ARCHITECTURE IS the mother of gardening, and more gardeners come to grief through architecture than from any other cause.
Some gardeners, I admit, are happy in a woods and their own brains are so strong that they require nothing in the way of organized space. They do not need architecture, I admit, but are happy with the way things are.
But it's my strong impression that most gardeners will not be content with their lot until the boundaries are accepted, the garden is not going to just happen, no matter how big the oaks get, until the gardener intervenes and takes over.
Here is the common pattern of discontent:
A lot is acquired with a house on it and the owner (who always likes roses, say) plants some rose bushes. They don't do very well, so he learns what to do, then they do quite well.
So his roses are just fine, but he doesn't get much kick out of them, and wonders why some people get so fanatical about gardening. His roses are better than theirs, after all but the whole thing leaves him a little indifferent.
Well. I don't know that we need any more fanatics, and maybe it's best to leave the sleeping dog (as you might say) alone with his five bushes and his general unawareness of the heights and depths that fanatical gardeners so regularly traverse.
So we leave aside those who commune with nature as they find her, and we do not disturb those who plant five roses and are happy ever after, or who at least do not want anything more.
But that still leaves millions who want more and don't know what.
Once there was the lady of Hattiesburg who wrote that she needed help quick: "My gardenia is trying to bloom and can't." And most of us gardeners are in that fix, at least to begin with, we want the garden to meet our dreams but we don't know how to start.
So this is only for those in that fix -- wondering how to start, or how to start over, and this brings me back to my first comment that architecture in the beginning. Architecture not in the sense of expensive stone, oak timbers, marble pools or even brick tool sheds, but architecture in the sense of organized and exalted space.
In plain words, you start with the garden boundaries. You do not need to build an 8-foot brick wall on the lot line, even if you can afford it.
But you do need to plant things that enclose space.
If there is a particularly fine view of a parking lot with telephone poles and loading dock of a discount store as well, it is hard to believe a few plants can make it all go away.
Usually the best place in the garden to sit is just outside the house, and usually that is where some weather-proof surface and some chairs should be installed.A terrace or patio, in other words.
You then look all around you. If there is a great tower or the Capitol dome or something else dandy in the view, don't block it out.
But otherwise (getting back to the fine view of the parking lot) hold up your hand in front of your eyes and see where you need blobs to block out things.
The first correct agony of the gardener, then, is to decide what those blobs should be, that will serve to shut out the garden's surrounding eyesores. b
Needless to say there are two general approaches: small 6-foot creatures like the upright yew will serve, if you plant it right at the edge of your terrace. But the farther you go toward your garden boundary, the larger the plant neeeds to be to serve as a screen. How big it needs to be is easily determined.
Suppose you don't want plants up close, and decide you want that gas station screened by a plant along the fence. Simply stick up a pole and see how high it has to be higher than the offending view.
If it has to be 14 feet, then plant something that will do the job. Maybe a dogwood, or a hawthorn, a sourwood, a false-cypress or a vigorous rose on stout poles or a wisteria. The choice is almost endless, which is where the agony begins.
You must choose. If you decide on a dogwood, clearly you cannot have the hawthorn or the rose in that spot. Now as you visually go round the boundaries, holding up your hand or various poles so that neighbors think you have gone mad, you will notice that to block an ulgy view from a side of the garden 50 feet long you will not actually need a row of dogwoods or even a screen of dogwoods, roses, hawthorns and so forth. Often two well-sited shrubs or small trees will screen the entire 50 feet from your view from the terrace.
A common mistake is to plant long solid screens, resulting in a lot more shade than is desirable, so that when the gardener finally gets around to the land inside the garden he finds the valley of the shadow -- gloomy and sunless. l
In general, of there is an alley along the north end of the garden that is the place for hollies and yews. There they will not cut off sun, and will temper the winter gales.
As much as possible, keep the south end of the garden open, unless of course your view from the sitting place is toward the south and toward the ugliest view from the garden. In that case, you of course screen the south, but plant no more than is strictly necessary for screening, and do not see how many large evergreens you can use.
Maybe a large evergreen shrub (the saw-tooth photinia, the green aucuba, Foster's holly, the "Gulftide" sweet olive, the evergreen eleagnus, Burford's holly) will do. And the rest of the screen to the south can be fleshed out with say, the rose acacia, such a rose as the rugosa "Sarah Van Fleet, "Maries' viburnum, the Hangkow willow or the golden locust (both of which can be whacked back if their feathery growth rises too high).
