Plant life's special moments in the garden

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Imagine turning a tree into family, transforming a shrub into history or capturing a memory with a flower.

With a little research and a pinch of creativity, the plot of land outside your home can open up like a diary, to recall a favorite travel moment, recall cherished ancestry or revive local tradition. Here are some suggestions from garden designers:

Travel: A photo can freeze the past, but a garden can recreate the excitement of stepping onto foreign lands every day.

Taking the exotic home begins abroad. Visit gardens during your travels for ideas on plants and the gardening styles of the country. Use camera or notepad to record plant names or eye-catching designs.

"There are no new ideas truly in life, just bits and pieces of inspiration that you can adopt to your own backyard," Philadelphia garden designer Fran Sorin said, in a talk she gave at the recent Philadelphia Flower Show.

You don't have to remake the entire castle grounds to give your home the feel of a French chateau. Simply replicating the flowers, colors and designs can capture the look on a smaller scale.

Choosing plants from countries with climates similar to your home's is the best guarantee of their survival. If you simply must have the lushness of that Sumatran rainforest where you spent your honeymoon, a little creative substitution can usually imitate the appearance without requiring humidity-hungry flora.

Talk to a local gardening specialist about plants compatible with your climate zone, and ask how a species will fare there and still have the broad leaves or bright green hues you're looking for.

Some destinations, like Thomas Jefferson's home Monticello, provide a guide to the plants in their gardens or sell seeds. But substitution allows for a wider range of gardening options; smaller plants can mimic a sprawling estate's majestic aura without the vast expanses.

"You may not be able to dedicate acres to lining up pear trees, but you can line up a few boxwoods to give the same effect," Barbara Hobens Feldt, author of the guidebook "Garden Your City," said.

Likewise, she added, you can't take home the sheep you fell in love with in the Scottish countryside, but you can go to a garden shop and get a ceramic one to graze in your yard.

Other gardening accessories like stonework, statues and even containers can add the flavor of another culture to the garden, and a mural can memorialize a precious memory.

Genealogy: A good way to breathe life into your family tree is to set its roots down all around the house, either by capturing a special moment with a relative or paying tribute to your heritage.

The sense of smell is strongly linked to memory, and you can keep the feeling of having a loved one near you by planting your mother's favorite cutting flowers. Plants also can highlight family collections. Try setting heirloom figurines in a flower bed or among some low-lying greenery, to give them a new flair.

If you really want to dig into your cultural background, the garden has room for that, too.

Feldt suggests using personal history to discover what your ancestors' land would have looked like, so you can bring into your garden the plants they would have encountered and the art they would have made.

Someone with an Irish background might want to put a miniature stone labyrinth in the yard; those of Greek descent might pot plants in urns; and those with Japanese heritage might consider a small tea house and coy pond.

"There's no end to how far you could take it," Feldt said. "You could do your whole garden in the colors of the Italian flag, if you wanted."

Of course, families also stretch into the future.

Setting up a walkway with your children's footprints imprinted in it or placing some of their hardier arts and crafts around the garden reminds you where the family is headed.

History: Wherever gardening takes place - the backyard, an apartment terrace, a shared urban plot or along a highway - there is history. It can be a thrill to take a plot of land back to the way it was 10, 100 or even 1,000 years ago.

"Borrow from history for beauty and meaning," said Feldt, who lives in Garrison, N.Y. The search for significance starts in the local library; local records should show you how your area evolved over the years and botany books will let you know which plants are native.

With that information, you can choose a date that's personally significant - like the year your parents got married, or one that's historically potent like 1776 - and remake your land to look the way it did then.

A final touch to building a truly local habitat is to put up fountains or birdfeeders to attract indigenous animals. But if you want them to stay healthy, remember to garden organically.


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