Have you ever thought about creating a sacred garden? Something a little like Wendy Whiteley’s majestic Secret Garden. What a brilliant example of sacred, living art it is! Wendy was the wife, muse and model of iconic Australian artist Brett Whiteley. Together they lived in a gorgeous mansion in Lavender Bay with views of Sydney harbour. When Brett died in 1992, Wendy channelled her grief into restoring a large stretch of railway wasteland at the foot of her home.
Nine years later their daughter Arkie died and Wendy was left alone. She continued with her grand gardening project, designing and financing it all herself. It resulted in a remarkable transformation of her life. What she has created is a sanctuary accessible to anyone, which provides hope, peace, and healing. I cannot think of a better way to honour loved ones passed!
In the midst of overwhelming grief, it can be very difficult to imagine that your experience of loss may actually grow you. Most of us don’t live in such an idyllic setting as Wendy does, but we can all improve our surrounds with a little effort and imagination. If you are grieving you can help yourself by creating something representative of that which you have loved and lost.
By creating a sacred garden, whether it be a large area, a small patch or merely a pot, you too can honour a loved one who has passed and receive a healing from it. You may like to have a special place in your garden for the ashes of a loved one. It may be a beloved pet you miss so much and wish to remember or to establish a burial place for.
Perhaps it is your marriage or a friendship that has ‘died’, and with it, the life you once shared. Having a quiet, meaningful place to contemplate where things are at in your life may be what you need to heal. It may be something else that once defined you that has now dramatically changed, and you are grieving it. Grief is complex and creating a sacred garden can help to sift and shift complex emotions.
Creating a sacred space in your garden which allows you the opportunity to remember and to mourn, to reflect and to feel the significance of someone or something that has now passed, may help to heal some of your pain. It can be a place you go to, to acknowledge the spiritual presence of your loved one. A safe space where you can connect, say hello, tell them about your day and how you are feeling about life. And a place to pray, meditate and to hear spiritual guidance.
By involving others in your project, like children, who too require an outlet for their grief, you can assist them in communicating their feelings naturally with you while working on the project together and thus move some of their grief along, in a natural way. The sacred garden you work on together can become a sanctuary for you both. It can grow in you and them a feeling of gratitude for what was and hope for what will be. It may also bring them closer to nature which has its own lessons to teach us, through its natural beauty and rhythm.
By placing objects or plants in your garden, even in a pot, or a few pots, it enables you to symbolise your feelings. Creating a sacred garden needn’t be an expense. There are often lots of things we already have, that can be repositioned or reworked in some way, to give a space a new look. You needn’t even buy plants, simply go for a walk around the neighbourhood, and take a few small cuttings from the plants you like, along the way, which you can later replant. Or you can grow plants from seeds you have collected.
Plants provide a lot of beauty and therefore, pleasure. They respond to our caring. They make good company, anytime, day or night. And if we spend some of our time in our sacred garden, observing the plants, blooms, birds, and little creatures; the sky, moon, and breeze; we can get out of our heads and more in touch with life in the here and now.
What makes a garden sacred? It is the meaning we give to the things we place there. It is sacred because it inspires in us a strong sentiment – a memory, a hope, an awe, a thankfulness. It often makes us feel like we are a part of something greater than ourselves. Something bigger than our daily routines and worries. It is a space where we feel safe to be ourselves, unguarded and authentic. It allows us the opportunity to pause and be mindful. It connects us with our inner world.
Honouring my ancestors
My life has been shaped, quite a lot, by grief – my own personal grief and then the grief of others, close to me. In particular, the tragic loss of family to war, the loss of extended family by emigration, and thus the loss of culture and belonging. A part of this also is the loss of ancestral lands and heritage. Many people have similar losses.
My book Where The Light Lives shares the story of this grief and my remarkable healing from it. In the book, I speak of my family members who were executed during the Second World War in Southern Europe and the effects of this. My dad was a child during the war and present for the killings of his family, and his pain, in turn, became my pain.
Honouring my ancestors has been a big part of my life story, like the writing of my book. However, I also wanted to acknowledge their continuance in me and my children, and in spirit, by creating a sacred garden in their name. Seeing Wendy’s Secret Garden brought this together in me and gave me the inspiration to make it happen.
How to create a sacred garden
I was further inspired by a scene in the movie Mr. Holmes, where he travels to Japan in search of a plant to restore his memory. Mr. Holmes visits a bleak, lifeless forest destroyed by war. There, he observes a man mourning the loss of loved ones, quietly placing white stones in a circle on the blackened earth. It very much moved me. In this way, circles became the theme of my sacred garden, representing the continuance of love and spiritual life.
You don’t require a lot to create a sacred garden and it needn’t cost much – or at all. You just need a little imagination. Seeing what other people have done to create their sacred gardens can also help. I kept to a budget of $100. I also used some things I already had. You may like to choose circles for the theme of your sacred garden too, or something else, like birds, angels, fairies, animals, or shapes and patterns, or simply plants, or a mix of these.
