You start to plan a new garden —or perhaps consider changes to an existing one—and immediately ideas start to swirl in your head. Where do these ideas come from and how in the world do you harness them to create a garden?
Speaking personally, my garden inspirations run the gamut, from nebulous visions to tangible specifics. And they come from all directions: especially my personal aspirations about the role of a garden in my life; the opportunities and challenges of the land; images of other gardens; my desire to connect with the natural world and the wider landscape; and last, but by no means least, from the imagery of the visual arts of painting and photography.
As I set out to design a garden, I attempt to embrace all these, combining the practical needs of the gardener with a vision of special or unexpected opportunities.
What follows is my personal philosophy of garden design and how I am impacted by these inspirations.
Reading the land
First and foremost, a well-designed garden must respond to the opportunities and challenges of the site itself.
Individual properties run the gamut, from a wide-open country space surrounded by woods and fields, to an enclosed urban venue that is a world unto itself. Add to that: your ground may be flat or sloped, wooded or open, with shade or sun.
So the first stage in designing a compelling garden is to embrace to the site and all that it has to offer. This quotation of Beatrix Farrand, which she said came from her teacher and mentor, Charles Sprauge, captures the feeling: ‘Make the plan to fit the ground— do not twist the ground to fit the plan’.
Gardens are personal
Our gardens reflect our own feelings and emotions, aspirations and beliefs, and a garden is a special opportunity to create a world apart that is uniquely ours.
Many of us are driven by a fervent belief that all gardens should be designed to be sustainable, in concert with the larger environment and as a legacy for those who come after us.
Everyone brings practical interests to the discussion; whether a desire to grow food or dry laundry; or to create a place for friends and family to enjoy and play.
In addition, we all have our different in gardening appetites. One person may want a bold splash of color around the front door. Someone else may be looking to create life-long masterpiece that will require considerable dedication of time and money. Recognizing your personal gardening appetite will go a long way to ensuring you do not become a slave to your garden.
Images of other gardens
We all carry in our heads images of gardens we have visited, whether last month or a decade ago, and from the absurd to the delightful. And as we contemplate our own spaces, these images from another place or another time can oftentimes inspire us.
We may envision a garden we have visited in person, perhaps even many years ago. But equally likely we may recall a ‘virtual visit’ to a wide variety of gardens through the medium of books and photographs.
And the images we conjure up may be that of an entire garden or perhaps the expansive sweep of a bed, and all the way down to an up-close remembrance of a beautiful group of plants.
The trick is not to try to slavishly copy other gardens, but rather to garner a sense of what was appealing about them, and how or whether any of the ideas could effectively translate into your own world.
From the world of art
Like painting a picture, garden design involves the contemplation and manipulation of shapes and spaces, colors and textures. So it should come as no surprise that oftentimes the world of art can both inspire and inform us as gardeners.
Taking the time to study how different artists employ spatial design, the relative weight they give to the foreground versus the background, and how colors are blended and juxtaposed, will add to our sensitivity as gardeners
It is interesting to note that the reverse may be true as well— gardens can inspire art. Monet’s garden, which the artist created specifically to be a subject for his painting, is probably the best-known example, but many contemporary painters and photographers find ample subject matter in their gardens.
It is especially interesting to see how painters use the two-dimensional space of a canvas and how that can translate to the three-dimensional world of garden design.
The nature connection
Any garden, whether it be a compact allotment or an expansive estate, is a wonderful opportunity to connect with the natural world in some way or form—something that is sorely missing in most people’s lives today.
Even the most sophisticated among us will find something precious and enriching about seeing birds and butterflies, insects and wildlife, up close and in all seasons. So it follows that this visceral desire for a connection with nature will drive both our plants choices and our gardening practices.
From the landscape beyond
And finally, the aesthetics of the wider landscape that surrounds the garden– in my case it is rural Vermont– plus a well-honed understanding of the plants that thrive on this climate, also strongly influences my garden design work.
This is a centuries old concept, most fully developed in the Japanese gardening tradition, where the natural landscape is the inspiration behind simplicity of the raked sand and carefully positioned rocks in a Zen garden, to the meticuously pruned shrubs and trees in a Japanese courtyard garden.
Always the intent is not a copy the wider landscape, but rather to interpret it on a garden scale, and to create a garden that harmonizes with the environment in which it is situated.
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