The point is, if you need a screen to the south, do not plant hemlocks, evergreen mangolias, incense cedars, deodar cedars, big hollies, pines, etc. You are going to need the sun, so block no more of the south that you absolutely need for screening.
Thinking as you go on planning for the north, west and south. That thorn will not be seen in isolation but in relation with the rest of the big plants you use along the garden boundaries.
When you have decided on a hawthorn, say, to block the ugly view on the east, that hawthorn must enter your thinking as you go on planning the north, west and east. That thorn will not be seen in isolation but in its relation with the rest of the big plants you use along the garden boundaries.
You may discover that the plants you have in your head for screening the various eyesores along the various boundaries are not really very good together. You may find the things you have in mind are a bit monotonous -- all blooming in the spring, say, or all of the same texture or the same shape (rounded, or else all spiky or else all horizontal in growth). You may decide that since the thorn blooms in May and has winter fruits, you will let some of the other screening plants be chosen for March or July bloom, or gorgeous color in October or rich deep green for January.
More commonly, you may find the plants you have chosen are so different from each other that the effect is restless.
That would certainly be my own problem.
I am one of those gardeners who wants one of everything and two of most. Which is fine, except the effect is restless and fussy.
You do not want these major plants to be dull -- all one thing. But you also don't want them to contrast every 10 feet so strongly that the eye can never rest.
The choosing is where the agony comes in. You say you can contrast the rounded near Washington thorn with the "Frisia" locust. But can you keep on, contrasting the locust with a Leyland cypress and the cypress with a dogwood and the dogwood with a gray buckthorn clump and the buckthorns with a variegated maple and on and on?
You can if you want to. But be sure you're going to like the restless effect. In general, take it easy on dramatic contrats. Seek variety in texture, shape, color, but don't see how startling you can be.
The new gardener will think he knows too little, and he is right.
If it's any comfort, we all know too little, and you must not be afraid to start. If we do everything wrong, it is correctable. If the effect is restless, for example, we may see that removing the golden locust and substituting a viburnum will restore the harmony.
But however well equipped we are in formal knowledge, we can after all use our eyes and look at plants growing in nurseries and other gardens and say, "Yes, that roundy thing with the berries would look good," and proceed right along.
Even at this point, you will notice, we are setting the priorities of agony right. We are not starting off with incorrect and out-of-order agonies, like the selection of yellow irises. (There are at least 1,000 different yellow irises, and choosing the ones you like best is a terrible pain, but it can be borne much later).
There is the matter of waiting. Let's say you have rightly diagnosed your first challenge as a gardener to be the screening out of terrible eyesores, and have spent your budget on the major plants that will accomplish this.
Be strong. You have done the right thing. The great working plants, the ones that screen out ugliness and set the tone, are rightly given your first attention, however inadequate they may seem as babies.
Later, when and if the budget revives, you can then pave the terrace, erect the arbor or summer house, pave the one big wide walk and build a water lily pool.
Then, when the budget revives again, you can plant the lilies and peonies and irises and cranesbills and lambs-ears and get on with your true passion in life which is, say, henbanes.
But we lay up disappointment for ourselves as gardeners if we race first to the dessert table and do not eat our grits, as it were.
What good are all our bright garden joys if we see them only with the supermarket loading dock as background, or on a summer's day can see them only by risking heat stroke, not having planned the place to sit under our vine and fig tree?
The most astounding thing in all gardening is that gardeners go to pieces over the beauty of some famous garden -- the one at Hidcote, say -- and knock themselves out for some bellflower that makes a gorgeous effect there.
Ignoring the fact that almost any other flower would be equally stunning in that particular location. Ignoring the genius of that garden which is not the pretty bellflower, but the enclosure of space in a veritble tapestry of textures, from clipped walls of yew to brick piers with pierced iron, with walks of certain proportions and the grade of the land handled a certain way, and the mirror sheet of water used a certain way and not some other way.
In such a setting the last element of consequence is the bellflower. The first element of consequence is the shaping of the space. Great gardens are not made by a profusion of architectural detail, not at all. You don't have to have the brick piers and the magnificient wrought metal or even the walls of yew or even the glory of a beautiful pool.
But what lies back of it, the greatest garden as well as the most satisfying garden no larger than an old-fashioned kitchen, is the command of space, the right ordering of volume. And this, with your 4-foot-tall hawthorn or dogwood, you have already begun to master.