How to make a memory garden

Award winning garden designer Katherine Holland is creating the Sue Ryder Grief Kind Garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show May 2024. Katherine’s design for the garden has drawn on her own experiences of grief, following the death of her mother in 2020. Katherine explains how we can all create a beautiful green space in which to remember a loved one, in a variety of ways.

Round bowl full of water surrounded by purple flowers and green foliage

A water feature might remind you of seaside holidays you enjoyed together.

Grief never really ends - we just have to find ways to live with it. Creating an outside space in which to remember a cherished person who has died can be a beautiful and positive way to find solace.

A memory garden doesn’t need to be costly - it can be a simple design. Remember, this space is hugely personal to you and reflects your relationship with the person who has died, so try to avoid feeling the need to compare what you do with others.

Before you start to create your space ask yourself a few questions:

  • How do you want to feel when you use the space? Calm and reflective, or energised and happy?
  • How would you describe the person you’ve lost in a few words? What is the first thought that comes into your head when you think of them?
  • What would you like to remember about them? Did they have a favourite pastime? Or fragrance, or colour. Did they like large social gatherings or prefer peace and tranquillity?

Only when you’ve really thought about these points can you start to put pen to paper and plan how your new garden space can reflect that person.

A specific event

For some, an overarching memory of a loved one can relate to a holiday or celebratory event such as a wedding - or even just a special day out. For example, my Mum and I went on a short holiday to the Isles of Scilly (and were blessed with an unexpected heatwave!) Whenever I walk along coastal paths on a sunny midsummer day I am transported back to the brilliant time we had there. For me it's the textures of grasses and shimmering calm water that evokes that memory. If I wanted to create an area in my garden to remember that special time, I would place a simple water bowl in the space and surround it with loose, soft ornamental grasses such as Lessing feather grass (Stipa Lessingiana) and Catmint (nepetas).

When remembering a specific event you should consider what time of year it was and find plants that are in their prime during that season. If it was a wedding you may want to choose plants that were used in bouquets or table decorations. If you collected any mementos from that holiday (such as a shell or piece of stone) then make these take centre stage in your space.

A hobby

There are so many ways that someone’s hobby can be woven into a garden. For example, If the person who died was a craft beer drinker you could buy a second-hand cut down barrel for use as a planter and fill it with herbs that could garnish your own drink to toast them.

For birdwatchers, add plants with berries, hips and seeds, such as firethorn (pyracantha), bird cherry (prunus padus), sunflowers (helianthus) and ivy (hedera). These plants provide a great food source, as well as perches for the birds.

For me, secateurs and a straw hat will always remind me of Mum and our shared loved of gardening. This is why during show week at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, the coffee table at the centre of the Sue Ryder Grief Kind Garden will feature both those items as a special memory for me.

Beer barrel planter

Remember a beer lover by creating a planter out of an old beer barrel.

A fragrance

Fragrance is often the most evocative sense and much has been written about its effects in evoking even the most distant memories. There are two approaches you can take to introducing fragrance into a garden. Firstly, you could consider what your loved one’s favourite perfume/cologne was and look for plants that form the base notes of that fragrance. Whether that’s roses or lavender, or more woody pine fragrances.

My mum’s favourite scents were always fresh and citrusy, and whilst citrus fruits aren’t really practical in a UK garden, I have found that mock-orange (Philadelphus Belle Etoile) does a brilliant job in reminding me of her favourite perfumes.

Another way to introduce fragrance is including a person’s favourite plants and surrounding a little seat with fragrant flowers. My Granny’s favourite flower was lily of the valley, so wherever my Mum lived she always had some planted in the ground or in containers, as a gentle reminder to enjoy every Spring.

The smell of Lily of the valley reminds Katherine of her Granny.

A feeling

When I was really overwhelmed with grief and felt an overriding sense of despair after my Mum died, I really needed a space that would help me feel still and calm - the sort of feeling you get when watching the sunset on holiday or sitting at the top of a hill overlooking the valley below.

This serenity and sense of ease is what I will aim to achieve with the Sue Ryder Grief Kind Garden at RHS Chelsea. I think to gain such a feeling, you need to be immersed in the planting, to feel safe and sheltered. Using a mixture of sensory plants I will layer plants for their fragrance, texture, movement, sound and colour. I think ornamental grasses are an excellent way to add height, movement and sound to a space. Be sure to include shrubs too as they help fill a space to give depth and shelter.

A close-up of a lavender shrub

Shrubs like lavender can create depth and shelter in your garden as well a soothing smell that brings back memories.

A space to share

You may seek to create a space that can be shared by friends and family to remember a loved one. You may want to come together and share that space for a specific anniversary so do make sure the space is adaptable to varying numbers of people (this can be achieved by having a couple of permanent chairs but also space for folding directors chairs). How many people will use this space? Will it be maintained together?

a child crouches down to take a photo of a plant with a smartphone

Sharing your memory garden with friends and family at important times may help you in your grief.

Small spaces

Remember - you don’t need a massive garden to do this, or even an outside space. House plants can be used in much the same way, whether the gravel dressing on a pot contains stones from favourite walks, or the pot is painted with your loved ones' pastimes.

Whatever the size of your green space there are ways you can continue to celebrate the memory of those you grieve.

Child waters house plants

You don't need an outside space to connect with nature.

The Sue Ryder Grief Kind Garden will be at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, stand 017, on 21st - 25th May 2024.

Robin sitting inside birdhouse
Sue Ryder Online Shop

Did you know you can support Sue Ryder's work as you create your memory garden? Take a look at our online shop for seeds, bird houses, ornaments and much more.

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