Sound isn't an element that is often considered when designing a garden. We're very attuned to sounds when we're walking through a forest, but it takes a back seat to the other senses, in a garden. That doesn't mean it's not there. Probably the most heralded garden sounds are birds chirping, water gurgling and wind rustling through ornamental grasses.
Sound adds a surprising dimension to a garden. More often than not, it surprises or startles you. But listening for the sounds of your garden keeps you alert and so, more in tune with the other elements of your garden and of the passing seasons.
Water, wind, and wildlife play a big part in the music of a garden, but I'll add one more; walking. You add sounds to your garden just by being there, whether it's crunching, clanking or rustling, sound is an element you contribute and a chance for you to become a part of the combined senses that bring your garden to life.
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The Sound of Water
Many people with no interest in fish or water plants still enjoy the sound of moving water in their garden. Adding a fountain is easier than you might expect and it doesn't even require a pond. Small recirculating garden fountains can be tucked into garden beds or featured on your deck or patio. Make sure you choose one that is intended for outdoor use since it will be exposed to the elements. Many require access to an electrical outlet, but there are more and more battery and solar powered fountains available.
If possible, test out your fountain before installing it. Everyone has different tastes when it comes to the sound of running water. To some folks, a trickle is just an annoying drip and to others, a waterfall can sound like a broken faucet.
This is true even if you do have a pond. You can get a gentle trickle from a shooting fountain or a rhythmic cascade from a natural looking waterfall or even a series of falls. More elaborate set-ups may require hiring professionals and are more easily accomplished if they are part of the original design.
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Wildlife is a mixed blessing in the garden, but you can't deny the added layer of pleasure bird songs bring to your outdoor space. Birds love plants as much as humans do and it's not hard to get them to visit your garden on a regular basis. Include some plants for attracting birds and leave some of them standing throughout the winter, to feed the birds and keep them around. Combine the sound of water and the chirping of birds by adding a birdbath in a flower border.
Speaking of water, if you add any size water garden, you are sure to attract frogs and toads. You'll know they are there by the plopping splash you hear as you approach and by their evening chanting, which can be quite loud during mating season. They require no extra effort on your part, other than a water spot and some nearby plants for protection from predators. You are more likely to attract frogs and toads if you include some potted plants in the water or some rocks that sit above the waterline, for them to sit on, sun - and catch mosquitoes.
Buzzing insects add yet another sound dimension to the garden. Some are welcome, some not so much, but there's a certain satisfaction that comes from being busy as a bee right next to a busy bee. All they require are some nectar-rich flowers and minimal use of pesticides.
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Wind Changes Garden Sounds Seasonally
Wind pulls everything together. It brings not just sound, but air and movement. The sound of wind in the garden changes seasonally. The blustery spring winds have little to rattle until the trees leaf out. They blast through the garden and whistle past your ears, slowly lifting matted mulch and knocking off stubborn clinging leaves. Spring winds bring the first scent of the season; mud.
Summer breezes are a welcome relief and you can hear it in the swaying leaves. Even diehards who find ornamental grasses boring enjoy the sound of seed heads batting about. But any billowy plant will help you catch the breeze and give it something to strum on. Certainly, ornamental grasses shine here, but also consider swaying shrubs like Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii), Beauty Bush ( Kolkwitzia), Ponytail Palm (Nolina recurvata), Bugbane (Cimicifuga racemosa) or Goat's Beard (Aruncus dioicus)
Enhance the wind with the lulling sounds of wind chimes and bells. Metal adds a distant melodious jingle, while bamboo and shells softly clack and clatter. Chimes in the garden keep you alert to the changes in the wind.
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Become One of Your Garden's Sounds
You might not consider the sounds you make while walking a part of your garden, but rest assured all the creatures sharing your garden do. A lot of these sounds depend on surface materials. The crunch of gravel is one of the things that many gardeners find most attractive about using it for paths and even for mulch. Dried leaves offer a different kind of crunch as well as a kind of windswept sound. Even the hollow thud of your shoe on stone or solid ground sends sound signals out to nearby animals.
To increase the sound from walking and make yourself an even bigger part of your garden, consider allowing larger plants to spill into the path. Stiffer branches with soft leaves, like small maple tree limbs and hydrangeas, will brush against you without doing either of you harm while setting off that rustling forest sound. A great fall garden sound is the rattle of seeds in a drying pod, like Angel's Trumpet (Datura), moonflower (Ipomoea alba), iris, broom and false indigo (Baptisia australis).
If you stay alert, you'll notice this underappreciated sense can add a great deal to your appreciation of your garden.