University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

News Article

Sounds or Silence?

By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

A truly appealing garden assaults all our senses, including one usually taken for granted and rarely even considered when planning a garden--sound. You can employ certain techniques to make your garden one of silence and repose, of gentle sounds and serenity, or a little different from the surrounding world.

First consider the external sounds--those from off your property. Are they good or bad, desired or not? If not desirable, and you live in a "tight" neighborhood, one with buildings close together, for example, there may not be much you can do to screen these undesirable sounds out.

In such conditions, a tight and high wooden fence around a small yard or patio may help. Add some of your own sounds, such as a water feature or some stereo speakers, to help create your own ambience and drown out the world outside.

If you have a larger yard or property and neighbors farther away or a source of noise like a road, it will be easier to block out unwanted noises. You can use the methods I suggested above close to home but add other features further away from your garden and nearer the noise source. A row of evergreen trees helps; several rows are even better. Combine this with a landscape berm or mound to screen your garden from the road both visually and audibly. A good example of how this can be achieved can be seen at the Montreal Botanic Garden in Canada.

Internal sounds are another source of noise. I'm referring to those from within your property. If you want a peaceful garden, one of the first things to do is to look at how much power equipment you have, the maintenance on it, and how much you use it.

Does your mower need a better muffler? Can you use a less noisy electric mower, or better yet, a manual push mower instead? Do you really need to string trim all those weeds every week or even more often? Do you really need to blow leaves around with a power blower? This past year while visiting gardens in England, I was struck by the lack of a lot of power equipment, including blowers and trimmers at most gardens. How nice and peaceful and quiet they were.

For desirable garden sounds, first consider preserving and enhancing those you have, such as a babbling brook. Encourage more and different birds for their songs. To do this, provide nesting and protected areas, food year round, water, and other attractions.

If you have shade, perhaps you should change the type of plants you have along with your gardening practices, rather than cut the trees down. Many perennials provide shade, and more shade means less lawn, which means less mowing, which means more quiet! To me, one of the best garden sounds is the wind blowing through pine trees. Or think of the rustling leaves of beech and oak, which cling to their branches long into winter.

One of the most popular garden features is water. This can be as simple as a manual well, small recirculating pump, and lined whiskey barrel half. I have such a feature near a window, so I can appreciate the running water from inside. At night an underwater light adds interest. Of course, cascading water makes a gentle background sound. Put in a waterfall or fountains for more water music.

Finally, you can add man-made sounds, music for your garden. Consider adding some outdoor speakers, attaching them to your indoor stereo. You can purchase outdoor speakers at stereo shops or order from catalogs and specialty garden stores. You can get the circular types found at resorts and theme parks or the fake rocks with speakers built inside if you are looking for something out of the ordinary for speakers!

Celtic, new age, piano, and classical music will all create a new dimension to your garden, and one that never ceases to impress guests. Or choose music by your favorite composers.

If you do use speakers, consider the effect on your neighbors and their gardens and your contribution to "noise pollution." I have some circular ones, whose sound carries quite well. In fact, it seems you can hear them better at a distance. I've had friends tell me they heard them while hiking in the woods a half mile away. My neighbors a quarter mile away thought my piano sounded pretty good and were surprised to find it was recorded music over speakers! So, be considerate.

When considering sounds in your garden, leave no stone unturned. You should even think about your path surfaces and the sounds made by walking on gravel or wood chips.

Additional garden ornaments for sound include all sorts of whirligigs--those features on sticks that move in the wind--such as birds rotating their wings or men sawing wood. The plastic circular ones are popular with children and are colorful as well.

Windchimes are popular, too, with some tuned to various notes. If you like the seacoast, consider the triangular metal chimes that sound like buoys.

Close your eyes and listen. Does your garden sound as pretty as it looks? With a few changes, you should be able to create the paradise you want. Sounds or silence? It's up to you.

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