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15 Garden Ideas to Steal from the Shakers

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15 Garden Ideas to Steal from the Shakers

January 16, 2018

A few weeks back I went to Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire on a frosty morning in search of smart, simple design and storage ideas for the home (and found plenty; read about that here). But I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the Shakers’ knack for efficient, beautiful design applied outdoors as well, in their efficient fieldstone paths, orderly rows of trees, wooden houses painted in muted palettes, and practical rules of thumb for vegetable gardens. As I walked the quiet village I stuffed my hands in my pockets against the cold and took mental notes on their ingenuity and orderliness, best summed up in a Shaker adage I later read: that a garden is an index of the gardener’s mind. Here are 15 garden ideas to steal from the Shakers:

Photography by Erin Little for Remodelista, except where noted.

1. Find beauty in order.

The Shakers injected order and repetition into just about everything they built. In his essay on Shaker design in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes: &#8
Above: The Shakers injected order and repetition into just about everything they built. In his essay on Shaker design in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes: “Everything in the Shaker world, from brooms to villages, is laid out in rows, grids, tightly packaged and formatted.” This includes the outdoor world, with neat fences, pathways, and stone walls and, shown here, a neat alley of sugar maples framing the gambrel-roof Meeting House.

But the Shakers weren’t so fanatical about order that they pruned their trees into perfect shapes; note the sugar maples left bare and natural here.

2. Adopt a muted palette.

 When it came to paint, indoors and out, the Shakers worked within a muted, limited palette. Outdoors, this allowed buildings to look cohesive as a village and at one with the landscape, while at the same time emphasizing the neatness of the structures. For Shaker-style curb appeal, consider the following paint rules from &#8
Above: When it came to paint, indoors and out, the Shakers worked within a muted, limited palette. Outdoors, this allowed buildings to look cohesive as a village and at one with the landscape, while at the same time emphasizing the neatness of the structures. For Shaker-style curb appeal, consider the following paint rules from “Shaker Village Color,” a brochure published by the City of Shaker Heights in Ohio: “Choose a subdued color for the walls appropriate for the style … Muted, neutral earth tones, such as buffs, browns, grays, ochres and off-whites, harmonize and complement one another and, in general, are the best choice for exteriors. Bright, vivid colors call attention to themselves, detracting from the overall effect.”

If you must add trim, think carefully: “Depending upon the style of the house, select colors for the window sash, trim boards, doors and shutters that complement the wall color. No more than a total of three colors should be used.”

3. Line the garden shed with peg rails.

The Shakers lined nearly every room in peg rails, one of their most versatile inventions, which they used to store everything from clothes to brooms to chairs. Adapt this for the garden, and hang one (or several) in a shed or entryway for easy storage of tools and outerwear. Source a few of our favorites, including the one shown here, at Object Lessons: The Shaker Peg Rail over on Remodelista.
Above: The Shakers lined nearly every room in peg rails, one of their most versatile inventions, which they used to store everything from clothes to brooms to chairs. Adapt this for the garden, and hang one (or several) in a shed or entryway for easy storage of tools and outerwear. Source a few of our favorites, including the one shown here, at Object Lessons: The Shaker Peg Rail over on Remodelista.

4. It takes a village.

 The Shakers lived communally, and their villages were designed like small towns, with one shared dwelling house (where they slept) and separate buildings for the laundry, broom-making workshop, creamery, and schoolhouse, plus fields, gardens, and orchards. But the village buildings looked charmingly cohesive, never clashing. The secret to their success? When painting, make like the Shakers and consider how your house fits in with your neighbors&#8
Above: The Shakers lived communally, and their villages were designed like small towns, with one shared dwelling house (where they slept) and separate buildings for the laundry, broom-making workshop, creamery, and schoolhouse, plus fields, gardens, and orchards. But the village buildings looked charmingly cohesive, never clashing. The secret to their success? When painting, make like the Shakers and consider how your house fits in with your neighbors’. “Note the surrounding colors that are not subject to changes, such as the roof, brick or stone portions and other natural or unpainted materials. Also look at surrounding houses to visualize the relationships of color in the neighborhood,” advises a pamphlet on “Shaker Village Color.”

