Book review: Heaven is a Garden

This is a long overdue book review. So tardy, but that's not a reflection of the book's content in any way! Heaven is a Garden is a design guide by Jan Johnsen (2014, St. Lynn's Press) whose tagline is "Designing Serene Outdoor Spaces for Inspiration and Reflection". Not being an overly spiritual person I was a bit put off by the title, but I'm all about "serene outdoor spaces" so I accepted a review copy from Jan.

My first act when getting a new gardening book is to quickly thumb through to get a feel for the content, a quick preview. Heaven is a Garden has everything to get me excited: rocks, trees, water, and enough photos to satisfy visually.


This is quite an accessible book, coming in at 144 pages. That may seem light if you're used to much bigger gardening guides, but I actually appreciated this work's focus. Rather than going off into every detail of design or gardening -- things I already know or have access to in a dozen other books -- it stays to its theme of helping the reader understand and create serene garden spaces.

Jan's intro explains what each of the six chapters covers, so rather than try to rephrase I'll use her own words.

  1. The Power of Place considers the ways terrain can be molded and accented to create sanctuary and meaning.
  2. Creating Music for the Eye shows how shape, line and proportion can unify a garden.
  3. Calling on the Trees addresses the enlivening influence of our arboreal friends by deciphering the language of the trees.
  4. The Magic of Water delves into water's mystery and the many ways it enhances an outdoor environment.
  5. A Rock's Resonance explores the powerfully evocative qualities of stone.
  6. Color - Nature's Catalyst reveals the therapeutic effects of color and light in a garden design.
The many photos are of Jan's clients' gardens as well as her own personal space, and as expected add so much to the book. My one complaint about them is that some of them are too small!

Overall each chapter does a very nice job of explaining things that we as gardeners -- or those who don't garden but love and appreciate garden spaces -- already know or feel. We know when a space is "good" and when it needs some work, when it has "that feel". Jan explains some of the reasons for that.

I have to admit, in the same way that the title gave me pause, there are some concepts sprinkled throughout the chapters that don't quite fit with my own way of thinking. Not that they're wrong, but that they're a bit too "mystic" or "spiritual" for my tastes. These are not overbearing and do not make up the majority of the text, but they may not be for every reader. That's my own view coming through though -- there will certainly be many readers who appreciate these more "spiritual" explanations.

An example of this is in the "Trees" chapter. Jan created from "Native American, Celtic, and other sources of tree lore" a list of tree qualities: 
  • Apple - Protection, facilitates good will, promotes harmony; 
  • Aspen - Protection, helps to calm, overcomes fear of unknown; 
  • Beech - Prosperity, tree of learning, promotes tolerance and inner strength. Etc.
This information is skillfully woven into the text though, so even if I may not have the belief that West, for instance, is "The Direction of 'Name and Fame'", Jan presents that info to me in a useful way:
West is the direction of the setting sun and is associated with the end of the day and fellowship. High-canopied trees that lightly shade the west side of a house create the sweetest place to linger at the end of the day. In Vastu, the west is where "name and fame are made" - in other words, where we share time with friends. A "sunset terrace" basking in the long orange-red rays of the setting sun is the best place for socializing.

There is quite a bit of practical information in the book too. For instance, in the "water" chapter there is a section on designing a "superior cascade": a waterfall is more visually interesting when only a part of it is visible from the house; A waterfall can seem farther away if the top of it is higher than the viewer's eyes; and more.

This book is an enjoyable and informative read, providing design insights to help achieve serenity and a "good space". 

Thank you Jan, and I apologize again for the long delay (about a year!) in getting to this review!

My four book review questions:

Am I glad to have it on my bookshelf?   Yes.
Would I be disappointed if I misplaced it it?   Yes.
Will I read it again?   Yes, and refer back to it as needed.
Would I give it as a gift?   Yes, especially for somebody who is more spiritual than I am.


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outlawgardener  – (April 12, 2016 at 12:40 AM)  

Looks like an interesting and informative read. Thanks for the review!

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