Inspired living

How to grow a musical garden

musical garden

Credit: 123RF

Looking for an easy way to de-stress? Or perhaps to be inspired by nature? Just kick off your shoes and go for a stroll in the musical garden.

Taking a walk through a garden or simply finding a place to sit and commune with nature can be a sensory delight. This is because tuning into the melodious sounds of nature’s music has a profound effect on the human body and psyche. The crisp crunch of autumn leaves underfoot, the sweet echo of birdsong, even the effervescent bubble of a flowing stream all have the ability to motivate and uplift the spirit.

Our bodies’ cells vibrate at a natural frequency and rhythm, so immersing ourselves in the sounds around us can get them humming along in synch with our surroundings.

Sometimes finding the right words to express feelings can be elusive but the music of nature within a garden can transcend verbal communication. Sharing special time in the garden by listening and being in the moment with those you care about, including yourself, can deepen existing relationships. The music of nature can truly soothe and heal.

Toni Salter, president of the Horticultural Therapy Society of NSW, says that tuning into the natural beat, flow and rhythm of nature is something we can all enjoy. “The sounds of nature can create a calming effect on the body, lowering blood pressure and reducing stress levels,” she says.

But, just as sounds within nature can produce feelings of serenity, they can also motivate and stimulate. “Sound can focus and enhance your creativity,” she explains. “For example, you might be painting in the garden and looking to add some dramatic brushstrokes. The jarring sounds, the sharp elements in amongst the twitter, can provide creative contrast.”

Getting into the groove

Understanding sound and its effects on the human body is complex. Our bodies’ cells vibrate at a natural frequency and rhythm, so immersing ourselves in the sounds around us can get them humming along in sync with our surroundings. This means generally that faster-paced music, sounds or beats produce thinking that’s more alert or focused, whereas a slower, softer pace or tempo can promote a calm, meditative state.

It’s also important to consider that sound and its potential to affect the listener is uniquely individual. Some people prefer turning up the beat; others like a softer, more melodious ebb and flow.

Dr Grace Thompson, president of the Australian Music Therapy Association, says that to fully comprehend the profound impact of sound we need to look back at our evolutionary origins. “Sound was important for our early survival — birdsong and sounds within nature helped us feel calm and secure,” she says. “In those early days, perhaps the most terrifying sound of all for humans was the sound of silence.”

These days, we don’t have to be hyper vigilant about a lion or tiger licking its lips and sizing us up for dinner but it’s definitely still a jungle out there. Modern-day 21st-century living has given us a whole new set of challenges to deal with. So having a place to escape to, even at Home, can be important. Next time you’re feeling a bit out of sorts, sit in the garden, close your eyes and listen to the whisper and crackle of the breeze among the trees or the early morning call of birds as they greet a new day.

Strappy-leaf plants, long grasses and tree varieties like Weeping Birch create their own beautiful melody.

The good news too is that the effects of sounds you enjoy can be lasting. Dr Thompson says we’ve all experienced a lasting mood after going to a concert or seeing a movie with a powerful soundtrack. Mood and emotion can be fleeting, she says, but the effects of a relaxing walk in the garden in the morning can stay with you long after you’ve sat down at your desk at work.

Creating a sound garden

So how can you enhance, harness or even introduce the sounds of nature in a garden? There are the natural sounds produced by wildlife: the rhythmic ribbit of frogs, the buzz of a bee or the rustle of long strappy grasses. Then there are man-made sounds: the gentle tinkle of wind chimes or the smooth sound of water flowing in a sculpted water feature. Here are some ways you can help Mother Nature’s soundtrack to flourish.

Just add water

Plop, splat, drip, tinkle, whoosh, splash, gurgle … The sounds of running water evoke many feelings and images: long, lazy summer days soaking up the sun’s rays by the pool or the joyous sounds of kids splashing in the waves at the beach. The sound of flowing water is also intrinsically beautiful — it appeals to the senses and adds texture and movement to your outdoor landscape. Water features or garden ponds can also filter out noise from busy roads or neighbours; also, they create a living habitat, inviting birds, frogs and butterflies into your garden.

Water features or ponds may be custom made, sculpted or crafted by artists or designers, or pre-manufactured. It could be a sheet of water, a cascading stream, an arc, a fountain or a gentle trickle that bubbles gently over in a bowl or urn. Many modern water features also incorporate spillways: the water flows in a sheet to a lower point in the feature, adding more movement.

For a moving feature, you’ll need a pump and power supply. The pump creates movement and the flow of water, which of course also helps to create a healthy ecosystem. Many pumps are submersible and low-wattage for added safety. A pump kit may also include cable, a transformer and even inbuilt underwater lights. Depending on the size of your feature, various pumps offer different flow capacity, from a gentle trickle to a powerful sheet of water.

Leaves & chimes

The gentle whisper of rushes or the soft rustle of leaves dancing in the breeze can be enormously soothing. Large-leaved plants, long grasses and trees such as Weeping Birch create their own beautiful melodies.

Mass-plant strappy-leaf plants like New Zealand flax, cordylines or agapanthus near pathways so you can hear nature’s song as you walk by. Plant Knobby Club Rush by a dry creek bed or ‘Alphonse Karr’ bamboo in an Asian-inspired garden and hear the rhythmic swish of the plants in the wind.

