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Earth Day: How to Create a Sanctuary Garden

Earth Day is a perfect time to create a Sanctuary Garden. With reverent thought and devotion, you can create a haven that gives you respite from the world, refreshes your spirit, and demonstrates your desire to honor nature in earth-friendly ways. You can be extravagant about your endeavor or quite humble. Any place in your yard, garden, balcony, or patio setting will do, even a backyard getaway cottage. These are perfect spots to meet your needs for beauty, quiet, and communion with nature.

The concept of sanctuary is a wonderful way to find balance in today’s demanding world. We’ve all been in natural places where we feel a type of inner harmony. Time & obligations seem to fall away, often replaced by awe & wonder, curiosity, reverie, puttering, quiet observation and the like. This is the restorative power inherent within certain forests, mountain settings, parks, botanical gardens, even temples, shrines, and other sacred geographical sites. Each type of natural sanctuary elicits our attention in a special way, but all soothe.

On a personal level, sanctuary can be a special place of comfort, safety and peace within daily life — a pause that refreshes, if you will — like a park bench, a chair by a window to view nature, a special room, or one’s porch. Sanctuary can also be an inner feeling of peace and serenity, even if felt for a short while. Think of your garden as a special place to refresh and replenish your soul, too. We’ve helped you in this article by identifying five key qualities and seven design features of a backyard haven.

Generally speaking, there are usually one or more striking features (natural or human created) that may draw you or a visitor into a special setting. A good exercise is to close your eyes and visualize a yard/garden sanctuary setting. The following key qualities are highly desirable.

Location & Boundaries

What gives a sanctuary validity is some sense of enclosure. A boundary may heighten the anticipation of entering and make the visit special. It is okay to consider a whole fenced in yard or garden, but oftentimes there may be a special area, like a garden room, that seems just right. That special location may have surrounding shrubs, a water feature, some prized flowers and a comfortable bench. It can be whatever you want that makes you feel good.

Additionally, if yard space is tight don’t rule out a special place on your patio or balcony. Uniquely arranged, such settings may be just the right place to find peace and quiet. Lastly, consider placing a sign near the entrance of your sanctuary designating it as a nature sanctuary. You will be amazed at how a simple sign can set a tone for you and visitors.

Code of Conduct

The symbolic nature of a sanctuary implies that a certain range of behaviors is appropriate while others are not. Here are some guidelines to consider:

  • Others should respect yours or another person’s time spent in a sanctuary setting. It should symbolize a special space free, as much as possible, from worries or outside obligations.
  • Limits should be considered about use of abusive language (vulgarity, arguing, fighting, or yelling out of anger or rage).
  • Willful violence with intent to harm or destroy other life out of anger, rage, or out of wanton pleasure or insensitivity should not be tolerated.
  • Consider if your sanctuary is appropriate for using alcohol, drugs or cigarettes, or the use of chemicals and poisons on vegetation.
  • Some people also believe their sanctuary setting should have a degree of cleanliness, and is an inappropriate place for loud radios, roughhousing, not to mention discussing everyday matters related to money, schedules, pet peeves, criticism, or the like.

Aesthetic Attraction

Co-creating a sanctuary with nature is a wonderful experience! Imagine you are privileged to be an artist at nature’s canvas. Try, therefore, to set a tone, evoke a feeling, and enhance nature’s drama & character. Create an entrance, if possible, that is inviting. The types of vegetation are important, as is their placement and color. Equally important are the uses of wood, rocks, water, trellises, and the like. These, including sitting benches, windchimes, birdbaths, and garden art are worthy artistic additions that give your outdoor sanctuary an appealing ambience.

Soul Attraction

Perhaps the most magnetic quality of a sanctuary is how it affects one’s spirit. This can be attributed to the way it has been created so as to honor & celebrate life. A sanctuary naturally evokes unspoken “codes of conduct” — behaviors by visitors in keeping with the peacefulness and beauty of the setting.

Try, therefore, to steward the three elements of earth, air and water. Enrich and plant the soil organically. Celebrate the wind with tall wispy grasses and windchimes. Honor water with good conservation practices and water features. Appealing to the soul’s need for beauty, tender a variety of flowering vegetation, and integrate garden art and crafts, the more naturally made the better! Lastly, give that contemplative part of yourself a special sitting area, bench, or chair. Set these in seclusion or near a special nature altar constructed especially for honoring nature.

Habitat Attraction

As much as possible welcome wildlife into your sanctuary setting. Most people who take the step to create their yard or garden as a nature sanctuary quickly discover a whole new relationship with the many creatures that come and go. You, too, can learn to provide, through vegetation and other means, the type of food, water, shelter, and nesting space for a wide diversity of insects and larger animals. Laying fear aside for curiosity, you can learn that it is this very diversity of wildlife in a nature haven that provides its own checks and balances, where a type of harmony exists between species.

