Saturday, 29 March 2014

A Sensual Garden Creating a Place for Being in the Present Moment by Shenandoah Kepler


I was honoured and delighted and not a little scared when a famous blogger, Shenandoah of Fleeting Architecture e-mailed me and asked me to review her new book, What if I did not like it or was unable to relate to horticulture in another climate and culture? 
I should not have been concerned. It is a lovely book with a catchy title relevant to gardens everywhere! Even better her US climate zone does not look very different to that of my own  garden and her very fine photographs almost all taken herself, are of plants I can grow and some I actually know.
The theme of the book is the myriad of sensory routes that plants in a garden have into our lives. I used to do a lecture to amateur gardeners called ‘Colour in the garden all the year round’ where I used to argue that there was more to colour than just flowers. Shenandoah’s beautiful book goes much further and gives numerous well illustrated examples of how all our senses, sight, hearing, touch, taste and sound respond to plants. It goes deeper and looks at the effect on our wellbeing and mood analysing the psychological and physiological processes involved .

I refer you to Shenandoah’s blog for a description of why and what she tries (and succeeds) to achieve in her book. You will also find details of where and how to read the book and indeed download it for free if you join her website. It is a very modern e-book with interesting references to click on to when you want detailed explanations. I would describe it as a ‘coffee table book’ even though it’s on the computer. As an old stager myself I have just been reminded that on a pad or a kindle it is a book!
You will learn many new plants, landscape design principles and much about yourself. Shenandoah’s fertile mind gives so many examples of how plants please and when she shares her original thoughts you need to pause for breath and think. That’s why the book is so good. There is too much to miss if you try to read it in one go! 

The book

The only way I know how to review a book is to recount responses it evokes in my head and I can tell you that I know much more now how to respond to a garden! 

I related to references of odours that bring back childhood memories. They are not always the plants! In Mrs. Kepler’s case it was smells of the farm. In my own case it is the bouquet  of the soil. It is earthy smells when digging(!) and clean fungal odours of compost and log piles. Some of the strong essences Shenandoah remembers you might not be terribly fond of. Brenda recently complained to her son Peter that his stables were smelly with dung. He replied, “Mother it is a beautiful aroma”

Catching thoughts about aromas, not all plants smell nice. I personally hate the stink of sorbus flowers. Shenandoah says she rather savours the bold odour of box. To me it smells like cat’s pee!

Much is written about beautiful scents and the book describes many  plants you will want to add to your own garden. It recommends subtle placing of such plants often near to the house. Brenda constantly demands to know why I fail to do this. I tell her that I have an acre to fill. She cannot have every special plant outside her window or next to the door. She does not seem to agree.



Although many plants and especially flowers have beautiful scents they are not always very long lasting and often are sometimes not very strong. I love to put my nose into a flower but really prefer those fragrances so powerful that you do not have to work hard to detect them. Two of my own favourites are sarcococca and cercidopyllum. Both have long lasting pervading smells which you can enjoy even on a windy day. The common name of sarcococca is Winter box. Rather ironic in view of my earlier comment about buxus. Brenda regards sarcococca as rather sickly, I can’t win! At least she agrees that the candy floss smell of cercidophyllum autumn leaves is stunning!

The wind snapped my outdoor hyacinth. Its delightful smell graced our conservatory for more than a week.

My own Daphne 'Jaqueline Postill' has a very powerful smell

Pleasant odours of plants may be the same ones as food - if one should imagine candy floss to be a food, I sowed my own cherry pie (heliotrope) today! Mrs Kepler actually promotes edible fruit and vegetables to be dispersed in the garden for their beauty, odours and taste. She mentions tomatoes. I agree that tomatoes have a first transient attractive smell. but if  you have ‘twisted and side-shooted’ tomatoes and ended your working  day in a commercial glasshouse with black stained hands you might disagree.

Different senses reside in separate chapters. There are sound thoughts about sounds. Shenandoah explores how to ameliorate unwanted noise and reminds us of the murmurs of beautiful breezes that drift through the plants and crunching sounds on gravel paths. She mentions wind chimes. I find them somewhat repetitive - to put it mildly - like the one in Worsbrough Cemetery garden hanging on a tree. One person’s charm is another’s irritation. I regret to inform you that for a short while in Bolton Percy I had a wind chime  myself! My poor neighbours!

