Walking With Fragrant Herbs
A few days ago, I wound my way around a low hillock, following a spiraling path. After some twenty years, the spiral garden was in need of some editing, but the rock edged path felt serene, imbued with spirit. I’ve designed and worked on several spiral-based gardens and though each shares a distinct character with its gardener, they also share a common serenity and peaceful sense of purpose. Spiral meditation paths are both engaging and soothing; engaging because it’s impossible not to ponder life’s spirals while walking such paths, and soothing because they help our thoughts move with our feet from the open edge into the tighter, concentrated middle and back out into the wide world again.
This particular garden had winding beds between the path loops, filled with herbs and traditional medicinal plants. The gravel path was just wide enough for one and the beds were about the same width. With a few modifications, the same modest amount of space (about 12 x 20 feet) can hold a labyrinth, a pattern of sacred geometry that was often incorporated into the stone flagged floors of medieval European cathedrals. Unlike mazes, which seek to deceive with blind alleys and false turns, labyrinths use a single continuous path that winds in usually circular patterns into the heart of a space and back out again without retracing or crossing itself. You can’t get lost or led astray. You always find your way to the very core of whatever has you walking and you always come safely home.
Free Wheeling Meditations
Years ago, I helped to make a beautiful wheelchair accessible, herb filled labyrinth at Harmony Hill. The Hill is a retreat center above Washington’s Hood Canal. It’s also a sacred space, a community of hope and healing where over six thousand people come each year, and none leave unchanged. Whether they come for a concert, a workshop, a meditation practice or a cancer retreat, all are touched by the place and the people who live and work there. The Hill’s main labyrinth is appropriately enough on a slight slope, so the paths are level and the beds slant to make up the difference. That first year, we filled the running beds with hardy herbs and fragrant annuals that barely brushed the fingertips of anyone traveling the labyrinth.
I’ve walked many labyrinths over the years, and for me, designs which include plants make spirit walking particularly joyful. If the site is in full sun, I like to lace the paths with fragrant hardy herbs such as creeping thyme, oregano, pennyroyal, and Corsican mint. Where paths are mainly used by one or two people, many of these toughies are walkable, recovering well between meditations. The gentle wafts of scent released by our footsteps are relaxing and refreshing and the herbal carpet hushes the crunch of gravel (maybe I’ve watched too many noir films, but I find that sound mildly disturbing). These walkable herbs are willing workers both in garden paths and as infill between pavers or flagstones.
I love to use many forms of oregano in gardens, both as bed edging and in pathways, especially since they form wide, evergreen mats that look handsome all winter. Most forms of Origanum vulgare make good ground covers and are at least fairly decent walkables, including Westacre Gold, Golden Crinkled (O. v. crispum) and Aureum Gold (O. v. aureum). Dense, low growing Compact Oregano (O. v. compactus) is lovely underfoot, as are Mini Compact and Dwarf Greek (O.c. Nana). Greek Mountain oregano (Origanum herocleoticum) is happiest in rocky beds, gravel paths, and hot, exposed positions such as a sunny patio and tolerates moderate foot traffic quite well.
Chamomile lawns have been popular since medieval times, usually made with Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile). Treneague, a non-flowering form, is especially appreciated by those who like to walk barefoot and want to avoid bees. Similarly, thyme was an important lawn ingredient before grass came onto vogue with the invention of the lawn mover in 1830. (Before that, grass lawn care was managed by sheep or laborious hand scything.) Where drainage is good, Woolly thyme (T. praecox subsp. arcticus Lanuginosus) is a common plant pick, though Elfin thyme (T. serpyllum minus) works very well in gravel paths and on rocky walls. Other especially attractive forms of creeping thyme include Pink Chintz, Red Creeping, Snow Drift, and White Creeping, all low carpeters that spread willingly.
A Harmonious Meditation Retreat
Anyone with a bit of room can create a meditative garden that combines favorite plants with calming pathways. If you need a little inspiration, I encourage you (particularly anyone whose life is touched by cancer) to come and see what Harmony Hill is all about. A great deal of thought and work has gone into creating a healing environment that is as wholesome and free from stress as possible. The staff practices deep and soulful hospitality, from fresh garden flowers by guest bedsides to marvelous vegetarian meals made with organically grown foods that nourish the whole person. It’s a great place for a family reunion, a staff retreat, or a lovely day of strolling the meditation labyrinths.
For more information and directions, contact:
Harmony Hill Retreat Center
7362 East State Route 106