Tag Archives: garden design

Garden design – a starting point

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.

A sense of arrival - but keep it in proportion to the size of the property and the house

A sense of arrival - but keep it in proportion to the size of the property and the house

Garden design is certainly all the rage these days, but if you can’t afford or don’t want to pay a professional designer, where do you start? Without for one minute pretending that a brief column can do justice to design, I would suggest three principles as a starting point.

  1. A sense of arrival.
  2. A sense of journey.
  3. An underpinning principle of logic (with some common sense).

Stand back and look critically at your property from the point of entry or roadside. If you look at good gardens or handsome properties, most will convey a sense of arrival. You know you are in the right place and you can see clearly where you are to enter the property and which direction to follow. This is usually achieved by way of hard landscaping or structures – a fence or hedge (which rates as a green structure), maybe gateways, a driveway and paths. But those arrival features should be in keeping and appropriate to both your house and to the scale of the property. If your lot in life is a tiny, town section with in-fill housing, putting up an imposing gateway and fencing is more likely to make your place look like a prison. And if you own a little wooden cottage, tall brick or plastered walls will just look incongruous. So keep the scale appropriate. Materials used should relate to the house and outbuildings, though if yours is a corrugated iron garage, a hedge may be more pleasing.

Set about softening the entrance with plants. Whether you use formal, matched pairs, an avenue or a froth of pretty flowers is entirely a matter of taste. It is the structures and paving that give form, but it is the plantings which make it appear welcoming and give the interesting detail.

The promise of a journey is possible even on very small sites like in the town garden of Thorveton

The promise of a journey is possible even on very small sites like in the town garden of Thorveton

Creating a sense of anticipation, maybe even mystery, is dependent on making sure that the whole garden is not visible at first glance. It sounds simple, but if you walk along any city street, you will see many gardens where all is revealed from the frontage. There is no invitation to explore or sense of journey. What you see is what you get.

The larger your garden, the easier it is to achieve that promise of journey, to hold back discoveries until you venture further. You may think it is impossible to do on a small, flat section. Not so. It takes a bit more skill and thought, but it can be achieved with a mix of strategically placed plantings and maybe some structures.

But it is the underpinning principle of logical sense which we always keep at the forefront of our minds whenever we plan developments in our garden. Too often have we seen design mistakes where people have dropped in a feature because they feel they need a focal point without thinking about whether it has logic to its selection and placement, beyond being a contrived focal point. The most common and reasonably expensive mistake is summerhouses and gazebos. These structures are all about entertaining and socialising which involves food and drink. If you site it more than 20 metres from your kitchen, odds on you will rarely use it. It just becomes a redundant structure with little purpose. Unless of course you have servants to do the fetching and carrying.

The same goes for garden seats though you may carry your coffee mug 30 metres in this case. A seat is for sitting upon – make sure seating is located where you want to sit, not just to look good from afar.

One pet dislike here is contrived water features where the use of a pump has cascading water flowing from a dry hill or mound, magnified by the sound of the pump and the installation of a fake waterfall. Water does not flow from dry mounds and the installation of such a feature is more often unsubtle fakery which lacks any logic. It is a lot of trouble to go to when you are probably better off with a simple pond, whether it be formal (imposed upon the landscape) or natural in appearance. But if you are going for a natural looking pond, logic says it should be at a lower point of your property.

If you have a large garden, it makes sense to have your intensively gardened and detailed areas closest to the house and living areas. As you move further away, a more natural, loosely maintained style is entirely appropriate. It can look very odd to drop in a formal or highly structured feature in the outer reaches of the property. And common sense says you will never maintain it as tightly as you should, simply because you don’t pass it every day.

How you choose to garden within the design framework is entirely up to personal taste, as is the choice on going with straight lines to give formality or looser curves to evoke a more romantic naturalism. But essentially, good design will mean your garden is an extension of your living space and not just a matter of keeping up appearances.

Decoding the jargon

Setting the standard for garden rooms – Sissinghurst

A newsletter from a gardening organisation arrived a few days before Christmas and I duly read it, coming across the following statement (warning: do not let your eyes glaze and brain disconnect before the end). “Outstanding gardens manage to respond to the genius loci using borrowed landscape, natural landform and native plants – often mixed with exotics – to create stunning indigenous compositions of form, line, texture and colour.”

Borrowing the jargon, shall we unpack that statement? Though I prefer to use the term decode because it is somewhat like a secret code.

