Garden Lessons: Design: Space and Movement


If your garden is larger than a small patch, you may want to create a garden entryway- a gate, an arbor, a sheltering tree. Emphasize and highlight it. It announces to the visitors’ subconscious,”Pay attention. Enjoy. Look and notice.” An entry, even a simple one, is a silent announcement that “You are now entering a special space, a created place, that reflects much work and love.”

An entryway sets the tone for the garden- formal, casual, rustic, naturalistic, exotic, quirky. A welcome gesture is very appropriate. Consider posting a framed quote or poem, a self-written invitation, or just a simple ” welcome.” Make the entry part of a vignette, with pillar plantings like matching conifers, perennials or flowering containers (that are permanent or that change with the seasons.)

As with the overall design of the garden, consider an entryway that, once entered, reveals only a partial view of the garden. Let the entering visitor have a peak, a tease, so the mystery will draw them in. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. The simplest way is by designing a curving entrance path with plantings that obscure the full view, revealing more as the path progresses. Another device could be a long densely planted arbor, like those in the photos below. Travelling through this intimate space, the visitor’s attention is on the arbor, but as its end is reached, the view simultaneously opens up to the sky and the open garden. Even a simple gate can increase the entry drama, as the gate hitch causes a visitor’s attention to first be fixed on the unlatching of the gate; then, as the gate opens, one catches their first view of the garden. Stepping stones or ground level plantings will also draw the visitor’s view down, increasing the element of surprise when they look up. Gates and arbors also make for good transitions between garden rooms or different garden spaces.

The primary entryway into our ‘Retum begins at the back of our paved driveway, with an arbor covered with clematis and passion flower vines which are planted in large glazed pots at the foot of each arbor post. These pots are joined by a variety of tropical and annual container plantings that take advantage of the full sun situation and the reflected heat of the driveway surface. A nearby fountain provides an aural welcome and begins the water theme that is repeated throughout the gardens.

After passing through the arbor, one immediately steps down onto a deep sunken path where dense plantings are close to the touch and trees arch over the path. One can see only a short distance ahead and when that point is reached, the path turns sharply and the vista opens up to the sky and two large flanking garden beds. As one travels through the gardens and the various garden rooms, the paths frequently drop or rise with the changing contours of the land. This causes the visitor to adopt a different rhythm, slowing down and seeing more.


Sunken Paths

Unless you are fortunate enough to have an isolated property in the country, you may be one of the millions of gardeners who wish their neighbors’ houses were not so close to them. We count ourselves among those gardeners and we have developed a number of design practices in response to the situation. Our property is a small suburban lot with nearby houses on two sides. When we first moved here, it was already surrounded by a new stockade fence, but that did not block the view enough for us. Six feet can do little to obstruct looming houses. To solve our problem with insufficient visual privacy, we did not look to build a taller fence. Rather, for our solution, we looked down. Now the perimeter of our property, where neighbor awareness is highest, has a series of sunken paths. These paths, 1-2′ below grade, have given us the effect of an eight foot fence without the accompanying loss of light and the potential bureaucratic and legal morass of applying for a variance for said fence.

Sinking our paths has had other benefits as well. As the plantings are much closer to eyes and fingertips, visitors have a much more intimate garden experience. Sinking the paths also enables many medium size ornamental trees to be planted much closer to a path because the visitor passes under the lower branches rather than brushing up against them. We have a Korean dogwood planted 4′ from the edge of our sunken entrance path. Physically, this only works because the path is sunken and the lowest branches of the dogwood -arch over our heads. In other spots, we often find ourselves tying back or pruning tree branches to allow for easier passage. Either way, the experience here at the ‘retum is definitely “Up close and personal”!

In addition, the narrow deep paths cause visitors to slow down their normal pace. After passing through the entry arbor, their first step in the gardens is down and onto the sunken entry path, so they are immediately introduced and acclimated to this ‘new way of walking.’ When we began our first sunken path, we did not know what would happen on the steeply sloped path sides. What we found out is that plants of many varieties love the drainage afforded by the slopes. They seed themselves prolifically and quickly cover the steep sides. Every spring, after the inevitable erosion from winter rains and snows, we re-establish the sunken paths. Working with the drop in grade are the trees that we have planted along the fences. We have carefully chosen medium trees with canopies that block the view of neighboring houses as you travel through the gardens. Tall trees would be a bad choice for a number of reasons. Compared to medium trees, they would block more sun and throw more shade and most importantly, not block the view of the houses. We chose a combination of Japanese maples, ornamentals like flowering cherries and purple leaf plums, conifers, Acer negundo, Heptacodium and Cornus kousa. Their canopies begin at about 4- 6′, and at their mature height, will top out at about 20′. To provide visual variety, we have planted some taller specimens like Robinia frisia , liriodendron, tri colored beech and Cledastrus lutea, some with non-dense canopies, others sited where their shade is not detrimental.

