Icons of Healthcare & Therapeutic Garden Design: Julie Moir Messervy, Part 1

by Lisa Bailey, ASLA

Edinburgh residence garden
Edinburgh residence by JMMDS / image: photograph by Angus Bremner©

Healthcare & Therapeutic Garden Design Interview Series: Julie Moir Messervy

Julie Moir Messervy, owner of Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio (JMMDS), inspired me when I first heard her speak 20 years ago. Her unique way of thinking about design, her deep grasp of psychology, emotions and the invisible realm of spirit, and the subconscious impact of landscape archetypes on us resonated with me. I admire the contributions she has made through her books (Contemplative Garden, The Inward Garden, The Magic Land, Outside the Not So Big House, Home Outside, Landscaping Ideas that Work), lectures, projects, and now with the Home Outside app her firm has created. She has designed meaningful places for healing and for getting in touch with heart and spirit in cemeteries, memorials, arboretums, parks, schools, and homes. Landscape designs that do that are healthcare settings!

The following is an edited interview with Julie Moir Messervy, landscape designer, author, and speaker based in Bellows Falls, VT. The interview was conducted this spring by Lisa Bailey, ASLA, sole proprietor of BayLeaf Studio in Berkeley, CA, and a consultant with Schwartz and Associates, a landscape design firm in Mill Valley, CA.

What inspires you to do this work?

I was inspired by being a child playing in nature. I am one of seven children and found some away time, as well as solace and delight, in the fields, woods, and orchards around our house. Exploring nature has always been an important part of my life.

My favorite question that I’ve always asked my clients is, “Where did you go as a child for daydreaming, reverie, and reflection?” Not only do most people recall their love of nature, but they recognize their deep love and longing for the places in nature they played in. It’s not always an outdoor space; it could be a city library, under the piano, or in their bed. People want a place like that, not necessarily literally similar, but that recreates the feelings of security, wonder, and creativity. Having a contemplative place in your life—a place to remember and reconnect with the spirit—is a real source of healing.

How would you describe your office?

I have a “dream team” staff of five women: two landscape architects, two landscape designers, and a communications manager working with me in Bellows Falls, VT. I transplanted there 17 years ago from the Boston area. The bucolic rural landscape has led me to educate myself about farming and forestry, as well as the daily lives of coyotes and beavers! I’ve gained more experience with designing properties in the country, while still living ten minutes from I-91, two-and-a-half hours from Boston, and four hours from NYC.

JMMDS is involved from the start of the design process through Design Development, and then we usually hire a local firm to work with us to produce Construction Documents. We do the Construction Administration and often have an on-going maintenance check-in. We love large-scale conceptual thinking, and the hands-on involvement during installation, which is where it all comes together. Current JMMDS projects include:

  • Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids, MI: a 3-acre visitor center garden
  • Los Angeles County Arboretum: a contemplative garden
  • Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY: various projects
  • Southern Connecticut State University: a small but significant healing garden in memory of four teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School (they all attended SCSU) and a master plan for the campus based on social justice values
  • Residential landscapes in Vermont, Maine, New Jersey, and Boston.

I also spend a lot of my time on Home Outside, a separate company I founded to combine sustainable landscape design expertise with cutting-edge technology to help homeowners design their property and plant their gardens. Our Home Outside landscape design app (for mobile and desktop) allows anyone to easily create a design for their property. It has 800 pre-drawn elements that you can use to place your house, driveway, trees, garden beds, right down to the compost pile onto a Google Earth image of your property. It doesn’t replace CAD, which we designers all need for its precision—but it does democratize design by providing a simple tool that can be used by designers and non-designers alike, including homeowners who would not have hired a designer.

The Home Outside app / image: Home Outside

For those who need more help, our Home Outside remote design service connects homeowners with our network of landscape design experts, who create property plans and planting designs and offer screen-sharing consultations. Thanks to Home Outside, we are able to help homeowners from around the world have access to the design expertise they need.

How did you come to do this kind of work?

I went to Wellesley College and majored in Art History. This gave me a language for describing the visual world and my own emotional response to it. Looking at abstract expressionism, describing what I saw and what feelings arose from the works of art, I realized that there was something there I loved.

Then I went to MIT and got master’s degrees in both architecture and city planning. At MIT at the time, professors taught about design, design process, and community planning principles, which all have continued to influence me throughout my professional life. Then, halfway through graduate school, I opened up a book of photographs of Japanese gardens for an architecture course, and said to myself, “These images remind me of the little mossy places in nature where I played as a child. I have been here before, only these are even more beautiful! How do I get to create spaces like these?” It became my goal to get to Japan to learn more, so I applied for and received a Henry Luce Scholars fellowship to go to Kyoto and work with a highly regarded garden master, Professor Kinsaku Nakane, for 15 months. I visited 80 gardens, watched him set stones, learned about pruning and maintenance techniques, and steeped myself in traditional Japanese culture. Professor Nakane would say, “Just go and let your heart speak to you about these [gardens], don’t intellectualize or analyze them” (although of course we did). “Let them speak directly to your heart.”

