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How to Create a Veteran’s Memorial Garden

by Linnea Crowther

Memorial Day can be a very personal experience in a very personal space.

For those who have lost a loved one in military service, Memorial Day couldn’t be more serious. It’s a day to reflect and remember, a day when grief and love for country go hand in hand. Visiting the cemetery with flowers is a common and beautiful way to observe the day – but for those who want to honor their loved one in a more private space, one good way to bring that beauty home and cherish it all summer long is to create a memorial garden for your veteran.

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Memorial Day has its origin in Decoration Day, an annual observance begun just after the Civil War. Its name was literal, referring to the decorations of flowers that were left on soldiers’ graves that day to commemorate their service and honor their lives. With the holiday falling just as spring warms to summer, it’s inextricably linked with the flowers that show their first blooms in that season.

A memorial garden is the kind of project that can be as big or small as you want it to be, perfectly fitting the space you have available. It can range from a simple planter to a large area of your yard, incorporating furniture and water features. However you decide to do it, since it’s created by you with your loved one in mind, it will be a powerful and personal memorial. Here are a few tips and suggestions for getting started.

Assess Your Space

Before you start planting or even choose your plants, determine the scope of the garden – will it be big or small? – and where you want to put it. If you have a small yard or you’re not an experienced gardener, a small corner of space might be the best option. You’re not locked into sunny spots – there are flowers that suit all areas of the yard, from full sun to full shade. But make sure you know what kind of light your chosen area gets, all day long, before you choose plants for it.

If you don’t have a yard, or you don’t want to dig up any space in your yard for a new planting, you can create a container garden in memoriam. Outdoors, this can be one or more planters or hanging baskets on a patio or balcony, or you can even choose to pot a special houseplant to live indoors in remembrance.

Choose Your Plants

An obvious color choice for a garden in memory of a veteran is red, white, and blue flowers. The slight hitch is that the blue of the American flag really doesn’t exist in the world of flowers. You can choose to approximate it with deep purple and blue-lavender blooms, or you can leave out the blue and plant a red and white garden, still quite a patriotic choice. Or you can opt for another color scheme. Yellow flowers can reflect the yellow ribbon worn to honor our troops, or you may opt for flowers that represent your loved one’s favorite colors.

Instead of or in addition to choosing plants based on color, you might consider some flowers that have special meanings. There are several plants that represent remembrance in the language of flowers. Forget-me-not, a perennial, offers a delicate blue flower with a lovely symbolic name, while the annual statice also represents remembrance and comes in white, pinks, purples and yellows. The herb rosemary also stands for remembrance, and this is one that can live inside in a pot for those who can’t garden outdoors (it’s also an outdoor plant for warmer climates). For a slightly different angle on a plant for mourning, the spring-blooming perennial peony symbolizes healing.

For your military memorial garden, you might choose plants with meanings that are symbolic of the qualities of a soldier. Nasturtium, an edible flower that comes in reds, oranges, and yellows, represents patriotism. The perennial blue iris symbolizes faith and hope.Thyme, a low-growing ground cover herb with tiny white flowers, stands for courage and strength. Poppies, particularly red ones, symbolize thanks for those who have served their country. The gladiolus, named for being shaped like a sword a gladiator would carry, comes in a wide range of colors and represents strength of character, faithfulness, and honor, a perfect choice for remembering a veteran.

The language of flowers is compelling when putting together a special memorial garden, but there’s no need to be hung up on telling a story with every single plant in the garden. It’s also OK to choose the plants that comfort and cheer you while they provide beautiful color for your garden. Red and white geraniums for sun or impatiens for shade can add as much to your garden as any meaningful nasturtium or gladiolus.

Add a Memorial Element

To personalize your memorial garden and pay tribute to your loved one, you can include a memorial marker. This can be big and noticeable – a bench carved with their name and dates – or tiny and tucked away, something that just you know about. There’s no one right way to memorialize your loved one, but here are a few ideas.

A memorial marker can be carved in stone or cut in metal and affixed to a stone or paving block. Any number of online or local providers can create the marker you envision, including personal touches like military insignia, a flag, or images of medals won. You can add a poem or a favorite quote, or choose a religious symbol. These can be large or small, prominent or understated, customizable for your own space.

But you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a professionally-made marker if you don’t want to. You might find more meaning in a DIY project like one or more painted rocks – use acrylic paint for bright color and cover it with a coat of varnish for longevity. You can hand-make a wooden cross, painted with your loved one’s information. Or you can create a mosaic stepping stone with colorful glass gems or pottery shards.

It may be tempting to incorporate meaningful personal items that belonged to your loved one in your memorial garden, like dog tags or the “Battlefield Cross,” composed of a boot, a rifle, and a helmet. But keep in mind that they’ll be subject to the elements, and they may quickly deteriorate. These items are better used in an indoor memorial, with sturdier materials decorating your outdoor one.

Make Space to Reflect

However you design your veteran’s memorial garden, the most important thing is that you love it – and that you use it. A memorial garden can be an important place for reflecting and gathering calm during the turmoil of grief. So one important piece of the garden is a place for you to do that.

A large garden can include a bench, a bistro table and chairs, or even a gazebo, offering a private space to sit. Perhaps it will also feature a fountain or small pond, bringing gentle water sounds into the sensory experience of the space. But small gardens are also meant to be enjoyed, and you can sit and reflect without large furniture and water features. A small chair – preferably a comfortable one – is all you need to be able to sit and think about the loved one your veteran’s memorial garden honors.

Make the Smallest Options Meaningful

If you don’t have the capacity to dig out space in a yard for a garden, a small container garden can still be a meaningful remembrance of your loved one. Outdoors, one or more pots can hold flowers with the symbolic colors or meanings that speak most to you. You can customize the container garden by choosing planters with a patriotic color scheme or decorations. You can tie brightly-colored outdoor fabrics in wide bows around the rims of the pots. And you can add a small memorial marker in one of the pots or next to them.

Indoors, your choice of plants is more limited – most flowers won’t live long inside – but your other decorative options are much more open without having to worry about deterioration due to the weather. To offset the more muted color palette of houseplants, you can decorate the planter you use with red, white, and blue ribbon – or yellow ribbon if you prefer – and, like in the outdoor garden, you can incorporate a small memorial marker. An inside memorial can also include personal items like dog tags in ways that outdoor ones can’t, so let your imagination take over as you create a small shrine to your loved one.

With all the choices you make for your veteran’s memorial garden, the most important thing to remember is that it’s all about what will comfort you and give you strength as you remember. So choose what’s most beautiful and meaningful to you, and you’ll have a memorial that will bring you peace for many seasons.

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