By design.

One question I’ve been asked more than once by our garden visitors is whether our garden was designed to be as it is or evolved into it. People phrase such questions in a variety of ways and may be asking from a strongly approving or disapproving standpoint, it’s not always easy to tell.

I tend to say that providing each plant with optimal conditions is my overriding consideration, which imposes a degree of order in that it often throws together plants that look as if they belong together. I explain that we don’t entirely ignore unsatisfactory colour combinations but that the only rule we set ourselves is that the garden should not be dull.

There are other design elements that get some consideration, I think lots of contrast in shape, texture and colour makes things more interesting, that you need some big elements even in a fairly small space, that airy tall things that don’t completely obscure views are useful. All pretty straightforward and uncontroversial.

The word design is usually used in the context of creating a landscape from scratch in a planned way. There was a point in every part of our garden where an area was cultivated and planted from nothing but it’s not what happens now in the main. Very rarely will an area of any size get cleared and replanted, just individual plants or small groups of plants. Even so, decisions have to made about what stays and what goes, and about which plants are chosen to go in. Design has become an ongoing process rather than a one off event. That will be the case even with a designed garden, it will change over time and decisions will need to be made about how to manage the changes.

New people moved into a house at the back of us a couple of years ago. For the last several weeks there has been a man working in the garden; banging, slab cutting, pouring gravel. The fence is too high to see over but I have climbed up onto the bank and peeked over. I may know next to nothing about good design but I know appallingly bad design when I see it. When I looked this morning it was to see an amorous pair of gulls walking back and forth along a runway of slabs that are flanked by wide gravelled areas. A full on courtship display accompanied by a range of strange noises was what pushed my curiosity to breaking point.

Design must obviously work at a practical level, but mainly it is about appearance. Beauty is of course, in the eye of the beholder, with taste being as unfathomable in the horticultural arena as in any other. I went around our garden this morning with my camera, as I did a week ago, and the week before that; looking for photogenic views that stood up as pictures. It seemed as good a test of whether there was any decent design going on as any. Decent design! What does that even mean? What does it mean to me, or to you? The same thing, I doubt it.

Arguably, every garden has been designed, in the sense that decisions have been taken about how it should look. Given that some modern design is intended to create something that looks like the natural result of benign neglect, why should something that is the result of benign neglect be looked down on; it might even be better, it’s certainly more authentic.

Even when I get a viewpoint that translates readily to a picture, I still want to be able to move in and find it is composed of interesting plants, with perhaps some understorey things that are not visible at distance. It needs to work from a distance and from close up. It also needs to work at different seasons, and not because it consists of unchanging evergreens. Change is vital, I think you soon stop looking at a view that never changes.

Another question I’ve had two or three times is what do I feed the garden with. The short answer is nothing. But I do look after the soil, which is a whole different can of worms and not a short answer at all..

11 thoughts on “By design.

  1. Your garden is testament to good design, whether by accident or intuition. The views are lovely, plenty of colour and texture and form and unusual plants and one of these days I hope to see it in person, though not yet as we are unfortunately carless at least until early August.


    1. As of yesterday, the number of SoS’ers who have visited now stands at two. Carless down where you are must be quite tricky. I keep having different thoughts about garden design. I think because I am a very involved gardener I want other people to become involved with their gardens in a similar way and of course most people have other interests and have no desire to give their garden anything like the time I have given mine over many years.

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    1. You, like me, have been deeply engaged with your garden over a long period so most decisions are considered over a good length of time, sometimes years, before being implemented, and they take account of all that we have learned about how things do in our patch of ground; so very much more considered.

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  2. I was thinking about the first comment on the post, but I can’t see it, which I am pleased about. It probably reflected my mood, however I was going to apologise and add that many of the questions regarding your garden shows a willing interest and praise for your skills in presenting the garden as it is today.


  3. A garden like yours doesn’t just happen, a lot of thought and consideration must have been given to the design of it. Unlike an interior room a garden is never finished and constantly evolves so new design decisions are needed all of the time. As one of the SoS’ers who has visited your beautiful garden it’s plain to see that you make very, very good design decisions.

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  4. It is amusing how we all develop our gardens so differently. Even my colleague down south, who is a well known landscape designer, is constantly changing his garden, which was ‘sort of’ designed years ago. I am certainly no designer, but, except for the vegetable garden, not much changes in my garden once the permanent features are installed, . . . in straight lines and with impeable symmetry, like an orchard.

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