Calm garden ideas for when life – and the heat – get too much

Here's how the experts say you can turn your garden into your happy place when you're hot and bothered

Savills Garden Sarah Price Chelsea
(Image credit: Future PLC/Andrew Sydenham/Country Life)

Our gardens can be an oasis away from the hustle and bustle of life; the place we go to escape, relax and smell the roses. But what if our outdoor room still feels more hectic than holistic? Just another place to feel overwhelmed and hot under the collar, especially when a heatwave hits.

We spoke to garden designers and mental health experts to find out how to find some inner calm in our outside space with these naturally therapeutic garden ideas.

Calm garden ideas

There’s hard evidence that being in a garden can reduce stress and improve our mental wellbeing – and even that creative activities can help us feel even calmer when we do them in a natural setting.

‘The Kings Fund report found irrefutable evidence that gardens improve our health,’ explains Dr Olivia Chapple, Co-Founder of Horatio’s Garden Charity, which provides accessible gardens for NHS spinal health units. ‘We collect our own evidence as well. We see 98% of our patients saying that the gardens increase their wellbeing. Mental health, sleep, the ability to engage in their therapy – all these things improve when they are able to use the garden.’

Here’s how to introduce a sense of calm to your own plot.

1. Cool down with a water feature

garden pond

(Image credit: Future PLC/Charlie Hopkinson)

When you’re hot and bothered, physically or emotionally, then a few moments beside a water feature idea can help. Water is cooling, so the environment around a pond or fountain will be a few degrees lower than elsewhere in the garden. The sight and sound of the water have benefits, too.

‘Water features bring all sorts to a garden, from light reflection to the sound,’ says garden designer Rosemary Coldstream, who won a gold medal for her Feels Like Home garden at RHS Chelsea 2023. ‘You've got to find that sweet spot with the sound, so it’s not too hard or soft, but is just the gentle sound of water falling. Then when it’s a body of water and a pool, you get the reflections. You can either bring the sky down into the garden or you can reflect off something else, like a metal sculpture.’

2. Use colour to create a sense of calm

Savills Garden Sarah Price Chelsea

(Image credit: Future PLC/Andrew Sydenham/Country Life)

Beware of feeling overwhelmed by too many bright flowers and colourful garden ideas. If your senses need soothing, then look to more subdued tones – and even a purely green garden. 

In the Samaritans garden at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, garden designer Darren Hawkes avoided strong colours. ‘We’ve used a really limited palette, so there are some lime greens, but lots of different soft greens, hints of whites and some darker chocolates, russets and little bits of red,’ he says. ‘This is using planting to feel calmer and less anxious. It's a quiet space.’

3. Slow down with stepping stones

garden stepping stones

(Image credit: Future PLC/Annaick Guitteny)

Stepping stones, whether that’s across a lawn or even a pond, encourage mindfulness by allowing you to slow your pace and consider your journey through the garden more carefully. You could even count your steps as you walk over them, switching off your mind from the distractions of everyday life and allowing yourself to settle in the here and now.

If you don’t want stepping stones, consider breaking up the flow of a garden path idea or patio paving by planting low-growing herbs such as thyme and chamomile between the cracks, or interspersing flagstones with bands of gravel.

‘We've created bands running through a simple gravel path which act like a speed bump. Something that just slows you down,’ says garden designer Darren Hawkes.

4. Create a shady spot

a lush lawn with garden furniture set up in a circle and a makeshift shade sail overhead

(Image credit: Marks & Spencer)

‘If you want  to create a space in the garden where you can sit with your thoughts, shade and a place of shelter are important,’ asserts garden designer Darren Hawkes. ‘In the Samaritans garden at Chelsea, we dug down to make a sunken garden area, which feels safer andmore enveloping, with a tree arching over it as welll. That immediately gives you that sense of safety and tranquillity.’

You could also construct your own shade cover, whether that's a sail or a temporary structure like a garden marquee.

‘There’s a great importance in finding space in a garden to sit and find a calm moment,’ says Chris Beardshaw, garden designer and creator of the A Life Worth Living garden for Myeloma UK at RHS Chelsea 2023. ‘One way of doing that is by using a number of trees of varying shapes and sizes to create a dappled shade.’

5. Add a seat – and bring a book!

A reflective pond at RHS Chelsea Flower Show

(Image credit: Heather Young/Future Publishing Ltd)

A garden seat is essential if you want to sit calmly and relax.

‘Everyone talks about being in nature, but one way to really relax in nature is to be sitting and immersed and then reading books,’ says garden designer Gini Denison-Pender, who created the Doorstep Library Garden at RHS Chelsea 2023. 

‘We're looking at the connection between reading and your imagination, like how you could be on a balcony in Britain but through reading your imagination has taken you into a rainforest, and your natural surroundings can reflect that. It's a lovely connection and simply sitting to read is such a relaxing way to be outside.’

6. Don’t worry about a few weeds

Meadow planting around pavers

(Image credit: Future / Heather Young)

The quest for perfection – the bowling-green stripe lawn and weed-free garden borders – can turn the relaxing pursuit of gardening into another item on your endless to-do list. So why not embrace the trend seen at RHS Chelsea this year and allow a few weeds and wildflowers into your plot?

A lot of the show gardens are absolutely beautiful but if you try to maintain those, you're going be in trouble – so the answer is to let in the wild and the weeds and enjoy the space,’ says Jon Davies of Wild City Studio, who created The Balance Garden for the Centre for Mental Health at RHS Chelsea 2023. 

‘Rather than the sensory gardens of old, where we would say, smell a lavender and you can feel better, that's not really going to work for proper mental health issues. The aim it to create naturalistic spaces affordably and change perceptions of what that wildness can look like in urban and domestic spaces.’

One of the things that makes gardens such calming spaces is that they can't be rushed. Plants grow in their own time, even if a greenhouse can help them along a bit. The sun rises and sets on its own timetable, while the seasons proceed at a steady pace. All you need to do is enjoy the moment, peacefully…

Andrea Childs

Andrea began her journalism career at Ideal Home and is currently Editor of our sister title, Country Homes & Interiors, which celebrates modern country style. Andrea is passionate about colour and how it can transform both our homes and our sense of wellbeing, and has completed The Power of Colour course with the prestigious KLC School of Design. Andrea's career spans interiors magazines, women's lifestyle titles and newspapers. After her first job at Ideal Home, she moved on to women's magazines, Options and Frank. From there it was on to the launch of Red magazine, where she stayed for 10 years and became Assistant Editor. She then shifted into freelancing, and spent 14 years writing for everyone from The Telegraph to The Sunday Times, Livingetc, Stylist and Woman & Home. She was then offered the job as Editor of Country Homes & Interiors, and now combines that role with writing for