sophisticated, and others that are whimsical. It's likely that most other people don't experience the same emotions, because they're not looking as closely as I am or because a plant reminds them of something particular in their own experience, but that's fine with me.

  • laag

    The common theme here is that everyone's comments reflect emotions that THEY are BRINGING to the landscape. Gardens can enhance or mitigate those feelings rather than create them. Creating a mood is something to strive toward, but I believe that understanding the people who are using the site, what they do, what they like, and as much as you can about them is going to tell you what THEY BRING to to the garden. When you know that, you know what moods you are trying to enhance or mitigate. That is much more achievable.

    What do you do to enhance or mitigate the moods? The first thing is to make the site function properly so that it is not working against the activities that are to take place there. It is very easy to become one dimensional and weight the value of the garden as a mood creating force over the other activities of the site. That in itself creates a conflict that will undermine whatever mood you are trying to create.

    The planting supports or opposes something that already exists (moods or activities) or the things that people bring with them to the site. Knowing what those things are when you design is just as important as knowing the soil and climate. You will have a hard time trying to create a mood of joy and elation at a funeral home or a peace garden at a NASCAR track. Instead, you work to support the activity (with all its baggage) of the site.

    The mood exists and we support it, or oppose it. We don't create it. No your limitations. Do you (generic you) believe that someone else is controlling your emotions every time you enter a site? Can I break you down and crumble your emotions by having you in my landscape when you were in a good mood? Can I take you out of depression by having you in my landscape? I am not that powerful. Are you?

    I can enhance or mitigate the moods you bring. You can do the same as long as you have some understanding of them and a realistic grasp of everything that is likely to be going on with the people and on the site.

  • The_Mohave__Kid

    Well stated ... I agree ... in my own garden I likw to achieve a state of serenity ... serene reflection ... the zen folks call it ... so I design the landscape in a way that helps me get their ... but if I enter into the garden in ticked off mood ... too full of negative emotion ... everything is bad.

    So I say .. we lay out a "buffet" .. a meager one really ... when we design and hope others can find it and be alive in it. Still .. as far as we know ... we live in the most wonderful place in the universe .. yet it is very easy to complain about something and assume the sun will rise tomorrow.

    Good Day ...

  • maro

    laag and others --
    Is it an exception to your premise to think that entering (or working in) a garden could help to calm frayed nerves, and bring a sense of peace? And that a garden can be designed with that effect as a purpose?

    It sounds as if you are saying that (as an example) if you bring calm emotions into a certain garden, that is what you will experience in that garden.

  • adamante

    Isn't it possible to generalise about what creates a calming atmosphere? Colour is one thing, form is another. Strolling around a garden might be calming but digging a hole in one not. A nice green lawn could be calming but not if you are in competition with a neighbour for the best kept lawn. Busyness is not relaxing (duh).

  • accordian

    I like to think that the way we feel in a well designed landscape is more than what we bring to it and also more than some generalized "calming atmosphere".

    Why do some landscapes look like a bunch of plants hanging around and others make us feel...something? A Jackson Pollack is paint on a canvas and we may be in a "whatever" mood when we look at it but we step away with something more. Can't a landscape do that?

  • avia

    I think that it's possible that "mood" tends to get overlooked in discussions online because it relies on so many senses other than the visual.

    For me, "mood" is conveyed very strongly through sound, scent, and subtle tactile differences (like the way that running water adds both humidity and ionization to the air, causing it to literally *feel* different on your skin than the air does elsewhere, or the temperature differences between areas of shade and sunlight, wind and still).

    Most of the discussions here seem to focus heavily on visual concerns, particularly shape and form. This is probably in part because these are the things that one can more easily deduce from a photograph, or depict in a drawing.

  • adamante

    That seems argumentative to me accordion so I will try to expand on what I said before: If we are in the natural landscape there are certain forms that excite us, rolling surf off Malibu, others that have us staring in awe, the Grand Canyon, and others that we find calming, the rolling hills on the Surrey Downs. Bulls are said to charge at red and is described as a hot color and blue is cool, if your new squeeze invited you into his red bedroom would you expect to get much sleep? and picking up on avia's comments, if the bed had satin sheets would you enter ever so innocently? there are things that are guaranteed to illicit a common response. What is the sound of dripping water that makes you want to pee and how is this different from the splashing waves off Malibu?
    Perhaps you thought I was suggesting that a calming atmosphere was the only worthwhile mood for a garden, so yeah.

  • DebZone8

    I'm not a professional and could be completely missing the point but I thought that the "art" of garden design was about manipulating the emotions & senses. Just as a poem or painting brings the viewer into the mind of the artist, doesn't a well-designed garden do the same thing?

    When I first started gardening I was overwhelmed with all the mechanics I felt I needed to know: sun exposure, water needs, cold hardiness, form, texture, size, bed composition, color, etc., etc., etc. but over time I've become more concerned with the feel of a space. That's not something I can look up in a reference book or put together on a design program, at least not with my novice skills. I love to visit gardens with presence and try to figure out what it is that creates the mood (like picking out individual instruments in a symphony). I pore over books to try to absorb what it is that makes it art.

    A bank parking lot is what I think of when I imagine a landscape that doesn't manipulate the mood. No sense of mystery, no air of excitement, no feeling of serenity...just a formula (put plants A, B and C here, there and there, hide the propane tank and spread some beauty bark).

    I think it's all so much more than solving problems and putting the proper plants in the proper places, otherwise how do you engage the viewer/experiencer?


