A Deeper Place of Being: An Interview with Jan Johnsen

Jan Johnsen’s forty years of practice in landscape architecture has taught her that gardens not only inspire and delight but also impart a sense of well-being, offer respite, and induce feelings of renewal to those who visit and simply sit awhile.  Drawing on historical precedents from many cultures as well as design techniques honed through recent practice, her gardens are deeply nuanced, no matter the size.  In anticipation of the upcoming release of her latest book, Heaven Is a Garden – Designing Serene Outdoor Spaces for Inspiration and Reflection, published by St. Lynn’s Press, Open Voices spoke with the noted landscape designer about her passion for creating outdoor havens for our spirit.

Open Voices:  Your blog is called Serenity in the Garden, and you describe your landscape design practice as serenity by design.  How did you come to understand and specialize in the serene aspect of gardens and garden design?

Jan Johnsen

Jan Johnsen:  I went to Japan as a college student, in the 1970s.  I was planning to be an architect, primarily because that’s all I knew.  So, I was working in an architect’s office as an intern in Osaka, but I lived in Kyoto, Japan, the home of all the legendary Japanese gardens.  So of course on the weekends I would visit them.  The architecture office was very stressful during the week and the experience of going into these Japanese gardens such as the Nanzen-ji or the Kinkaku-ji opened my eyes to the power of gardens and nature and how it alleviates stress.  Just breathing in the cedar-scented air and walking on those quiet mossy paths that are so familiar in Japanese gardens made me aware of a deeper place of being.  I could just feel the stress just drop off of me and the longer I stayed in that environment the happier I was, the calmer I was.  As I went on to study landscape architecture, no one ever talked about that; everybody talked about all the various functional things that you have to consider, but nobody ever talked about how gardens make you feel.  It was then I just realized I wanted to create serenity in the garden and that’s how I came upon it.

Open Voices:  Your gardens provide the opportunity for renewal and respite – how are your gardens designed to support that goal/outcome? What are some of the design building blocks you use to promote that opportunity and that feeling for people?

Jan Johnsen:  That’s the crux of my new book, Heaven is a Garden.  I use various understandings that I have developed that are not normally taught in garden or landscape design classes.  I’ve developed them over the years through my reading and my experience, and that’s what I want to share with everyone.  For example, one of the most important techniques is what I call finding the power spot.  I believe that every bit of land even my little postage stamp of a backyard has what I call a “power spot” — which is any place that you might find a little more interesting or compelling than the rest.  It can be a high spot, even if it’s just like say a foot and a half higher than anything around it, or it can be a shaded corner.  Essentially, it’s the heart of the garden.  Most people look at shaded corners as dank places that nobody wants to sit in, but once you see it as a power spot you can draw attention to it in a variety of pleasant ways.  I often say to my clients, let’s go find the power spot and people really respond to it, often asking, “How do I know where it is?”  And I say no, no, no it’s any place that you deem noteworthy.  There is no right answer.  And that kind of makes everybody relax, it’s more of an intuitive feeling where you walk around and say oh, I like it here, I like the view here, I like the way the breeze hits me here, I like the shading from the tree here; whatever it might be.  So that’s one of the first things that I do.

book coverOpen Voices:  Your new book draws on the ancient traditions of sacred space to create havens of retreat and respite in our hectic   lives today.   What are some examples of sacred spaces or their traditions that inspire you and how have you translated that into landscape design?

Jan Johnsen:  One widespread tradition that I really like is that   of the prayer tree.  Long ago in Siberia they would hang bits of cloth on trees, mostly birch trees, and use them as prayers to the   universe; the messages on the trees would act as emissaries and would somehow be transmitted through the tree itself.  They still do that today in Siberia. At the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, they have a wishing tree and I talk about this in my book, too.  They have little paper labels with strings and you write your little wish on the label; it’s lovely.

Open Voices:  What is the most common request you receive from homeowners looking to create a little slice of heaven in their backyards?

Jan Johnsen:  The most common request is for a quiet, beautiful sitting spot where people can just literally relax.  And, once you find a power spot in the garden it’s often located in a place which would be just the perfect spot for a quiet sitting area.  In that regard, I utilize something I call “The Lure of the Sheltered Corner.”  We all adore being in a place where our back is protected and we have a nice little view.  It doesn’t have to be expansive just a nice little view to look at.  But I think it’s the quality of being protected behind either by a low wall or by some shrubs, a tree, or fence or trellis, which is so common and appeals to everyone.

Open Voices:  What do you notice happens to those who make an effort to search for “serenity in the garden”?

Jan Johnsen:  My hope is to open people’s eyes to the deeper understanding of power of place and nature. I want people to understand how being connected to the earth and connected to nature can transform their lives.  And they may not even realize it in the in the beginning, but my talent is to use garden design to transform people’s relationship with the outdoors.   The design techniques and the design understanding that I share in my book can be used not just by homeowners, but they can be employed by community groups as well.  For example, I talk about a rock’s resonance; people look at rocks like ah, a rock.  But in fact, rocks are our memory keepers, they’re there before we got here and they’ll be there when we leave, they’re the quiet ones.  If we can open people’s eyes to things like that I think we’ll have vibrant community spaces and maybe municipal managers will look on our endeavors a little more openly.