Friday, December 2, 2011

Designy Thoughts

I've never been very designy about gardening--mostly, I find a neat plant and then find some place to stick it. But I'm trying to be a little more deliberate about our planting decisions (after our front beds suffered an overdose of the I-don't-know-let's-just-stick-it-here syndrome). As part of this effort, I recently bought a book that's just a fat little compendium of gardens.

Each garden gets a single page with a paragraph or two of text, which I thought at first was going to be annoyingly superficial. In the end, though, I think such a broad survey actually helps to clarify things that you hadn't ever articulated to yourself before. For example: I like topiary. I had no idea. I never thought I cared about topiary one way or another.  But many of the gardens I sticky-flagged were topiary embellished if not downright topiary-centric.

For example, I mentioned in a previous post how much I liked the use of topiary in the Bagatelle rose garden in France. I like how, in combination with the lawn and the trees in the background, the smooth green of the boxwood edging and the topiary cones keep the roses from being too gaudily overwhelming.

 The rose garden at the Bagatelle in France.  Image from

I also like how they impart structure and tidiness--roses being a bit apt to be blobby or scraggly.  And they provide height, as well, which is nice since roses tend to be short--the topiaries add drama and help integrate the rose garden with the background.  The columnar metal trellises, standard roses, and swags provide a similar punctuation mark sort of function--they help break the garden into discrete and intelligible chunks instead of its being an undifferentiated mass.

 Another view of the Roseraie at the Bagatelle in France.  Image from

The same concepts apply to this garden at Arley Hall in the UK.  A riot of a perennial bed, made intelligible by the pauses and cleanness provided by an immaculate green lawn, some austere topiary/hedges, and a brick wall.  I look at this example with particular interest because a perennial bed is alarming in much the same way as blank verse is--it's such a free-for-all. There are so few rules or guidelines.  How does the gardener (or poet) know where to begin?

Arley Hall's Herbaceous Border, Cheshire.  Image from 

The Foresters House in Wiltshire (couldn't find a pic online) by Preben Jakobsen, though much more contemporary, was similarly interesting.  It showed how you can choose a plant with a strong, dramatic structure (in this case, an iris), and use it in the perennial bed to slow down the viewer's eye at some strategic point.  It's like it gives your brain a place to pause and process.

Then there's the Birch Allee at the Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens in Ohio.

Birch Allee at the Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, Ohio.

The walk is actually much longer than this photo indicates. In the Garden Book photo, the base of the trees is planted, dully, with Asian jasmine.  And really, what we're talking about here is two long rectangles with a perfectly straight sidewalk in between. And yet, that long, golden walk with those pale, white birches is just so arresting. If I ever get a several-thousand-acre estate, I'll be sure to plant an allee just like this.

One of my very favorite gardens in the whole book had no flowers whatsoever--the curious topiary garden in the cloister at the Monasterio de San Lorenzo at Santiago de Compostela.  It is wonderfully strange, secret, and mysterious. What do all those endearingly stubby symbols mean? And why do they look Asian? Or possibly Mayan?  Unfortunately, there was exactly one photo of it on the internet (how is that possible?!?) and it is copyright protected (see link above).

I also liked Mottisfont Abbey, designed by the very same Graham Thomas for whom the lovely but maddening 'Graham Thomas' Austin rose was named.

Graham Stuart Thomas's garden as Mottisfont Abbey.  Image from

Once again, I think I was drawn to the contrast between formalism and informality. Somehow, I had never grokked onto the fact that a cottage garden can include formal elements like giant topiary pillars. I know it now, though...

But that's not really enough topiary. What you really need is nothing but grass, a pond, and a dozen or so gargantuan clipped yew pyramids.

The Stonehenge-like collection of weird giant topiary at Athelhampton Manor.  Image from Alice's Garden Travel Buzz

This is from the grounds of Athelhampton Manor in Dorset, UK.  I like it for all the reasons I would think that I wouldn't like it--it's austere, rigidly geometric, the colors are decidedly sombre, and it's utterly artificial.  But I love it.  Monumental, inexplicable pyramids towering over the visitor like Ents or moai or something. What every garden needs.

Finally, the book had a surprising number of Chinese garden windows, apparently known as "lou chuang." I couldn't find any really good examples online, though this one is certainly quite pretty:

What it doesn't capture is the way (some) Chinese gardeners use the windows in garden walls to artfully frame some particular scene or garden element, or combination of colors and textures. I'm hoping to someday make a western version of this in the fence by our pond to create (what I hope will be) an enticing glimpse of the pond as seen from the side of the house.

So that's it: topiaries and garden windows. I'm not really sure how to break this new development to Matt...

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