Acupuncture for plants

The oriental art of feng shui - balancing the vital energy of a home or office for health and wealth - is now being applied to gardens. Helen Chappell took an expert's advice
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She deserves a medal for keeping her face a mask of inscrutability on first getting a eyeful of our back garden. No gasp of horror escapes her lips. Sarah Shurety, feng shui consultant, is used to inspecting homes and gardens like the ones on these pages, created by millionaires, captains of industry and Chelsea art dealers. It's not every day she comes up against a forest of giant sycamore trees, a Greek garment factory, the concrete escape hatches of a wartime air-raid shelter and a rampant jungle of snowberry bushes growing in the leafy gloom. She has come along today to advise me on the ancient oriental art of arranging the contents of your home, office - and now your garden - to inspire positive energy, happiness and wealth. The question is: can feng shui (pronounced "fung shwee") save a garden this bizarre?

If anyone can lick it into spiritual shape, however, it is Sarah - a bright-eyed, fizzy blonde who could charm the birds out of the trees. Feng shui, she assures me, is taken so seriously in Hong Kong and Japan that nobody in their right mind would furnish a home or design an office without consulting an expert. The idea is that different rooms in the home, and parts of rooms, represent different areas of your life - finances, relationships, career, success, parents, children and so on. Get your doors, windows, pot plants or sofa in the wrong place and you could be blocking the free flow of invisible spiritual energy running through the room and so sabotaging the corresponding area of your life. "If your relationships area is in the broom cupboard," says Sarah, "your love life will get messy and confused. Leave the loo seat up and you are flushing away your wealth."

Oriental gardens have long conformed to the same philosophy. The same "energy" or spirit which runs through people and their homes runs through gardens and landscapes. There is nothing haphazard about the way a Chinese gardener deploys his summer house, fish pond or cherry tree, it seems. And just as indoor feng shui is now catching on fast in the insecure, New Age west, so now the outdoor variety is poised to invade our gardens. Sarah has studied with an ancient-Chinese master and writes a feng shui problem page for a Chinese newspaper. Could she possibly make my garden look any worse than it does right now?

"First of all," she begins, "you need to change the shape of these iron stairs leading down into the garden. Feng shui prefers entrances that open outwards and get wider." I will have to create some gentle curves with pebbles, bricks and a lion dog sentinel or two. We step gingerly on to the lawn. What exactly is that vast concrete ramp poking through the grass, she wonders. I explain that the whole garden is built on top of an underground air-raid shelter, whose legal ownership remains a mystery as profound as feng shui itself. The ramp marks its (blocked) entrance. "Couldn't you turn it into a rookery?" suggests Sarah brightly, ignoring my startled expression. As this corner represents my fame and wealth area, it doesn't bode well that it currently contains the compost heap as well. "You should also have a pool here," Sarah is saying, "kidney-shaped and full of carp, with a little waterfall ..."

We pass the tumbledown fence (must fix that) on which I am advised to hang a full-length mirror to attract my fair share of fame and fortune. In the opposite dank corner, this one invaded by next door's leyland cypress and Russian vine, she stops to furrow her brow. This is my feelings and relationships area and it is hopelessly confused and tangled. I am certainly feeling a bit dazed as Sarah rattles on, 19 to the dozen, advising me to install a romantic arbour here decorated with trelliswork, jasmine and pink and red peonies. I'm not sure anything more cultivated than a periwinkle will grow in these conditions, but I try my best to look positive.

We have now arrived at the playful and childlike part of the garden. This is a mass of ivy, dormant day lilies and scarlet pyracantha berries. Not even Prince Charming could see romantic possibilities in this enchanted undergrowth, but that doesn't deter Sarah. "Hang a swing from the tree branches," she enthuses. "Decorate them with Christmas-tree ornaments or a wind chime." She strides on across the mossy lawn to the final corner; this being the haunt of my ancestors, she has saved her most elaborate plans for last. Here I should build an ornamental tea house (with in-house tea-making facilities), surrounded by a low fence, another pond with a fountain and waterfall, statue and cherry tree. The scraggy buddleias and rickety shed full of empty paint tins will simply have to go.

Over a cup of tea indoors, I ask Sarah what kind of people usually pay her pounds 200-pounds 400 for a feng shui consultation. Anxious bankers and stockbrokers seem to head the list so far, but there is also a heavy sprinkling of chic restaurateurs and club owners, pop stars (inevitably, Boy George swears by it) and art gallery owners. "Of course, we have ordinary people too," she reassures me. Clients need not fear, either, that any changes suggested would break the bank or transform their Sissinghurst border into a Japanese temple. All styles of garden are possible with feng shui.

But how exactly does it work? Do you have to believe to receive? "Feng shui deals with the magnetic energy in the world, so it will work whether you believe in it or not," Sarah insists. "I don't think it's psychological at all. These are physical forces at work."

I wish I could say I was convinced. While I may not be a wide-eyed New Age hippy, however, there's no harm in giving things a go. Perhaps a windchime or two and a bit of a seat in the right places. If you'd like to try feng shui in your garden, here are some tips: grub up your roses, especially around doors (they attract short-lived relationships), and plant chrysanthemums for happiness instead. Turn all straight lines into curves and avoid an open-plan plot where you can see everything at once. And, oh yes, always ask permission before you cut down a tree - from the tree, that is.

Sarah Shurety, Feng Shui Company, Ballard House, 37 Norway Street, Greenwich, London SE10 9DD (0181 293 4471). Send an SAE for details.

Chi-forces: a feng shui garden should be divided into distinct areas, each with its own character. Cultivated plots can be juxtaposed with more natural ones to create a balance of two kinds of energy. In one glance, says consultant Sarah Shurety, you should not be able to see the entire garden. Instead, the eye should be led from one contrasting area to another. The photographs here show feng shui features (such as wind chimes, left), in English gardens rather than oriental ones.

Water (main picture, right) is regarded as the life blood of the feng shui garden. It cleanses and revitalises the immediate area and, if placed judiciously, improves luck and wealth. In the wrong place, or in the wrong shape, it is said to create health or money difficulties.

Each area of the garden relates to a different facet of life. In the relationships zone (above), a love seat under a gazebo or shelter is appropriate. Heavy objects such as statues, ideally paired, help keep relationships stable.

Pathways to harmony: in the typical feng shui garden, there is an area that relates to children - a playful area where a topiary maze (left) or something innovative such as dramatic sculptures would be appropriate.

Paths (right) should ideally have gentle curves and be narrower at the house, getting gradually wider as you walk through the garden. ( Photographs omitted)