Here, white buildings frame a tan-colored structure, with subtle brick-red trim as a complement.

5. Use yellow.

The Shakers, many of whom lived in New England where the days are short and the winters long, masterfully splashed yellow against their otherwise-muted palettes, indoors and out, for a sunny effect. Whether buttercup or ochre, find a shade of yellow—in paint, flowers, or a piece of garden furniture—and use it sparingly.
Above: The Shakers, many of whom lived in New England where the days are short and the winters long, masterfully splashed yellow against their otherwise-muted palettes, indoors and out, for a sunny effect. Whether buttercup or ochre, find a shade of yellow—in paint, flowers, or a piece of garden furniture—and use it sparingly.

6. Keep a broom at the ready.

It&#8
Above: It’s wise to take housekeeping advice from the Shakers, arguably the best cleaners in American history. Here, a utility closet is stocked with Shaker brooms and brushes for every task, all hung within easy reach. Outfit the garden closet or shed similarly and you’ll be equipped for every garden task.

7. Cut down on dirt.

For the Shakers, creating paths through the village was another way of imposing order: Paths directed community members where and how to walk, saved shoes from mud and muck, and minimized the amount of dirt tracked into buildings (and, therefore, the amount of cleaning). At Canterbury Shaker Village, the paths were built by hand of granite pavers more than 0 years ago and are laid at right angles; despite some wear, they&#8
Above: For the Shakers, creating paths through the village was another way of imposing order: Paths directed community members where and how to walk, saved shoes from mud and muck, and minimized the amount of dirt tracked into buildings (and, therefore, the amount of cleaning). At Canterbury Shaker Village, the paths were built by hand of granite pavers more than 150 years ago and are laid at right angles; despite some wear, they’ve stood the test of time.

When laying a garden path, take the opportunity to be artful: use it to create order in the garden, and align it with the front door for cleanliness and efficiency.

8. Save (or give) seeds.

Among many other inventions, the Shakers were the first ones to put seeds from their gardens in paper packets, which they then distributed (along with herbs and botanical medicines) to local shops and farmers. Make like a Shaker and store your own seeds (for ideas, see  Easy Pieces: Seed-Saving Envelopes and Seed Savers: Essentials for a DIY Kit, as shown here), or give them as gifts from the garden. Photograph by Mimi Giboin.
Above: Among many other inventions, the Shakers were the first ones to put seeds from their gardens in paper packets, which they then distributed (along with herbs and botanical medicines) to local shops and farmers. Make like a Shaker and store your own seeds (for ideas, see 10 Easy Pieces: Seed-Saving Envelopes and Seed Savers: Essentials for a DIY Kit, as shown here), or give them as gifts from the garden. Photograph by Mimi Giboin.

9. Cut flowers without stems.

The Shakers grew flowers in their gardens, too, but only for making tinctures and medicines. Roses were meant to be used to make rosewater, for example; never for display or ornamentation. In order to resist the temptation to loop a flower through a buttonhole or drop one, covertly, in a vase on a bedside table, flowers were picked without stems. Adapt this rule for the better by displaying buds and flower heads in a dish of water, or by making a dried garland, like the one in DIY Rose Garland: New Life for Last Week’s Flowers. Bonus: this is a great way of making use of felled and discarded blooms and buds. Photograph by Erin Boyle.
Above: The Shakers grew flowers in their gardens, too, but only for making tinctures and medicines. Roses were meant to be used to make rosewater, for example; never for display or ornamentation. In order to resist the temptation to loop a flower through a buttonhole or drop one, covertly, in a vase on a bedside table, flowers were picked without stems. Adapt this rule for the better by displaying buds and flower heads in a dish of water, or by making a dried garland, like the one in DIY Rose Garland: New Life for Last Week’s Flowers. Bonus: this is a great way of making use of felled and discarded blooms and buds. Photograph by Erin Boyle.

