The Sensual Garden

Artist Jeffrey Bale’s thoughts on making the garden a playground

By Kate Bryant May 27, 2011

Mosaic artist and garden designer Jeffrey Bale in his garden

I was at a party recently where garden designer and mosaic artist Jeffrey Bale of Jeffrey Bale Gardens presented slides of his travels to some of the most sensual gardens of the world, along with a discussion on how to bring a luxurious feeling of sensuality into our own gardens back home.

At the potluck party – with a theme of sensual foods, of course – we piled onto couches and fluffy cushions at the lovely home of photographer Bob Huff and graphic designer Julie Mills to marvel at Jeffrey’s amazing slides and hear his unique perspective on how to reframe the garden from a puritanical place of labor to a sensual place where you can recline, rest, get romantic, and intimately connect with nature.

Jeffrey has been traveling since the early 1980s, seeking out beautiful places around the world that inspire and move him. His travels throughout Europe, Asia (particularly Thailand, my newest love), South America and, most recently, Morocco, have helped him hone his ideas about cultivating beauty and sensual pleasure in a garden – or anywhere.


Early spring in Jeffrey’s front garden… the winter evergreens provide structure while the early hellebores, native herbs and grasses begin to fill out. The mosaics are like Oriental carpets, inviting one to stop in to the garden for a closer look at the mosaic, the offerings before the altar, and that adorable little saxifrage growing around the water bowl.

"My own garden has taken on the form of a Maharaja’s harem,
essentially an Earthly paradise of opulent sensuous indulgence," he says.


This is a beautiful sandstone replica of the Saranath Buddha (India).

And indeed, it felt that way. I had visited his North Portland garden earlier in the day (before the party) and been charmed by the peace and beauty of the space. While I’m sure it explodes with lush foliage as the season heats up, it was exquisite in the spring light: dewy and drippy, with rays of sun lighting up the fragile-looking burgundy hellebore flowers and the fat lilac buds, almost perceptibly swelling with the spring’s overabundant rain. I could only imagine the horticultural debauchery to come!

Nestled amidst the lush foliage were Buddhist figurines found during his travels, tucked into built-by-hand stone and mosaic altars. Simple, reflective pools of water seemed to be in all the right places, sitting amidst a tapestry of plant foliage from Pacific Northwest natives, old-fashioned shrubs like lilacs and clematis and a thoughtful collection of unusual collectors’ plants.

His lively talk that evening was visually inspiring but also presented all kinds of ways to turn one’s garden into a space for pleasure and enjoyment. My favorite of his simple suggestions was to create spots not just to sit but to recline. "Put a bed in it," popped into my mind, having recently watched another episode of Portlandia.


Here’s how you get to the back garden! This is Jeffrey’s design modeled after our native western rattlesnake. This path deserves to be walked without your shoes. Believe me.

"A big part of it is just hanging out and taking your time: the experience of being in a garden is totally different when you’re relaxing, say, or taking a hot bath in it," he says. "Think about what is romantic and incorporate it into your garden. Make it sensuous with atmosphere." He added that some of the most luxurious mood-enhancers are candles and lanterns. …And the sound of water a delicious addition. "Water is the source of life. It’s evocative and relaxing to most people. And then there’s scent: scent triggers memories. Olefactory associations are some of the most powerful memories we have. Start by thinking of whatever is romantic and evocative to you," he suggests.

If you’re not quite ready to add an outdoor bathtub or divan, start the process by thinking of something that has a powerful memory association for you. Is there anything growing in your garden which always makes you want to run out and bury your nose in it? What flower or plant scents trigger lovely or meaningful memories for you?


An early spring view of the back garden… not as lush as it will be by summer but delicious enough for lounging on the divan nonetheless!

Jeffrey Bale’s garden will be open for the HPSO’s Study Weekend – check out the details of the study weekend (June 23-25) here, if you haven’t already.

See his website for more beautiful images of his mosaics. And read his recent blog post, where he talks about working personal symbolism into one’s garden.


Every piece of art in Jeffrey’s garden is connected with his life’s travels. This Buddha is a Bangkok style Buddha from (of course) Thailand, surrounded by his own pebble mosaic.

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