Bringing wind chimes into the garden is another way to introduce sound elements. You can purchase a wind chime or make your own with foraged and recycled objects. Driftwood with sparkling glass beads threaded onto fishing line also catches the sunlight and adds reflected light and sparkle. This also works with vintage perfume bottles, coloured wine bottles and broken pieces of tile, or seashells threaded on thin chain or rope. Alternatively, get creative with old metal keys, cutlery and coloured stones or bamboo. Use your imagination and tap into your creativity to design your own unique wind chime to sing in the wind.

No matter what you choose, be aware that some wind chimes do create a lot of sound. Make sure you try before you buy, or give your DYI wind chime a test run before installing it in a place that’s too close to neighbours.

Call of the wild

The sweet chirpy sounds of a willie wagtail, the gentle hooting of a southern boobook, even the up-tempo sound of a laughing kookaburra bring life and energy into a garden. If you’d like to encourage birdlife, jot down the names of any frequent visitors to your garden. Local councils and bird-watching groups can assist you with the species that are endemic to your areas while local nurseries can advise what you need to plant to attract certain species.

Holly Parsons, Birds in Backyards program manager from BirdLife Australia Discovery Centre, says you need a selection of plants that provide food, shelter, nesting material or a nesting site. Her advice is to use local native plants rather than hybrids such as the popular hybrid grevilleas. “These large flowering plants may encourage large and aggressive honeyeaters such as noisy miners and red wattlebirds that can chase away smaller birds,” she says.

Aim for plants that will bring insects into your garden as food for birds, as well as those that have nectar, fruit or seeds.

Orderly or pristine gardens aren’t as bird friendly as those that are less formal, according to Parsons. “Plant native grasses and try not to ‘tidy’ too much — allow birds to take bits of spider web, small branches and leaves for their nests,” she says.

Of course it’s not just birds that bring colour, movement and their own unique song to the urban landscape. Toni Salter says the melodic hum of bees as they dart about pollinating flowers is a busy, lively sound in any garden. “Also add thick layers of mulch for skinks and other lizards to forage and scurry about in,” she suggests.

You can also create more biodiversity by bringing frogs into the garden, through providing moist ecosystems such as a pond or bog garden. As an added bonus, frogs will also eat mosquitoes that are buzzing about — and that’s a sound no one enjoys hearing!

The sound of footsteps

Buddhists in the 14th century created quiet contemplative spaces where they could simply commune with nature. The concept of the Zen-inspired garden has evolved over the centuries and today’s Zen gardens are interpreted in numerous ways. At their very core, however, is respect for the harmonious balance of the natural world and the sensory appeal of nature.

When walking through a garden, says Salter, your footfalls create a variety of different tones that can be pleasing to the senses. “Walking over the wooden slats of a bridge [or] over a dry creek bed or the crunch of fine gravel underfoot makes a different sound resonance to smooth, chunky stones,” she says.

Making your own music

Given that the effects of music can be uplifting, why not add to the enjoyment by playing your own tunes in the garden? Even for the musically challenged among us, it’s possible to learn some simple instruments.

According to Dr Grace Thompson, one of the easiest to master is the ukulele. “They’re a wonderful little instrument, cheap and cheery and you can pick one up for around $30,” she says.

If the thought of a stringed instrument doesn’t appeal, what about a simple harmonica? Or even belting out a tune using your own voice? “Singing has a powerful impact on your breathing and respiratory system,” says Dr Thompson. “You breathe more deeply and it can certainly be uplifting to sing songs that have special meaning for you.”

Creating sound barriers

Not all sounds within the backyard garden are appealing. These days, with shrinking block sizes, many people find themselves getting more up close and personal with their neighbours than ever before and are exposed to increasing traffic noises, barking dogs and other noise pollutants.

One of the most environmentally friendly ways to mask unwanted noise is by planting a green wall to capture the sound. Steve Oatley, a landscape gardener from Living Colour Landscapes, says that clumping bamboo or layered planting will do the trick.

Given that the effects of music can be uplifting, why not add to the enjoyment by playing your own tunes in the garden?

“As an example of layered planting, Acmena smithii Minor (or Dwarf Lilly Pilly) at the rear, with sasanqua camellia in front, then gardenia ‘Florida’ and finally strappy Liriope muscari,” he suggests. These types of layered, dense plantings not only give you a lush natural green fence to absorb unwanted sound but also add splashes of colour and fragrance to your garden for some more sensory appeal.

Or you might consider hard landscaping elements. Oatley says that, for man-made landscaping sound barriers, the key is density. “Thick concrete, brick or Hebel masonry concrete walls will help to absorb sounds,” he says. “In contrast, thin and lightweight products like aluminium create noise reflection and vibration.”

Did you know?

Plants make a sound as they grow! Researchers from the University of Western Australia led by Dr Monica Gagliano have discovered that the roots make a clicking sound — but it’s detectable only via a super sensitive microphone. So those among us who have chatted away to our plants to encourage them to grow aren’t so kooky after all (well, maybe just a little bit …). It’s just a pity we can’t hear their replies!


Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.