10. Plant in threes.

The Shakers planted robust vegetable gardens for feeding their community (and relished in the task of gardening, like other chores). They accepted that some crops might get lost to passersby who might take some food for themselves, or to wildlife. In at least one village, the Shakers planted crops in threes: &#8
Above: The Shakers planted robust vegetable gardens for feeding their community (and relished in the task of gardening, like other chores). They accepted that some crops might get lost to passersby who might take some food for themselves, or to wildlife. In at least one village, the Shakers planted crops in threes: “one for the Shaker, one for the crow, one for the thief.” In the kitchen garden, minimize loss by planting backups. Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing from the vegetable garden at Pleasant Hill Shaker Village in Kentucky; see A Modern Shaker Garden for more.

11. Dry herbs artfully.

For drying herbs for cooking and medicinal use, the Shakers designed artful wooden drying racks (cousins to their ingenious clothes-drying racks). Buy a Shaker Herb Drying Rack via the Canterbury Shaker Village, or hang a wooden rod in a dry place for similar effect.
Above: For drying herbs for cooking and medicinal use, the Shakers designed artful wooden drying racks (cousins to their ingenious clothes-drying racks). Buy a Shaker Herb Drying Rack via the Canterbury Shaker Village, or hang a wooden rod in a dry place for similar effect.

12. Stock up for winter.

The sign of a &#8
Above: The sign of a “prosperous farmer,” according to The Shaker Manifesto of 1848? “When you always see in his wood-house a sufficiency for three months or more, it shows that he will be more than a ninety days wonder in farming operations, and that he is not sleeping in his house after a drunken frolic.” Take it from the Shakers, and stack a sufficiency of firewood neatly before winter to prevent frequent re-stocking. See The Well-Kept Woodpile: 10 Tips to Stack and Care for Firewood Outdoors for ideas.

13. Practice minimalism everywhere.

Excuse the morbidity, but we think one of the most striking aspects of the Shaker landscape is the cemeteries, where they (usually) did away with individual markers and stones, opting instead for a simple, minimalist lot with one central marker. We&#8
Above: Excuse the morbidity, but we think one of the most striking aspects of the Shaker landscape is the cemeteries, where they (usually) did away with individual markers and stones, opting instead for a simple, minimalist lot with one central marker. We’re not suggesting you install a graveyard, but when it comes to landscape design, remember the Shaker maxim: ’tis a gift to be simple. Photograph of the South Union Shaker Village in Kentucky by Rob Thurman via Flickr.

14. Think of outbuildings as accessories.

The Shakers designated buildings for specific purposes. You, too, can do this in the garden: Even one small structure, particularly when painted in complement to the main house (see &#8
Above: The Shakers designated buildings for specific purposes. You, too, can do this in the garden: Even one small structure, particularly when painted in complement to the main house (see “It Takes a Village,” above), becomes a charming focal point. Photograph of the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Kentucky by Timothy Brown via Flickr.

15. Build to last.

When it comes to building the foundations of a garden, take this lesson from the Shakers: do it once and do it right. Their famous stone walls, more often employed than wooden fences, are more stable and permanent, particularly when made of the massive boulders so readily available nearby Canterbury, in New Hampshire.
Above: When it comes to building the foundations of a garden, take this lesson from the Shakers: do it once and do it right. Their famous stone walls, more often employed than wooden fences, are more stable and permanent, particularly when made of the massive boulders so readily available nearby Canterbury, in New Hampshire.

As a reporter for The New York Times described in a 1990 piece about Shaker walls, “With their enormous stones and careful construction, these walls will not need repairing every spring when winter frosts have finished heaving the earth about. No, these are walls that time will not move, let alone frost. Embedded in them, it seems, are the basic tenets of the Shakers, the idea that labor was consecrated and that every object should be made as if the maker would die tomorrow but the object must last a thousand years.”

N.B.: See all of our guides to Garden Design 101, including Exteriors & Facades 101 and more posts about Paints & Stains. And for more garden ideas to steal from around the world:

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