The Ultimate Visitor Experience by Janna Schreier

March 15, 2017

in Articles, General Interest

This is the question that a great many of us would like to make sense of, and here is someone actually seriously researching it for us – with your assistance, I hope.  It would be great if you would answer the survey and help add to our understanding of our experience of gardens.

Anne Wareham, editor 

Portrait Anne Wareham copyright Charles Hawes






What defines the ultimate garden visitor experience? by Janna Schreier

Gardens are as much emotional constructs as aesthetic compositions.” Ogden and Ogden

I’ve always been attracted to the idea of gardens with ‘soul’. I’m amazed how a seemingly perfectly designed garden can leave me absolutely cold but another with supposed imperfections here, there and everywhere can have the most profound effect on me.

But the idea of ‘soul’ does not sit entirely comfortably with me. It’s a little too intangible to be very useful and has many associations that are unhelpful in a gardening context. Still, I’ve been so fascinated with understanding what makes a gardening truly engaging for so long, I decided the only thing for it was to embark on a master’s degree; to put some objectivity and discipline into the question. If we can understand what really makes a garden engaging and share this widely enough, we have the potential for many more gardens to foster profound experiences and all their associated benefits.

I started with a definition of soul:
“emotional or intellectual energy or intensity” – which immediately began to pin down a more tangible focus for research.

I have read, read and read some more on this subject. I’ve read about design theory, place-making, beauty, philosophy, well-being, psychology and even physiology, both in the context of gardens and more broadly. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I’ve found little that directly relates to the passive experience of gardens (as opposed to the physical activity of gardening) but I have found learnings from other disciplines which has helped develop hypotheses. I’d love to test these with you now.

Clearly, all gardens are different (thank goodness) and all garden visitors are different, but I have aimed to develop common themes. My focus looks beyond the day trippers who love colour of any sort – and are, in truth, more interested in their lemon drizzle cake and a nice cup of tea – to explore gardens that deeply engage.

There are a number of areas I have investigated, including:

  1. Why do plants have such a positive effect on us?

Theories range from the evolutionary dependency on plants; to the need to escape stimulation overload; the connection to cultural norms; and learnt responses; most of which are primarily subconscious processes and hence difficult to articulate. Understanding these more fully could help identify key characteristics that foster engagement.

  1. Do professionally designed gardens help us understand how to make our own gardens truly engaging?

John Dixon Hunt states that ‘modern landscape design tends to narrowly focus on form, rather than on its effects or reception’, whilst Ogden and Ogden talk of ‘plant-deprived, homogenous landscape architecture curricula’. Andrew Wilson argued, back in the 1990s, that ‘modern design is not necessarily sterile and uncompromising’, but have we become a little formulaic in our approach?

  1. What enables us to connect with a garden?

Does it have to be familiar in some way? Or perhaps completely unique? Philip Sheldrake appeals to us to connect ‘place, memory and identity’. Perhaps a garden needs to be quite personal in some way to really engage us.


So how do we create gardens that leave visitors captivated and with a yearning to return? What are the characteristics that foster emotional and intellectual energy and intensity? Today, I’m asking questions so you can inform the thinking. Next time, I’d love to share with you my conclusions.

In order to keep answers as scientifically robust as possible, I’d be super appreciative if you could share your thoughts via this short, 10-question survey today, rather than via a comment below. When I update you with my conclusions, I hope it will provoke an energetic, open debate within this forum itself: there will be a follow up post.

Please click here for the survey. Many, many thanks for taking part.

The survey closes on 22 March 2017.

Janna Schreier   website

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Diana Studer April 9, 2017 at 10:49 pm

too late for the survey.
I will wait for the feedback.


David Bowen March 17, 2017 at 10:53 am

I think this is an interesting and potentially valuable project. I cannot agree with the “benefits that cannot be defined and classified” criticism. An individual is welcome to take that view (just as an individual might say “I like tulips”, and be welcome to say so); but as a society (thinking gardeners?), we also need people (Master students and other academics) who do work at defining and classifying and understanding (the people who know the species and sub-species and cultivars of “Tulips”). Both approaches are valuable.


Pat Witts March 16, 2017 at 11:30 am

Interesting comments – I also love rainy visits (mainly because of the solitude but there’s pleasure in the sound of rain plopping onto leaves).
Surely this needs to be a PhD rather than a Master’s?! As a keen form-filler, I have completed the survey and enjoyed thinking about the questions. But I’m left with an uneasy feeling that great gardens and a tick-box culture just don’t mix … Don’t lots of us escape into ‘places’ (gardens, countryside, coast) for benefits that cannot be defined and classified? Isn’t that part of their attraction?


Rachel The Gardener March 15, 2017 at 4:30 pm

I agree with Sarah, above: I love garden visiting on rainy days! The colours are fresher, the scents are often stronger, and best of all, I’m often the only person there!

Yes, Anne, I’m about to rush off and do the survey (you know me, I love filling in forms!) but my initial response to this post – and I’ve only read it through once, so this view might be adjusted later – is that doing a masters degree to answer this question is going about it entirely the wrong way! It’s not (in my opinion) an academic question at all, it’s all about feelings, emotions, heart and yes, lack of definition notwithstanding, “soul”.

But of course I could be wrong…


annewareham March 15, 2017 at 4:39 pm

Could be an artificial distinction, Rachel. After all, this is thinkingardens, and I don’t rule any of those things out here. We may find out in the report back….


Sarah Coles March 15, 2017 at 12:02 pm

Have done! &, The Veddw high on list of musts this year. Amazing how the same garden can feel completely different with/without crowds, talk, comments.


annewareham March 15, 2017 at 12:24 pm

Thank you. Xxx And yes yes yes to you and Veddw visit!


Sarah Coles March 15, 2017 at 11:40 am

The best experience for me is to be in a garden on my own, without anyone else, without being ‘guided’ or having things pointed out. This means the ideal day is often rainy.


annewareham March 15, 2017 at 11:42 am

That’s great to hear, for a garden opener dreading the downpour and refusing to do guided tours…. Do please also answer the survey, Sarah? Xxx


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