Newsletter Feature

GARDEN DESIGN (SECOND OF 3 PARTS): THE STRUCTURAL BONES OF A GARDEN by Barbara Shapiro

     Just as the human body gets its basic shape from its bones underlying the skin, muscles and organs, a garden acquires its basic shape from its bones. What are they? They are its structural elements: a concrete patio or wooden deck, trees that stand tall against the sky, shade structures, hard surfaced pathways, tall plants that have a vertical thrust, walls, expanses of hedges, any stretch of ground that has gravel or lawn and the shape of any garden beds. The eye sees these objects as solid blocky shapes and lines in a space. How they are made, arranged and viewed creates the first impression of overall harmony and design in a garden.

     An important principle about structure is to remember that the eye needs resting spaces as it moves along from place to place in a garden: it needs what in art is called “negative space”. These spaces tend to be like blanks that focus and highlight other items in the space. The basic structural elements of a garden can provide this. Think about a block or stucco tan or grey wall, a long green hedge, a flat concrete patio in a soft color, an expanse of short green grass, even an expanse of small grey or tan gravel. When these elements are subdued in color and uniform in effect, they allow the eye to see them as solid forms at rest, in contrast to all the color, texture and busyness of tumbling masses of restless green or flowering plants. They become a foil or backdrop so that the plants are seen more clearly by contrast of color and shape.

     Garden structural components can also serve the function of moving a visitor along through the garden: they tell him or her where to go, invite them to see something ahead, and act as a canvas for something interesting. A geometrically designed pathway made of gravel, concrete pads or flagstones can act in this fashion: it tells visitors where to walk and messages that it’s leading somewhere. At the same time, it does not draw attention to itself, but more at what’s ahead or alongside it. If it bends around a corner, it may suggest something hidden and something inviting.

     But too many flat geometric shapes can be boring. Consider the shapes that a suburban housing plot usually offers: most walls are flat and geometric in form, although they can sometimes curve. Concrete is usually laid geometrically, as are driveways and sidewalks. Houses comprise rectangular and square shapes, especially the stucco houses or bungalow style so common in Albuquerque. Bricks are geometric rectangles; garden beds often are rectangular in shapes, especially prefabricated box gardens. So much geometric order in a space may seem cold, over-controlled. At the same time, it also suggests human care, something planned and contained, which has its own pleasure. In making additions or changes to spaces with too many geometric forms, you might consider adding some organic curves: It may be the curved edge of a new garden bed, a change in materials in a walkway like using irregularly shaped flagstones instead of concrete rectangles or bricks, clustering some tall oval planting pots together or adding a small round table. Including these curved or rounded structural shapes makes the garden seem more organic, more inviting to a human. Of course, plants can also provide these shapes if they are rounded, mounded, flowing or arching in form. In a garden that lacks geometric shapes, perhaps geometric elements should be added to provide a sense of order and containment. This may be a brick edge to a bed, or a rectangular patio or table. How you balance geometric and organic shapes is a matter of preference. 

     In a New Mexico garden, vertical structural elements are especially important because the sky is so big and so many native plants are flowing and finely textured. The sky, clouds and sunsets are part of the beauty here. In a suburban house, we often seek a sense of enclosure, of privacy, in this openness, but do not want to lose an expansive view or inclusion of the sky. Trees and other vertical elements can provide a feeling of protection but also point up to the sky, if they are not planted too densely. They can frame a view. Think of the tall chimney junipers often used in small yards, or narrow poplars that act like exclamation points. These vertical trees also provide a contrast to a large flowing, rounded tree like an ash or cottonwood or even a smaller flowering tree like a crabapple, plum or pear. Tall structural vertical plants like ocotillo, tall yucca and cactus can act in the same way in a xeric landscape though they do not have the mass that trees provide.

     In your developing plan for changes or additions, look at the balance in the yard: consider vertical structures, whether there is enough negative space and balance of geometric and organic shapes. Of course, practical considerations drive the selection of additions such as how much space you have to accommodate something like a tree: whether you can provide root room and water are essential. Sometimes a built shade structure can substitute for a tree or even a tall garden ornament. Look at walls and pathways and patios for shape and contrast. Be careful about placement, as well: a thorned cactus should not be too close to a walkway or a tree that heavily attracts bees, like a chaste tree.

     If you haven’t thought about these ideas before, looking at the other landscapes in your neighborhood or gardens of friends or the plants in the botanical garden can help reveal these elements and their pleasurable effects. The Japanese Garden in Albuquerque is on point: the expanse of flat water in the pond highlights the soft-shaped trees and plants that bend over it; the stiff bridges and stone lanterns provide a contrast with the soft foliage; and the curves in flat graveled pathways that lead around are inviting but unobtrusive. Even the heavily graveled approach creates expectation and surprise when you move from it into the trees and soft plants of the garden