the friend online
28 August 2009

The spiritual side of gardens

Oliver Robertson discovers new ways for green-fingered Friends to express their faith

‘For we are nearer God’s heart in the garden than in anywhere else on earth.’ This saying could well be the unofficial slogan of the Quaker Gardens Project (QGP), a new initiative asking Friends to think more deeply about their green spaces and how they reflect Quaker values. Founded just months ago by Deb Arrowsmith of Norwich Meeting, the QGP has already attracted interest from seventy-five Meetings across Britain and has ambitious plans for a website to share practice, day-long events for Meetings and courses at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre.

‘I think people are hugely attached to their garden spaces’, says Deb, a professional garden designer whose first experience of Friends was sitting in a Meeting house garden. ‘These spaces have a profound impact on our lives.’ She came up with the idea for the QGP following a discussion about the lack of research on Quaker gardens and burial grounds, but ‘what I was interested in really was not just a piece of academic research but how these spaces are used now and the problems’.

The response at Yearly Meeting Gathering showed that she was not alone: Meetings have made their green spaces into peace gardens, spaces for contemplation, playgrounds and inner city oases. The Blue Idol Meeting in Sussex has placards about the life of early Friend (and the Meeting’s founder) William Penn, while Peterborough Quakers have considered placing plaques in their garden with excerpts from Quaker Advices & queries on them. Horfield Friends, as part of their centenary celebrations, ran mosaic- and tile-making workshops for adults and children from Meetings in the Bristol area; they created a panel of wall tiles in their garden spelling out the four traditional Quaker testimonies.

But Friends are not the only ones thinking about the spiritual side of their land: the Quiet Garden movement is developing a network of what coordinator Mollie Robison calls ‘spaces in private homes and gardens set aside particularly for people to come and be still for times of reflection, prayer and meditation’. Aside from being open to the public at least part of the time (and being Christian-based), there are no rules for Quiet Gardens: ‘Each one is unique. They’re unique in size, they vary in size from the tiny to the extensive but that doesn’t matter. The key is having a dedicated space really and the gardens don’t have to be manicured, they don’t have to be perfect.’

This is fortunate, because some of the largest gardens can be very expensive: the peace garden near London’s Imperial War Museum needed £400,000 (and an endorsement from musician Sting). In contrast, Huddersfield Meeting simply redesignated its existing garden and burial ground as a peace garden. Evesham Quakers ran a competition in local schools to help design their garden, with a dove sculpture being crafted by a local artist.

Gardens can have many features, says Deb, and include joy and humour as well as spaces for playing, growing and reflecting. ‘They need to be challenging spaces, not just relaxing.’ One space taking to heart these assertions is the Reflection Gardens near Wolverhampton. Within the five garden complex, each based on aspects of Ignatian Christian spirituality, are sculptures, scented flowers, places of prayer, raspberry patches and rubbish heaps to make visitors consider environmental issues. For those unable to visit in person, a website provides a detailed virtual tour of the Reflection Gardens.

It is still early days for coordinated thinking on Quaker gardens (twelve Meetings told QGP that they were planning peace gardens, but none were talking to the others), but Deb is confident that it will grow. ‘We need to show the personalities of our Meetings through the gardens’, she says. ‘I think it’s well overdue that we pay attention to the earth that surrounds the Meeting houses.’

For information on the Quaker Garden Project, contact Deb Arrowsmith on deb (AT) Go to to visit the Reflection Gardens.

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The spiritual side of gardens
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