In the part of our gardens where we seek to block out traffic and not houses, we have sunk down even deeper paths. We began creating this area by building the grade up some 4′, with many truckloads of loam and compost. We dug a path that bissected the new hill and sank it 3′ below grade, creating The Chasm. A natural wall of shrubs, conifers and tall ornamental grasses separates the visitor from the busy street and creates an intimate sense of enclosure. By mid-summer when deciduous shrubs and ornamental grasses have leafed out, one can no longer see even the tops of passing vehicles from the chasm path or its secluded bench. We have also constructed there a tall waterfall whose sounds help drown out those of traffic. The chasm walls are covered with a variety of tenacious groundcovers that also revel in the great drainage.( Also see Design: Plants: Plants for Steep Slopes; and Design: The View: Techniques for Increasing Privacy)


Garden Rooms and Sitting Nooks

Seating is an important consideration in garden design. One is always drawn to the quiet nook, a place to rest and contemplate and take in the view. A seat can be placed under a tree to provide shelter from rain or heat and can also be situated in gazebos, shade huts, arbors and other architectural features. As much as you care about the plant design in your gardens, garden seats should be carefully chosen to reflect the style of their particular space.

Garden seats lend themselves to partnering with water features, fences, hedges, flower borders and large trees. They are excellent focal points for creating small vignettes or garden rooms. The more varied experiences a garden can provide, the more enticing it will be. Even in a small back yard garden, consider creating at least one sitting area that is not out in plain sight, but that is tucked away and from which you cannot survey the entire garden. Around this chair or bench, create a garden room that will have its own identity and feeling. For a real sense of peace and privacy, position trees and shrubs or architectural features so that one cannot see from one garden room into another.



Water and Sound

The ‘Retum sits on a very busy road and we soon realized that to enable the garden to give us a relaxing experience, we needed the soothing sound of water to counteract the sound of traffic. As I contemplated this, I remembered a key lesson from the Environmental Design classes I took with M.I.T’s great Kevin Lynch in the 1970′s. Water is one of the most meaningful elements for humans; it satisfies both visually and aurally. In our class surveys of students’ earliest memories, we found that, for the great majority, water held the key spot.

Introducing water into the gardens here, we began with the simpler solution, fountains, and eventually dug ponds and constructed waterfalls, and then added more fountains. Now, as visitors travel through the gardens, they are continually accompanied by the sound of water, one sound fading out as another sound comes in, beginning with our largest fountain and ending with our largest waterfall. While the fountains and water planters are incidental design elements, the small ponds with waterfalls are the focal point of every garden room, complete with a shady sitting nook for listening and looking. Birds provide music and movement around the water features as well. Glazed pots and other decorative water tubs make very attractive containers for canna, colocasia, water lilies and other aquatic perennials and tropicals. They are often best viewed at a height, supported by columns or pedestals.(see Garden Lessons: Techniques, for adapting glazed pots)

Water-loving Iris will make hearty soilless unpotted clumps in the bottom of shallow ponds, as they would in nature. The moist environment of a waterfall is very conducive to the lush growth of surrounding plants. Sunny sites have endless possibilities, but in shady spots, moss and lamium groundcovers are very helpful with visually anchoring the water feature in its green surroundings. The butter yellow flowered vining groundcover Lamiastrum galeobdolon variegatum is particularly useful, quickly gamboling over the rocks that form the pond’s edge and making even a new pond look long-situated. For ponds without waterfalls or fountains, pond fish will add a valuable kinetic aspect to the view of water.
Water is one aural element of a good garden and the written word can be another. Poems, single words, phrases or quotes- printed, painted, carved or chiseled- can provide sound whether read aloud or to oneself. Placement of the written pieces is important and should be carefully chosen. Entry gates, fences, trees and sitting nooks are all spots where words can add to the garden experience. As with non-plant garden elements, choose writings carefully. Avoid the temptations of mass produced trite sayings and use pieces that are especially meaningful for you. Wind chimes, gongs, Japanese deer clackers, and innovative artworks can be other sources for sound in the garden. All can emit sound on their own but can also invite interaction with visitors. Of course, bird presence can be one of the more pleasant aural experiences in a garden. Water is a natural draw for birds as are certain berry, fruit and seed bearing plants. A very successful practice for a bird-friendly garden is keeping trees and conifers pruned/thinned out to allow for bird movement and nesting.

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