Sheltered garden spaces offer solitude, peace of mind

Features - landscape trends

The pandemic has given home gardeners and landscape installation professionals the inspiration to carve out space in the garden for sitting and thinking.

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March 23, 2021

As COVID-19 caused many to shelter in place, it also drove a trend for more homeowners to turn to their backyards as an escape.

Traven Pelletier, owner and designer of Lotus Gardenscapes, based in Dexter, Michigan, says the goal is to create a place where a person can feel at peace outside.

“Since everybody’s been sheltering in place and their travel budgets are basically sitting in their accounts, and they’re stuck at home a lot more people are investing in their own residential space and trying to create some sort of outdoor sanctuary for themselves,” Pelletier says.

Different landscape professionals call this design concept various names: a nook, a sanctuary, a cocoon, a sheltered corner. Yet the simple desire that drives the design remains the same.

What is driving the demand?

Jan Johnsen, co-owner of Johnsen Landscapes & Pools, based in Mount Kisco, New York, says the demand for these sanctuaries increased incredibly starting mid-spring 2020.

“The trend started because all vacations and kids’ camp stays were canceled,” she says. “The enforced stay-at-home rule made everyone look around at their backyards and ponder what they could do.”

"... you look for that spot that can become that space. Just like in a house the pattern language of a nook is a special thing that you’re drawn to, so you try to create the same thing outdoors.” - Bruce Allentuck

Bruce Allentuck, LIC, owner of Allentuck Landscaping Co., based in Rockville, Maryland, calls these areas nooks. He says they have had a higher demand for these types of spaces of late, as well.

“I think people want to find a little place that they can isolate to and get their brain wrapped around things,” Allentuck says.

Comfort is driving the demand. Ketti Kupper, owner of Conscious Living Landscapes, based in Altadena, California, adds that people want to have a sense of protection and safety so they can fully relax.

“Everybody’s been isolated from other people and we spend tons of time in front of the laptop, in Zoom meetings or just doing work,” Allentuck says. “That’s fine indoors, but the outdoors is softer and comforting. I think people do want to feel that landscape hug.”

Creating a sheltered space

This landscape design falls into two archetypes described by author Julie Moir Messervy in her book "The Inward Garden." These archetypes are the harbor and the cave. Both archetypes touch on being surrounded with a view outward.

To create these spaces, use plant material to establish walls and ceiling in the landscape. Walls can be formed with screening plants and overstory and understory trees serve as the ceiling.

“I think it’s really important to put things that will appeal to different senses in there,” Allentuck says. “Grasses blowing in the wind or fragrant plants, flowers, of course, maybe some things that attract birds and nature that somebody can sit and watch and look at. It can be any number of ways that you do it, but you look for that spot that can become that space. Just like in a house the pattern language of a nook is a special thing that you’re drawn to, so you try to create the same thing outdoors.”

There’s a natural desire for humans to experience nature, but often outdoor spaces that are too windy or too hot preventing people from wanting to spend time outside. The plant walls and ceilings provide shelter from these harsh elements.

The goal is to provide a more immediate opportunity for people to experience nature rather than going to a local walking trail, which takes more of an effort to reach regularly.

"I try to create a partially enclosed sitting spot that has a hedge, wall, slope or large tree as a backdrop and an open view out to the front." -Ketti Kupper
Water features are a great way to tie together an outdoor space and create serenity.

“In every plan, I try to create a partially enclosed sitting spot that has a hedge, wall, slope or large tree as a backdrop and an open view out to the front,” Johnsen says. “I call this the ‘Lure of the Sheltered Corner.’ People naturally gravitate to the spot and will sit if a bench or chair is provided.”

Kupper says that lighting can also add to the sense of intimate delight as it can warm up the space.

“Auditory privacy is related to the nestled secure feeling,” Kupper says. “Windchimes or the white noise of a fountain help. Some plants are better for that too such as bamboo with the hollow culms dampening sound and the rustling leaves in the breeze.”

Kupper says the space should having something soothing or inspiring to view, with up-close succulents near the seating, as well as space for the client’s dog or cat to join.

A properly cultivated sheltered enclosure provides immediate escape into nature versus a long walking trail through the woods.
A wide variety of plant types is ideal, but be careful as to not overwhelm the space and create a claustrophobic vibe.

What plants to use

The landscape professionals agree that the micro-climate and purpose of the place will drive the plant material selection for the most part. The screening material can be one plant type or a variety.

“I use layers when possible,” Kupper says. “A depth of field is always interesting. That would be a panel screen — or a panel screen in front of trees. And smaller open plants such as Caesalpinia in front and then something shorter and denser in front of that and smaller still nestled in as well. Another option is to create terraces or raised areas to get varying heights — even if the original space is flat, that can be done.”

To prevent having a space that comes across as claustrophobic, Allentuck says this is dependent on the individual’s taste but there should be good airflow and the client should be able to see out of the space.

A comfy outdoor couch and a warm fire pit beckon any nature enthusiast to sit and soak it all in.

“It can be a simple hedge or a large shrub that creates the backdrop,” Johnsen says. “Simpler is better. Try not to overplant an area. Let the shrubs grow in. Give it a few years for best results.”

Kupper advises limiting the number of plant types you’re using and to select some with lacey leaves that allow for overhead light. She says she typically uses clumping bamboos, Durantas, and other tree-like shrubs. She often uses Grewia or Calliandra haematocephala for a flat background screen.

"Another option is to create terraces or raised areas to get varying heights — even if the original space is flat, that can be done.” -Ketti Kupper

Allentuck’s preferred plants include skip laurels as they are dense and green. Viburnums are thick as well and offer fragrance. They attract birds in the fall with their berries. Allentuck also likes to use larger ornamental grasses like Karl Foerster grass. Rhododendrons and mountain laurels can give a mountain feel if in the right mirco-environment.

Some of Johnsen’s go-to plants for these spaces include oakleaf hydrangeas, leatherleaf viburnum, bottlebrush buckeye and Joe Pye Weed. For flowers that can be good in these spaces, check out Jan Johnsen’s latest book, "Floratopia."

“Everyone loves a quiet outdoor sitting spot where they can enjoy the birds singing or the breeze rustling the leaves,” Johnsen says. “It is so relaxing. Green plants enliven us, and sitting on a stone bench or rock also helps to ground us. We need grounding these days.”

Jill Odom is the content manager for the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) and is based in Fairfax, Virginia.