Outstanding gardens manage to – that bit is fine.

respond to the genius loci – had to get out the dictionary for this. Loci is, more or less, a place or locality. Google then helped me track down the term genius loci which apparently dates back to early Roman times and means the protective spirit of a place. Latterly the term seems to have been adopted by the landscape architecture fraternity although it might be easier to understand if they simply referred to the well known words of English poet and writer, Alexander Pope who took an interest in garden design. He put it rather more simply when he wrote in 1731 (a mere 280 years ago), “Consult the genius of the place…” which has come to be interpreted as the principle that design should always be relevant to the location and natural environment. This of course assumes that your particular location has some genius loci attached to it but it is a little hard to see how much genius loci you can lay claim to if your lot in life is a small, flat, urban section with a house, be it large or small, plonked fair and square in the middle. Some of us are blessed with quite a bit more genius loci than others.

using borrowed landscape – that is the view of the neighbours’ properties, assuming you have neigbours with views worth borrowing.

natural landform – silly me. I thought that was part of the genius loci.

and native plants – I can’t quite work out whether this is using the already existing native plants in your own genius locus extending to your neighbours’ genius loci which would be a little limiting because it then tends to apply only to those whose patch is on the boundary of a national park, scenic reserve or at least a patch of native bush. Alternatively it may be that native plants are mandatory and pre-eminent in outstanding gardens. While advocating strongly for the use of native plants in tandem with exotics, I think this statement takes the position of native plants considerably further than is common in this country.

… – often mixed with exotics – yes, we are allowed to embellish with introduced plants (exotics are the vast majority of what we grow in this country. Even our lawn grasses are heavily dominated by exotics, as are all our fruit trees and vegetables). I don’t know what the word often is in there for because you would be hard pressed to find any environment in this country, be it natural or contrived, which does not have introduced plants in it. Even our national parks are invaded by weeds.

to create stunning – stunning… hmm. There is a very emotive word. Quality can be measured and evaluated. Emotional response is a matter of individual opinion.

stunning, indigenous compositions of form, line, texture and colour. I will let the compositions of form, line, texture and colour go, though I can think of clearer ways of defining good gardening as a combination of excellent design and skill with plants. But, indigenous compositions? Puh-lease. Indigenous – occurring naturally or native to the land. Gardening, by definition, is not indigenous. It is an imposition on the landscape, occasionally a natural landscape but more often a landscape already heavily altered by man.

So what I think the original statement says is: outstanding gardens make the most of their natural environment, using a variety of plants and really good design. At least, I hope that is what it says. There is no author named so I can’t check.

The classic garden door frame and passage at Hidcote – best in a garden with plenty of space, perhaps

Just a little further on in the same piece, there is the sweeping statement: “Gardens should be a series of outdoor rooms and should have walls, exits/ entries or passages between the rooms. Rooms should be well defined so the viewer is not distracted by what is going on in the next room although they might be tantalized at some point.”

What happened to open plan living, I ask??? Are we to be forever locked in to that format of the early twentieth century evident in the great English gardens of Sissinghurst and Hidcote? Do not get me wrong. We were very impressed by Hidcote when we visited, but perish the thought that all New Zealand gardens must follow the formula if they want to be seen as very good gardens. There are other styles of garden design. A woodland garden will never be a series of rooms with tight structure. A flowing landscape garden in the manner of Capability Brown relies on open spaces, not rooms. Must a tiny town section redefine itself as an area of poky little rooms surrounded by high walls? All those walls blocking out distraction can be damned oppressive, not to mention expensive if done in permanent landscape materials like brick, plastered concrete block or stone. Or high maintenance if done in clipped tall hedging with the added problem that all those hedge plant roots reaching out into the flower borders. It is also very difficult to accommodate large trees in those rooms, let alone worrying about the place of the genius loci in such a heavily contrived design.

Must the defined spaces of garden rooms, seen here at Great Dixter, become mandatory in good New Zealand gardens?

I could not disagree more. Garden rooms are but one device, one way of achieving a desirable end point. The underpinning principle is surely that a good garden should never be revealed in its entirety at first glance. There should be surprises to be discovered, changes of mood and variations in light and shade. The design should entice you to explore further. Using different types of plants in different ways is not only practical in that you have varying growing conditions but it also punctuates the changes.

If you stand back and look at your garden and decide that it is rambling, then it is likely that you lack that sense of design and flow as well as changes of mood. If you have repeated the same plants (oft claimed as a device to give continuity but actually more often, simply dull), then you exacerbate the sense of rambling lack of form.

Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat (not that I have ever wanted to subject a poor moggy to that exercise), there are more ways to design a garden than depending on tightly defined and enclosed garden rooms. After all, a mark of a good garden is surely a degree of originality?

