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Design Ideas to Create a Relaxing Outdoor Space

Have you ever noticed that you feel better when spending time outside? That’s because it’s good for you.

Studies, including one from Harvard Medical School, show that spending time outdoors lowers blood pressure, induces relaxation and enhances well-being.

In a stress-filled, screen-addicted society, the place to relax should be as close as your own backyard, said Jan Johnsen of New York-based design/build firm Johnsen Landscapes & Pools. The landscape designer has spent over four decades creating inspiring landscapes for residential clients. Her most recent book is “Heaven is a Garden.”

“No matter the size, you can make your backyard a serene oasis,” said Johnsen, whose own backyard garden is small. It’s easy to do if you follow three basic guidelines: Include elements of simplicity, sanctuary and delight. Johnsen also embraces ancient practices and unique methods to create peaceful outdoor havens.

For simplicity, use plantings that are relaxing to look at, such as a “not-too-busy” or a gently curving plant bed. Those are “more harmonious to the eye and calming to look at than rigid, uniform, symmetrical garden beds,” Johnsen said. The goal is plantings that are simple and not overdone. Another simple, calming garden design would be sweeping grass steps.

For sanctuary, a garden must provide an element or feeling of protection. “We all love to feel sheltered. Think about it: What’s the best table in a restaurant? The one in the corner,” Johnsen said. In the garden, put the view in front of you and some element of protection behind, such as a tree, a low hedge or a little wall. “It’s the lure of the sheltered corner. We all feel much better that way,” Johnsen said.

For delight, the garden should show off your own personality, and it can be “anything that gives you joy,” Johnsen said. It could be big planters filled with geraniums, birdhouses, a rose garden, brightly colored ornaments or fun sculptures. “It’s where your personality comes out,” said Johnsen, whose own delight is fragrant gardenias in pots. They’re the first thing she approaches when entering her garden to breathe in their scent.

In addition to the main three elements of simplicity, sanctuary and delight, Johnsen rediscovers what previous generations knew about gardens.

“A wise gardener always knew that the most auspicious vegetable gardens face east. That’s because when the plants wake up in the morning to the sun, that’s when they grow the best,” Johnsen said.

Another ancient trick comes from Asian cultures and is called “hide and reveal.” It’s a strategy where not everything can be seen on first look.

“There’s an element of surprise,” Johnsen said, for example in a bush or a curved walk that must be rounded to reveal a new planting or ornament.

Johnsen’s garden also boasts a power spot, and yours can, too.

“It’s the one place that feels more interesting than any other part of the garden,” she said.

Take a good walk around your garden until you feel it, she said. It could be the highest point or the lowest.

“Even if it’s just a foot higher, it feels better to sit there,” she said. “Different places make you feel differently.”