1.    An Inviting Entrance

Create a special tone that is inviting, one that gives you and any visitor the feeling that the heavy cloak of worldly cares and woes can be left at the entrance. A formal sign, a simple saying, pots of flowers, even a natural or human art or craft piece are excellent ideas. Perhaps a special gate, arched trellis, a hanging chain of Tibetan bells, an overarching tree limb, or just a small sign can denote an entrance point. Be creative and sincere in marking your sanctuary entrance.

2.    Habitat for Wildlife

Birds, butterflies, beneficial insects, and other small wildlife are key actors in maintaining the overall balance of your garden or yard’s ecosystem. Include in your plantings native shrubs and trees, ground covers and grasses, and nectar-rich flowers and All these can provide not only varieties of nesting sites, shelter, and thermal protection, but also food sources with their seeds, nuts, berries, soft fruits, nectar, and insects. Additionally, provide nesting boxes, feeders, and water sources for birds, bats (which are invaluable for mosquito control!), frogs and other small animals. Even rocks, logs, snags, or a small pile of limbs and twigs are important additions that mimic the diversity seen in natural settings.

3.   Water Feature   

Be it a pond, meandering watercourse, bog, water bowl, or simply a small fountain, water is one of the most important additions to any outdoor sanctuary. Any water feature will attract its share of wildlife for your viewing pleasure. But also consider the soothing quality of the sound of water. It not only salves the soul but it also gives one the sense of being closer to nature. You can also use the sound of cascading water or a fountain to mask traffic and city sounds, if not the noise of neighbors.

4.   Color & Lighting

Use flowers & colorful vegetation to evoke a psychological state of being. A setting of white flowers, for example, can evoke feelings of gentleness, tenderness, hope and healing (consider these as part of a “moon garden” that you visit at night!). Red flowers may evoke a sense of inner strength and renewed vitality. Additionally, create and enjoy your sanctuary with an eye toward lighting, mixing filtered sunlight, shade, and backlighting from the sun through leaves, with normal bright sunlight.

5.   Sitting Areas

Although you may find pleasurable activity in your sanctuary setting (especially if it is a garden), you will also want to visit it for pure rest, contemplation, and quiet observation. Benches, chairs, logs, swings, even a grassy area — these are a must, especially if they are placed near flowers, a water feature, beneath a tree, on a rise, or in view of a bird feeder.

6.   Natural Features

There are numerous natural features that can enhance your outdoor haven. These may include the use of rocks, wood, logs, limbs, trellises, vegetation, and the like. A fence may be necessary for protection, privacy, or safety, but a natural fence constructed from flexible branches and twigs such as willow or wild hazelnut will really be admired! Native shrubs and other vegetation can also do the job, effectively hiding or screening any boarded, cinder block, or wire fence that must be used. Similarly, be creative in constructing or purchasing trellises. These important features deserve to be well made and artistic beyond their function (try using large pruned limbs or branches!). Lastly, don’t forget the aesthetic and functional use of well-placed stones, stone paths, and wood pieces in your haven.

7.   Garden Art

Art is an honoring gesture, a gift of celebration between human and nature. Be it playful, sacred, or sentimental, garden art expands on and amplifies the mood of your setting. It can include such objects as statues, benches, decorative tile and stepping stones, sculpture, ceramic planters and plates, arches, trellises, windchimes, birdhouses, birdbaths, miscellaneous objects from second-hand stores, and found objects in nature such as driftwood, rocks, shells, gnarled wood, etc. Be creative and imaginative, and don’t be afraid to move your art pieces around as often as you like. Similarly, don’t worry what others think. Let your sanctuary art uniquely express who you are!

sanctuary garden on a deck

To learn more about our love for gardening, check out our popular garden guides available at

Home Composting Made Easy (Cortesia Press) — over 2 million in print!
Grow Your Own Food Made Easy (Cortesia Press) — over 300,000 in print!
The Sanctuary Garden: Creating a Place of Refuge in Your Yard and Garden (Fireside Books, 1998) — out-of-print; used copies available from Amazon or Powell’s Books


Forrest McDowell

C. Forrest McDowell, PhD provides his 50 years of expertise in wellness care and advocacy to Cortesia Herbal Products. He is responsible for the white paper Blog articles, posts promoting practical health strategies, maintenance of accurate website information, and more. An accomplished performing guitarist and composer, author, and passionate outdoorsman, he has dedicated himself to natural wellness and the cultivation of quality organic products.

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