Thinking inside the box

Most of us start gardening because we like plants or fall in love with flowers. So we go to a nursery and buy whatever’s blooming that will fit into our vehicles and budgets. Once home, we try to fit our purchases into the garden, and the next week when the weather is fine, we repeat the process.

We don’t stop shopping when the sun stops shining, either: In winter, we spend hours poring over catalogs and Web sites, ogling perfect portraits and reading irresistible copy penned by the best minds on Madison Avenue. Then we place orders for all the wonderful treasures we covet.

But 10 years — and many plants — later, we may wake up and realize that even though we have a yard full of plants and flowers, something’s missing. Usually that something is not another tree or bulb or flower. What’s missing is design.

For many gardeners, thinking about design comes late or never, even if they vaguely sense that something is amiss as they scan their weed-free lawns dotted with beautifully grown specimens and cool rarities. What they have are yards full of plants, not gardens.

When design is mentioned, most gardeners feel intimidated, thinking it’s the provenance of landscape architects with advanced degrees. But just as there are certain basic principles of plant cultivation that gardeners can master, there are some basic design principles that beginners can understand. It’s important to keep in mind that these are principles, not laws, and they’re meant to be tempered by individual needs and tastes. Even a few well-applied principles can make an enormous difference to a garden’s success.

When gardeners concentrate on individual plants — and especially on flowers — they often neglect what designers call framework or structure. This is analogous to our skeletal system, which supports all our organ systems. Without it, we would be amoeboid blobs of tissue, and without structure, a landscape often feels amorphous, incomplete.

Sometimes a particularly skillful gardener, by dint of horticultural expertise, can seem to overcome structural flaws by cultivating particularly beautiful or interesting plants. But the lack of structure will usually become apparent during late fall and winter when the skeleton of the garden is exposed. Even expertly grown plants are greatly enhanced by the addition of structure to the garden.

One of the primary structural principles that’s come down from the Middle Ages is framing or enclosing an area to separate and define the space. This originally translated into walled gardens — protected, secure spaces in a hostile world. Designer Joe Eck reminds us that the word “garden” is derived from the old German word “gart,” which means an enclosure or safe space.

And while most of us don’t live in a literally hostile environment, our frantic, noisy world is in many ways equally disagreeable. Research shows that we are genetically programmed to feel more secure in defined, protected spaces. Aesthetically, defining and enclosing a space helps us focus on it, rather than getting distracted by all that lies beyond its boundaries. Just as we frame works of art to enhance the aesthetic experience, we also need to frame the garden to heighten our enjoyment of it.

The first task in creating structure in the garden is imposing boundaries. But the physical enclosure doesn’t have to be an impervious masonry wall, which most of us could not afford. You can use any number of things to define the space: shrubs, trees, conifers, masonry, wood, wrought iron or a combination of materials. The walls can be as opaque or transparent, as high or as low as you like. But by defining the space, you are taking the first step in creating a garden, as opposed to simply having a yard.

[Edmund Taylor runs Swallowtail Garden Designs and experiments with lots of plants in his Madison County garden.]

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