  • accordian

    Yes, debzone, you've expressed exactly what I was trying to say, only much more eloquently. Gardens with presence. Do they happen by accident? I don't think so, but I just haven't heard much discussion, even among the professionals about how to create that sense of presence. Maybe it's a trade secret. Or maybe you have to start with a space that has...a certain something - a view, or a strong building that sets the tone, or a stream or the sound of the ocean. Here's a question: if the landscape designers here, amateur and professional alike, start with a sterile space like a parking lot, can they create that magic of presence?

    Adamante, I was not responding specifically to your post. I thought you made some good points in both your posts. There are certainly elements like color that can promote a certain mood (not too sure about a common response to satin sheets though, having had experience with them my repsonse was trying not to shoot out of them like a greased pig, probably not conducive to the mood the sheet owners was aiming at).

  • laag

    I do believe that we can very strongly enhance moods and mitigate moods we want to get rid of. I thought I said that pretty clearly, but a lot of people seem to think I said that we can't affect moods at all.

    What I did try to say and what I do believe, is that we can not create a mood from scratch.

    Maro, if you relax through gardening, I would suggest that the physical motion, sense of accomplishement, or the distraction relaxes you from your description. That is much different than having someone enter a garden and having their mood changed by what they experience by being in it. It is, however, creating a place through design that gives you an activity which you do with the purpose of gaining a certain experience. Anyone remember the three things that I mentioned were taught to me - activity, experience, requirement by a very brilliant professor (James Kuska). It took him a half year of beating us over the head with it until only some of us got it.

    Activity = gardening
    Desired Experience = relaxation
    Requirement = x SF of garden space, full sun for most of the day,...

    Relaxation is the mitigation of the stress. In order to relax in a garden you need to have brought stress to the garden in the first place, I think. (dark vs. light, Eric)

    If the cops chase the violent criminal through a well designed peace garden, does he give up?

    If you are sad and blue and sit in a beautiful colorful quiet garden that feels private and to yourself, do you feel better? Of course. Are you completely elated and turned around completely by it? I don't think so. The design enhanced a littlebit of your good feelings and reduced some of the bad. It did not create a mood from scratch.

    Planning activities that you already know evoke certain feelings are a great place to start. Don't dismiss the actions of looking, smelling, hearing, ... as not being activities. Some activities are very passive, but they are important activities. The physical landscape that you build will effect the experiences that people get out of whatever activity they do. Predefining what that experience should be certainly frames what the physical landscape should be like to attain that experience.

    Does that make sense to anyone, but me?

  • maro

    Well, yes. At least, your meaning got through this time around.

    Is this the same idea?: your home, its colors and spaces, conveniences, lighting, etc., or lack of those things, will certainly affect how you live in it and what you do in it. And if you come home tired, your home will comfort or not. If you come home happy, your home will enhance that mood, or not.

    I hope I got that right, because it's going to help me with garden choices. I lose my way a lot.


  • laag

    I think that is a good way of looking at it.

  • mjsee


    I never thought about what "mood" I wanted to create in my gardens...but hindsight being 20/20--I can see there has been a subconcious plan. The beds by the walkways of the front have been planted in a riot of color and scent--and we hung my husband's huge windchime (mostly deep tones) in a tree where he can hear it from his home office, and I can hear it when I'm weeding. Clearly the point of THAT garden is to STIMULATE. It also coaxes people to stay just a little longer--I walk guests to their car and we ususally converse a little more. The various dianthus are in bloom--it smells GREAT out there. The dianthus will finish, to be replaced by deeply scented roses. The roses are a (relatively) new addition--garden phlox were what took over the "smell" palate previously. There are still a few around. July is oriental lillies... and fall is the second flush of the roses.

    The japanese maple bed, and bank next to it, however, have a more contemplative feel. The stone wall helps reduce distractions, and the subdued palate is calming. I like to sit there and read. The windchimes are farther away--barely heard--and the dominant noise (barring a neighbor's lawnmower) is birds. It's my "sit and think" spot.

    Here is the one photo I could find of BOTH gardens at once:


    The above photo was taken at the end of last summer. The bed has filled in significantly--and the maple has filled out. I'd like to get a more recent picture--but the digital camera is at college with it's owner. Perhaps I'll find one to borrow!


  • laag

    Application of the Activity > experience > requirement in Mjsee's example is clear and a good thing to think about for those who might be interested.

    Activity: escorting a departing visitor to car.
    Experience: warm and friendly conclusion of visit.
    Requirement: a walkway that is not too direct, that has interest that is not too distracting, opportunity to pause, conducise to conversation, ...

    Activity: home office (call it conducting business, you get the idea)
    Experience: ability to get work done without negative dstraction.
    Requirement: Access to supporting facilities, privacy, noise and view mitigation,... stuff like that.

    Activity: reading
    experience: peace and quiet, sense of security, pleasant nondistracting sensations.
    Requirement: right light, seat, something behind the seat so you don't feel vulnerable, privacy, lack of distraction.

    Sometimes these things are so obvious that we don't have to write them down to process. Sometimes these situations are found rather than designed. (Was the place to read planned or discovered?). As designers we should be anticipating these activities and designing with them in mind by planning spaces that are conducive to getting the desired experience out of them.

    If that retaining wall was not there, would that place be a comfortable place to read? I would suggest that having your back to the street or driveway where people might arrive would be very disconcerting to someone who is reading. A lot of people use the phrase "build it and they will come". Ther are many many places that I can take you to where there are benches with no one sitting on them, yet people in the area sitting in other places. That is because the experience that you need to deliver in order to get people to sit was not designed into the placement of the benches.

    Activities often result in a mood. Designing with the idea of building as much into the landscape that enhances that activity (and masking existing conditions that inhibit it - what I refer to as mitigating the negative) is going to intensify that mood set by the activity. Does that make sense?

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