There is a variety of garden art available in hardware stores and specialty garden stores and even places like K-mart. You may prefer to collect things from nature, like stones, sticks, and shells, and create a symbolic arrangement from them, or use items you already have, or a combination of these. All kinds of old, rusty or broken objects can make for interesting focal points in the garden. Ask a neighbour if they have any of these items for you, that they may not want anymore. Visit an opportunity shop or a garage sale. Someone’s chuck out may be the treasure you’re looking for!
I created my sacred garden this week on the first day of autumn, my very favourite season of the year, and in the front yard of my home because I walk through it every day, which gives me extra opportunity to be mindful and appreciative of my ancestors. My garden already has some beautiful native plant life, but following the heat of summer, there were some dry, empty and tired spaces, calling for my attention. The following is a brief outline of my sacred garden project, which in total, took five hours to create:
Day One – 2 hours
- Went to K-mart and purchased a stone circle with a lovely decorative design for just $5 – what a bargain! And I got three funky metal spheres, also a bargain.
- Then, on to the local hardware store for three plants, two bags of stones, flower seeds and fertiliser.
- Onto a fancy little garden store where I purchased two beautiful metallic hearts and a bird.
- Brought home all my purchases to admire!
Day Two – 3 hours
- Watered the garden.
- Assessed the garden to see where to put everything I purchased the day before.
- Picked up fallen branches, twigs, leaves and pulled out weeds.
- Broke up the mulch with a garden fork, turning it over.
- Stood on a nest of bull ants in thongs. Never a good idea. Pain. Swearing. Ran inside for a bag of iced peas.
- Returned to the garden wearing socks and sneakers. Throbbing feet.
- Raked over the garden.
- Positioned the stone circle in front of the little Silver Princess tree.
- Unpacked three metal rings, made them up, and placed them in front of the Peaches and Cream Grevillea.
- Positioned a metal bird in a white pot that I brought out front from the backyard.
- Planted three plants – fertilised and watered them.
- Hung the two metal hearts in a tree.
- Made three lots of circles out of stones in the garden.
- Placed a wooden seat in the garden.
- Watered the garden, again.
- Stood there admiring it all!
This is a ‘before’ picture of my front yard with views of the park. When we bought our home more than ten years ago, the front yard was all lawned. We got rid of most of the lawn and planted Australian native plants which bring in a lot of bird life. However, the very front garden has always struggled to take off, as it gets a lot of heat in summer. So, when creating my sacred garden I wanted to fill in the gaps there. Now, when I walk out my front door, my eyes are drawn to objects that inspire me, rather than patches of mulch.
These three metal spheres from K-mart cost me $19. There’s nothing flimsy about them. They were easy and fun to make up. And they really complete this little garden, leading up to the front door. The bronze colour looks great against the mulch. By turning the mulch over with a garden fork, the ground went from looking a dull sun-bleached grey to a rich brown colour. The metal spheres make me think of how our lives are intertwined with others, and that together we are a part of something greater.
If you’re wondering what the round, black circle thing is by the window (below), it is a section of a grass tree trunk. It’s really impressive and was here with the house when we moved in. I’ve also placed a circle of stones on the mulch and planted a small Sandstone Bottlebrush near the stones. As it grows, the Sandstone Bottlebrush will have a fabulous display of golden orange flowers, which look like eternal flames.
In the very front garden, I planted a Boronia Lutea near to the birdbath and it will grow to bear sweetly scented lemon-yellow flowers. In another space there, I planted an RSL Spirit of ANZAC Grevillea, which already has a number of lush red flowers on display. This plant is for remembering those who have died in circumstances of conflict. The white pot came from the back patio, and now fills a space in the garden nicely, and works to balance the stone disc and birdbath. The stone disc is my prize purchase, and its circular design makes me think of a mandala and the impermanence of physical life, and also, the continuity of spiritual life.
My love is on display in the white pot on a little chalkboard with a metallic bird perched above it. It’s so sweet how you can write with chalk whatever you’re feeling. My love is also hanging from the thin branches of my favourite tree. Nearby, are one of my children’s handprints. It also has two little hearts pressed into the design. This little piece of art reminds me that we all imprint the world with who we are, as our loved ones did.
My husband positioned a wooden seat for me, from our back patio, in the middle of the garden, out front, so that even though I’m in the midst of suburbia, and near the bustling city, I can feel like I am in the wilderness! Why would you want to sit on the fringes of the garden when you can be immersed in its splendor! This is my contemplation seat. My seat of peace. My gratitude seat. My remembrance seat. My love seat. And, the seat of my soul!
Every other vacant spot in the garden is sprinkled with Everlasting seeds. When grown, these spectacular pink wildflowers feel like crepe paper and when picked, and hung upside-down to dry, really do last almost forever. They are a lovely feature for any garden or vase. I chose them for my sacred garden because forever is what we are – eternal souls. And it is that which is everlasting in all of us, that I most want to honour in my sacred life: God, love, creativity.
I hope you enjoyed seeing my sacred garden and it inspires you to create your own. If you do, I would love to hear about it and to see some pics. Sacred gardens are so special and we can continue to evolve them over time. If someone you know is grieving, please let them know about this post. Share the love!