I brought all that back with me to MIT and completed my master’s thesis. For my thesis, I realized that in a densely populated place like Japan, people needed contemplative spaces in their cities. And in Kyoto at least, they had them—gardens, shrines, sake bars, places to get away from the hordes. When I returned to Boston, the only such place I could find was the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (where we still consult today). For my thesis, I interviewed people working downtown to find out where they went for a contemplative experience. They described different kinds of physical spaces, each of which created a different emotional response, and those became the basis of theory of spatial archetypes, about which I’ve written in many of my books: Sea, Cave, Harbor, Promontory, Island, Mountain, and Sky. I see space—and life—as a garden.

What is your design process like?

What we do is a little different from typical design charrettes. We gather a large group of stakeholders in a room and we start by talking about their daydreaming places. People feel so strongly about these memories—which they draw and write down for us—and this gives them a strong sense of having a stake in the design process. And then we get into the nuts and bolts of the site and make sure we all understand the assets and challenges of the actual site. We then show some of our own work to inspire the stakeholders and begin to ignite their imaginations, then give them a plan on paper and give them some tracing paper and ask them, as a group, to design the landscape. (We never let a designer get involved, unless they’re naturally a stakeholder, because a designer can’t help but take over the design process.) We want the group to give us back less than perfect drawings that reflect what that table group thinks would be a great organizing strategy or galvanizing idea. We’ve done this with children; we’ve done it with all kinds of people.

We recently led hundreds of people when we designed the Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) social justice master plan that is based on five different social justice values. We gave one of each of the values (Kindness, Dignity, Civility, Compassion, and Respect) to the 50 SCSU students who participated in our visioning session. We asked them a series of questions that had them imagine a value as a space. What does kindness look like as a garden? What does dignity feel like? We asked them about spatial ideas—verticality versus horizontality. Is kindness vertical or horizontal? Is it intimate or immense? We took their information and turned it into a master plan that has Civility Gateways, the Dignity Stage, the Compassion Gardens, and it goes from there.

The Remembrance Garden at Southern Connecticut State University, located within the SCSU Reflection Garden, features an abstract wooden sculpture and drifts of soothing and fragrant plants. / image: photo courtesy SCSU

That’s what we’re good at, organizing conceptual ideas and making them real. We need our clients, who know the place deeply and better than we do, to give us their best sense of what it could be. We inspire them by showing them our work because our work is inspirational. They get it, seeing what’s possible, jumping right in and giving us amazing ideas.

Another example is working with the children at the Shore Country Day School, a little private school, in Beverly, MA. Five former students, who at the time were about 25 years old, had all died the same year from different causes, and their parents wanted to create a memorial garden—something uplifting, not sad. The school gave us a tiny spot right in the middle of the campus next to the dining hall. I met with a large group of 5th, 8th, and 9th graders, and I asked them to design the garden. They gave me all these different ideas, and one thing that kept coming through was beavers! It turned out that the school’s mascot was a maple tree with a beaver under it. Well, I know all about beavers because our house overlooks a beaver meadow. So we designed a beaver meadow as an inspiration garden: we created a beaver waterway and a beaver seminar room—an open lodge made of “gnawed” trees. We even included a dead tree for the woodpeckers. It was a very fun project.

It was educational for the students and healing for the parents, who were mourning terribly. They all have a real stake in that garden, and they love being there. And it’s a place where 15 kids can fit into the beaver lodge and feel safe because it feels open, yet embedded in the heart of the school. That to me was a healing garden, a joyful place.

Doing the right process with the right people in the room is really important to making something that’s very special for an institution. We use a similar process with residential projects; we go deep with those clients as well, and we also get to hone our detail and planting design skills.

To be a healing garden, to be therapeutic, a garden has to be not only well designed, but perhaps even exquisite. Unfortunately, a lot of healing gardens aren’t that beautiful. Just calling it a healing garden doesn’t make it so. Look at what you’ve designed freshly every time you’re there! How does a space make you feel? Are you looking at mulch? Is the bench placed properly so that it feels like a harbor, not uncomfortably exposed? There are so many pieces to it that I’ve thought through with my books and my archetypes. The spatial details that create emotions are very, very important. They go to the heart. They go back to the spirit of the place.

Whenever you walk onto a site, do not take anything for granted that might be written down. Always see freshly, start over, move things around so they really sing. If we look at things with new eyes every time, we can find what needs to happen on the site, within our clients, within our heart. It’s all sort of right there. Our mission statement at JMMDS is, “To create and inspire others to create exquisite and sustainable places of beauty and meaning by means of a joyful process.” If it’s not a joyful process, then the quality of the product goes downhill.

I also think you can’t deem your own work as sacred; only other people can. There’s a venerability to that word that can only be bestowed over time. Hopefully the Toronto Music Garden is a sacred space for people, but I’m not about to say it is. It does a lot of wonderful things, it’s a very special place. We improve it every year with new plantings. I feel so lucky to be involved with maintaining it. We try to keep up with the gardens we created if we can—not always easy to do.

Part 2 of this interview will be published here on The Field next week. Until then, check out the ASLA Healthcare & Therapeutic Design Professional Practice Network (PPN)’s previous interviews:

Icons of Healthcare & Therapeutic Garden Design Interview Series:

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