The chapter on touch is touching. I enjoyed Mrs Kepler’s feelings about feel. I was reminded of Brenda’s tendency to touch plants and being screamed at at by a stand holder, “you cannot do that!”

Shenandoah's avatar

I think Shenandoah is a more spiritual person than me. Gardens are places of emotion. I remember a garden visiter to Bolton Percy cemetery in tears at he sight of beautiful plants growing over graves. My eyes watered too. Much pleasure is obtained in a garden and it is not all horticultural! The calm of a beautiful garden has influenced love, poetry, music and great human beings walking thinking great thoughts and making historic decisions.

I liked the references to enjoying the gestalt of a garden. Gardens are places for meditation. Although I sometimes do yoga and stand on my head I cannot myself relate to sitting and contemplating in a garden. Until I met Brenda I did not know what garden seats were for. Now they are everywhere! I do recall the contentment an old man who regularly sat on a bench in Bolton Percy cemetery and thought thoughts.

My own failure to relate to meditation in a garden is that I meditate all the time! Most people call it day dreaming and lack of attention. I have a peculiar ability to switch off and not hear what is going on around me. Brenda cannot stop herself listening to every word uttered by a stupid DJ! When I garden I am in my own little world. Sometimes these days I am writing a blog in my head! My serious point is that we are all different and derive numerous but very various pleasures from contemplation.

Although Shenandoah explores how the well being of the body and mind is enhanced by psychological processes she might have said more about the direct physical effect on our bodies of being outside. There is much modern research suggesting that plant biochemicals released into the air have very beneficial effects. Fresh air has powerful anti-bacterial properties and sunshine has very significant effects on our health and mood as well as providing vitamin d. The latter compound will do more for our health and wellbeing than most over-hyped pharmaceutical products.

Rather counter to my suggested omission, Cathi was round for a meal last night. She was relating how our limbic system responds to tastes and smells and how one can recall deep-seated  memories. I was able to say “I know, I have read Kepler!” As my blog-meister she was delighted to learn I was reviewing Shenandoah’s book!

Perhaps the most lasting thought that this lovely book has left with me is that I should live more in the present. I should savour the pleasures of now. I tend to be be thinking of the immediate future and the tasks and pleasures to come in the day. I should learn to enjoy ‘nowness’ and the  immediate sensations provoked by my garden and plants.


In her latest post Mrs.Kepler says a great deal about herself, her philosophy and more about the book. Thank you Shen for the book and your kind permission to show some of your pictures.

These are two of my earlier book reviews
Chillies by Jason Nickels
Wild flowers on the Edge by Margaret Atherden and Nan Sykes




6 comments:

  1. No, Roger, it is I who am honored by your post, your comments, and your kindness. I learned much from reading and thinking about your feelings about gardening and being in the garden, and in the moment! God bless you, whatever he or she may be to you and yours.

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  2. I hope the book goes really well, Shen

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  3. Sounds like a fascinating book - It has certainly won you over. I love scented plants too and have a freebie daphne that has been pleasantly assaulting my nostrils. It appear from nowhere - presumably a gift from a bird as it grows at the foot of an arch just in the right place for a bird deposit although not the place I would have planted it..

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    1. I have a similar Daphne mezeurium growing in the corner of the old school yard next to Bolton Percy cemetery. They seem to do best where nature puts them!
      As to being won over, formidable bloggers like yourself make me go weak at the knees!

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  4. I would imagine that you found your review very difficult to approach Roger as everything to do with gardening is so subjective, as you infer "one man's meat ...............". Interesting that you mentioned working with tomatoes, when we were fruit picking I used to loath the currants and their all pervading smell of cat pee despite which I have a Ribes just by the front door which still reminds me of those times. The perceived "wisdom" today is that you knock a plant out of its pot to check its root system before buying which must relegate touching to a much lesser crime, just how the vendors respond to this is not clear!

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    1. I am afraid I have been a bit snobbish about The flowering currant and do not have one. It is actually a very good value plant - probably far better than the fancy Ribes laurifolia that i struggle to grow. Smells evoking good times may not always be sweet!

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