The green breathing space

A restful green on a summer's day - a garden border in dry shade

It is a reflection of our benign climate that I can write a mid-summer column about the soothing role of green in the garden. Overseas visitors are often amazed when they are told that we never irrigate our garden here. Three weeks without rain is nearing a drought in our area of North Taranaki but I hasten to add that we also enjoy high sunshine hours. Much of the world is brown in summer and areas with winter drought or very low temperatures can be brown (or white) in winter, too. We are green fifty two weeks of the year.

As I brought in the washing yesterday, I contemplated the view from the line which includes the modest back border of the house. I say modest because it is the typical New Zealand house border which runs between the path and the house and so it measures about 50cm wide and several meters long. It is not always easy to know what to grow in a narrow border which is cool dry shade in summer and downright cold dry shade in winter but I did think it was looking rather lush, green and attractive yesterday. There are no flowers out at the moment so it was toned green on green and all about leaf texture and shape. The lapagerias clamber up to to reach the guttering and give height. These are commonly known as Chilean bell flowers and we have a towering pale pink one, a teetering huge white one and a red one all in a row with a daphne bush marking one end. There is good textural variation in the fine foliage of a maiden hair fern, the strappy leaves of a cymbidium orchid, a rather understated green hosta and the large, lush leaves of scadoxus, all underplanted with the mouse plant (arisarum). This last plant can be somewhat invasive but it has nowhere to invade in such a confined border and children are enchanted by the curious flowers. At other times of the year, the lapagerias flower and we have seasonal bulbs that come through but for the heat of summer, it made rather a nice restful picture of green.

Restful, simple green gives a breathing space in a busy garden. Most of us achieve this with lawns where the expanse of green is a little like letting out a sigh of relief. Paved patios and decking just do not give this sense of spacious rest even if they don’t need mowing. Mind you, I was raised by a keen gardener who decided that lawns had no merit. She would rather weed and maintain additional garden than mow a lawn. Widowed early, she never got to grips with mowing. I can remember when I was about nine we moved in to a house where the lawns were rather too extensive to manage with the old push mower. She bought a motor mower. After three days and a couple of site visits from the salesman, the shop took the mower back and refunded her money. They were probably deeply relieved to be shot of her. My mother’s aura did not mix with a motor mower. It would not start for her and she decided it was jinxed. She never tried to make the acquaintance of a mower again. She simply dispensed with grass. Now I think she was wrong and it did not suit her to see the role played in garden design by the restful green space.

The green circle carried off with style and panache at Sissinghurst

The green circle carried off with style and panache at Sissinghurst

No doubt many readers have been to Sissinghurst in England. Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson employed a radical device in that garden to create a space – a simple circle of grass surrounded by a high clipped green hedge (probably yew). In the wrong hands, this could look overly contrived, or even naff in a suburban New Zealand quarter acre garden. But in all the busy-ness that characterises the arts and crafts garden rooms of Sissinghurst, filled with colour and texture, this simple green circle gave a place to pause. There was nothing to assault the senses. The circular lawn, viewed from above, as one can because of the splendid tower (not to be confused with a viewing platform – the tower is a relic of the former castle) is neatly and obediently striped. They may not wish to unleash a creative or careless lawn mowing person on that lawn – a spiral, bulls-eye or even an untidy mishmash would not look as perfect as the wide and precise stripes.

At Hidcote Manor, Major Lawrence Johnston from a similar era and also with a busy arts and crafts garden full of small garden rooms, achieved a similar purpose with his Long Walk and his circular area – simply referred to as The Circle. The Long Walk is appropriately long, running on an axis spanning over half the garden and it is simply a generously wide mown strip of grass (no manicured lawn here – this was indubitably grass) bounded on both sides by tall hornbeam hedges. The Circle was tidy lawn bounded by clipped hedges and some rather large and splendid topiary birds.

Think of it all as the gardening equivalent of the sorbet to cleanse the palate between courses at an elaborate dinner party. A sorbet would be OTT at an informal barbecue but it is entirely appropriate at a banquet.

A good garden designer (the operative word is good) will understand the juxtaposition of uncluttered space and detail – that is one of their techniques. The reality is that most home gardeners in this country either can’t afford a good garden designer or they prefer not to. The DIY green space is the lawn. While technically green is a colour, in gardening practice it is perceived as colour neutral like the off white walls of the interiors of many houses. Defining the boundaries of that green space, maybe with clipped hedging, gives it more oomph as long as it is immaculately maintained. However, the imposed formality of the perfect circle needs to be managed carefully – you really need your proportions and context right. There is a fine line between circles with panache and being contrived, or worse – pretentious. The sweep of lawn is safer.

It was a revelation to us to see how effective the deliberate green breathing space was in both Sissinghurst and Hidcote. But most gardens will benefit from the framing that a green lawn provides and in the heat of summer, it makes even more sense.