Elements of Garden Design

Joe Eck

North Point Press

Elements of Garden Design
Part I
Like all the arts, gardening must be guided by an intention. For many, that intention will be to recreate some other garden, one that seems, from childhood memory or adult experience, ideally beautiful. For others, nature will be the model, and the garden, on a smaller scale, will exist to remind them of a natural landscape--an alpine meadow, a field of wildflowers, or a shady woodland walk. But many of us, in making our gardens, are guided less by examples in the mind than by a simple passion for plants. And although all gardeners love plants, they love them for very different reasons, and so make their gardens from very different impulses.
Some gardeners want to be collectors; they are addicts given to the pleasure that comes from owning simply all of something--every variety in the species, every species in the genus, every genus in the family. Others are lovers of color, of rich masses of it crushed together in great romantic sweeps or shifting from shade to shade in subtle adumbration (yellow to yellow-ivory to rich cream to milk-white to chalk to ...). Still others love plants for their perfume, endlessly varied and susceptible to minute discrimination, one from another. ("The smell of nutmeg," a greatnose once told me, "is really twelve distinct fragrances. Three of them are not pleasant.") And then there are botanists, whose interest lies in the infinite articulation of nature's order. ("It's a homely plant, to be sure, but it is the only member of its genus that is circumpolar.") Each of these intentions--and a thousand others--can result in the making of a beautiful garden, but only by acknowledging both the problems each poses and the solutions, successful or not, that other gardeners have attempted.
The problem posed by the collector's garden is one of sameness. Gardens composed chiefly of roses or lilacs, irises or daylilies or rhododendrons can fatigue even those who share the gardener's passion, for they are really but the vast multiplication of a single idea. Even the most beautiful gardens of this kind--Bagatette, for example, with its roses or Keukenhof with its masses of tulips--can be reduced in the eyes of a demanding critic to bloom on bloom and yet more bloom. Public or private, they are what one might call "tourists' gardens," the beauty of which might be breathtaking to visitors at their peak, but hardly sustainable throughout the growing year. They are only a step away from the growing fields, and there is neither quiet nor refreshment in them, because each garden unfolds all it has to offer at a single glance.
But the gardens of collectors need not reveal their intention at the first step we take into them. I know a garden of primitive plants, cycads chiefly, that still achieves in the dominant interest that governs it the qualities of variety and surprise. Its success lies in part in its terrain, a steeply sloping hillside threaded with paths and terraces that are hidden one from the other. But the gardener has also wisely varied his collection with other complementary plants--palms, aloes, and staghorn ferns--to create not just a sense of a primitive landscape, but also almost the idea of it, as if one were standing on the real bricks and looking at the real plants, transported into a landscape in the mind, a spot in the world--or its history--quite "someplace else."
The gardens of colorists face challenges of a different order. When one views a garden, the eye registers--often unconsciously--not merely color but also mass, volume, shape, and line. Gardens organized with an eye only to color, however successful its orchestration from shade to shade, often lack solidity even at the height of their season. One longs for a firm line, a satisfying neutral mass, an authoritative defining presence. And when not in flower, gardens that depend on color alone lack everything. It is for this reason that the carpet bedding still practiced in our large public parks is so unsatisfactory. One cannot look at such a plenitude of color without seeing the empty earth beneath. Conversely, the famous white garden at Sissinghurst is endlessly satisfying because it joins the finesse of its color scheme to the steady sustaining forces of yew hedge and green, trimmed boxwood and pavement.
The gardens of botanists, to give one last example, are concerned with scholarship. Their intention is the celebration of botanical or geographic relationships, sometimes to the minutest particular. At their worst, they can remind one rather forcefully of the dusty old-fashioned natural history museums to which one was taken as a child. They are not so much gardens as cases in which "specimens" are cataloged. If such plantings are to succeed as gardens, some larger and simply beautiful structure must embrace the botany. No better example of success in this regard existsthan in Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco, where a defining frame of tall plants and trees surrounds the Arthur Menzies collection of native plants. A magnificent dry streambed structures it within, and a rondel of aged limestone defines its heart. The result is a satisfying picture during all seasons, even in the dead of winter and even to gardeners who may have no particular interest in the rich flora of California native plants.
A particular intention does not of itself yield a successful garden. One may have the clearest idea of what one wishes to create, but an idea--however necessary it may be as a starting point--still exists only in the mind. Its success will lie in its concrete realization, in the arrangement of treasured plants within a framework of less transitory elements, of trees, shrubs, hedges, pavement, architecture. Lucky is the gardener who begins with a clear intention, even though, as with all aesthetic impulses, it must be subject to endless adjustments, additions and deletions, delicate tamperings. Most of us, however, come to consider the dominant intention of our gardens rather late in our gardening life. ("I have begun to realize," a wise gardening friend once said to me, "that I have not actually made a garden. I have only made a nursery.") There is a point, after we have acquired our favorite plants and learned to grow them well, when we realize that the parts of our garden do not actually make up a whole. It is at that point that we begin to crave an intention, an idea that will make of the garden a unified whole, an aesthetic entity.
Fortunately, at that point, one need not go it alone. One can turn to memory, to the wisdom of other garden makers, to gardens one has lived in, or visited, or merely read about. For this much is certain: Gardening, like all the other arts, is not finally a private act. Whatever their personal passions--to collect, to gratify the sense of sight or smell, to study--gardeners are engaged in a colloquy, in a rich and complex conversation between garden and garden, gardener and gardener, living, dead, and yet to be born. The subject of that conversation is both the definition and the achievement of a beautiful and satisfying place.
Copyright © 1995, 2005 by W Joseph Eck