January might be the most important month in the garden calendar; it is the time when we can stop fussing and start thinking.
Perhaps you have just moved to a place where the garden is nonexistent or old and tired, and in either case needs a fresh start. Perhaps you have a part of the yard that needs redoing, or you are simply pondering how you set about crafting a garden.
From the safe tether of a soft chair, you can soar to the heady heights of landscape design, which is the most important but least considered aspect of garden-making.
Plants bring life, sculpture, texture, color and more to the garden, but they need a framework. I’ve known plant geeks whose entire yards are random collections of favored flora. They are places that are wholly enthralling to their creators, but to no one else.
Every garden needs a coherent structure. Design is pragmatic — it creates safe steps instead of muddy slopes — but it also drives scale, sets the mood and establishes a spirit of the place.
In the 1960s, Geoffrey Jellicoe, a giant of 20th-century landscape architecture, wrote a book with his wife, Susan, that described the two essential elements as “form” and “content.”
Form “is the disposition of space,” they wrote in “Modern Private Gardens.” The photos in the book, of mid-century modern houses and gardens, are in black and white and not particularly flattering, but they reveal a real paucity of plantings that, to my eye, actually deflates the central argument. There is too much form and not enough content.
Since the 1960s, we have enjoyed a horticultural revolution; far more ornamental plants are at hand along with an accepted need to use them in more natural ways. But this surfeit requires a keener sense of restraint to avoid a formless jumble.
Jellicoe, for a while, had formed a design partnership with another great modernist, Russell Page. Whenever I want to be recharged, I read Page’s classic “The Education of a Gardener” for his masterful insights and his gift of taking visual concepts and putting them into words.
Page’s fundamental approach to garden design was forged when, as an art student, he was told: “Know what it is you want to say, then try and express it as simply as you can.”
He wrote that “all the good gardens I have ever seen, all the garden scenes that have left me satisfied were the result of just such reticence; a simple idea developed just as far as it could be.”
The same sentiment is expressed by the Washington landscape architect James van Sweden, another designer who drew on art in making gardens. Van Sweden, who died in September, wrote (with Tom Christopher, in “The Artful Garden”) that to achieve restraint it helps to turn to abstract art when you are planning a garden. By thinking about abstract concepts such as the relationship of forms and space, you avoid getting distracted by anticipating the tangible elements of a built and planted garden. Van Sweden wrote: “It is a mistake to treat space, as so many gardeners do, as if it is elastic.” Gardeners “are prone to believe that there is always room for another specimen.”
All this talk of art might suggest that color is an essential structural element of garden building, but it is not; it actually serves as a trap for the unsuspecting.
A century ago, the landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll popularized and stylized the perennial-rich cottage garden. She introduced gardeners to color sequences and effects, and over the years we became mesmerized by the idea that the Jekyllesque herbaceous border was the apex of horticulture.
Apart from the fact that color is content rather than form, a garden built solely on color effect can take over your life. If you want a 100-foot border in, say, blues, violets, silvers and whites from April to October, you have to become a plant expert and a constant gardener.
The results can be thrilling in the hands of floral supremos. I will never forget visiting Hadspen House in southern England a few years ago, where Canadian horticulturists Nori and Sandra Pope had taken the bones of an old, historic walled garden and turned it into, essentially, a flower border that was half a mile long and arranged in blocks of color.
The garden became world famous for its artistry, and the Popes wrote a book about their work, “Color in the Garden.” In a noisy, strutting world bombarded by color, they sought to tame the floral prism through artful groupings that were also mindful of other elements of design — “shape, form, texture and rhythm.” But it was the color that one saw predominantly, and it was thrilling to see on such a scale.
The garden, later and controversially, was removed by the owner of the property. Or, as the New York Times recounted afterward: “The Popes’ approach to gardening was so labor-intensive that when they retired in 2005, their garden could not survive without them.”
It is better for the home gardener, perhaps, to experiment with color on a much more limited basis. This can be done with tulips, where you can play with color contrasts and harmonies for a couple of weeks, and cheaply. If they turn out badly, you haven’t done permanent damage. You can also try color combinations in planters.
In assembling more permanent plants, it is better to try for groupings and contrasts of shape and leaf texture. This is a sounder way to decorate the “content” of your garden, and it works as well in the shade garden as one blessed with sunlight.
Page designed on a grand scale for deep-pocketed clients, but he made the point that the same principles of design apply to the humblest of spaces.
With the blank canvas of my small community garden plot — just 25 square feet — I found that by giving form to its terraces, deer fencing, paths and raised growing beds, it achieved that golden mean of form and content.
It took shape first on a piece of paper and, before that, in my January thinking chair.
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