Garden Design changes that have big impact

Garden Design Changes that have Big Impact

Garden Design changes that have big impact

Change is as good as a holiday, as that well-used old chestnut would have it, and fewer places witness change as much as our gardens. It is also said that change is really the only constant and that this is, indeed, inevitable.

We witness the constant changing of seasons in the garden and, despite the inevitability of seasonal cycles, no two seasons are quite the same. From a design point of view, we strive to create gardens that look good all year round, so it becomes imperative to choose features that can stand their own aesthetic ground regardless of changing floral background and, perhaps more tellingly, to choose and include plants that ring in the changing seasons.

Our gardens change with the passage of time as trees and plants grow, mature and develop as the days, months and years move on by.

In truth, it is not just the garden that is changing, literally right before our eyes, but it is also we who change relative to our own surroundings. So, as life takes us through new experiences and we also grow and mature, we perceive our gardens differently. As time moves along, we ring in the changes, whether these be small tweaks along the way, casual additions or removals, changes we ourselves make with the passing of the seasons… Or perhaps we have a complete change of heart and dive headfirst into sweeping garden renovations on a grand scale.

Change can also mean that while we allow the garden to evolve organically, we make changes that support and refine the space in a perpetual quest for the garden of our own dreams. Thus, small but meaningful additions or alterations can work wonders in a garden that to us may have become a bit tired, or that seems to lack that ‘something special’.

Vistas and Portals as Gateways

To the designer, structure and composition are paramount, and in most cases this means that all the separate pieces of the garden must connect and support each other. Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects relates to division and connection – a seeming contradiction in terms to be sure.

In simple terms, this means that we should always strive to divide our garden space into rooms. This opens up opportunities for more diverse creative outlets, varying levels of interest and, importantly, means that the whole garden is not viewed in one eyeful, but that some interactive exploration into the space is called for – be it physical or merely visual, or both.

Having created these divisions and stamped the garden rooms with their own unique personality, we now consider how best to link or connect the separate spaces together so the result is a seamless connection from space to space. 

Spaces can be connected in many ways with elements common to both, like a path or pergola that runs through both spaces, or plants, elements or colours that link the areas visually, or vistas that lead the eye from one area to the next.

Vistas are one of the most effective ways of not only connecting spaces, but also changing the personality of the garden with a new sense of enigma or heightened drama. Vistas are about perspective and can be seen in a number of ways. They can have the quality of panorama; a sense of expanded horizon that we get when we borrow distant views beyond our own garden. Garden terraces, steps and tall elements create vertorama – literally a vertical panorama.  

Tunnel vistas, such as the view we get when looking down a pergola or when paired avenues of trees or shrubs line the sides of a path, never fail to engender drama, perspective, depth and spirit, while a view through a small portal in the garden affects a furtive look through a keyhole vista into the world beyond.

Portals are the gateways into vistas. They not only lead the eye and the viewer into the vista, but also frame the view. Portals as gateways can be created by simply placing a ‘pick- up-and-put-down’ arch between two areas, for example, or by making a small gap between hedges, fashioning a small opening as a window in a dividing trellis as a portal into the room or view beyond, planting a pair of trees – or placing matching garden features, such as pots or statues – as sentries on either side as the gate to a vista.

A vista is enhanced by the floor, so we use paths and stepping stones as well as bold strips of low plants on either side that lead into the vista and beyond to heighten the effect.

Visual and physical gateways leading into garden vistas are powerful yet often very simple ways to ring in changes to the garden that require very little effort with handsome returns. So, if the garden seems a bit one-dimensional, mundane and a tad prosaic, this could be just what the doctor ordered. 

Wall and All

Walls, dividers (such as trellises) and fences often present themselves as easy opportunities for us to bring new life to the space without too much fuss.

Walls and fences can be greened by introducing creepers and vines to create a green façade or rambling effect in the old-fashioned way. More contemporary approaches such as vertical garden products will need a more prudent approach.

The much loved and admired espalier is the dream of many a gardening addict, and does indeed have humble beginnings but with dramatic effect. Humble beginnings in that the espalier really must start with small, workable saplings that are trained over a number of years towards maturity in espalier or fan form. Espalier is magnificent, but not an instant solution – patience is key.

Many walls that face the garden space lend themselves to adornment with wall-mounted planter holders or hanging baskets on brackets, the composition of which can range from one or two tastefully placed items to a wall festooned with a veritable green mass of pots and window boxes. These can be fun items that add life and interest to a bland wall, but they area also a real boon for the plant collector who delights in the eclectic as far as plant choices go.

If none of the above push your buttons, a journey into wall hangings, décor or even frescoes may be the thing. Here the possibilities are really almost endless – metal and wood art, mosaic, plaques, handmade craftwork, repurposed items and frivolous features are available everywhere.

There are many fine examples of beautiful frescoes to be seen, but a word to the wise – frescoes can be a blessing or a curse, so choose wisely and consider carefully before taking the plunge with this one.

Having said this, it’s not really always about changing the décor on a wall; changing the colour of the wall itself can produce results that are just as telling – often more so – than embellishing a wall with all manner of ornamentation. Changing a wall from a  light shade of cream to a deep indigo, for instance, will transform the depth and aura of the space in unimaginable ways. Sometimes it really is best to just keep it simple.

Structure, Interest and Focus

Much of what has already been said relates to interest and spirit in the garden. When we talk of spatial personality and décor, we relate all of this to interest, and the vistas and portals are about drama and spirit, among other things.

Structure, as we have said, is an imperative and has its roots in composition, line, height, division and connection. 

Over and above all of these notions, we must also consider the question of focal interest. Elements that are focal points in the garden should be carefully considered and placed for best effect – depending on purpose. Interestingly, most focal elements, although physical in nature, are visual in effect.

Each room in a garden should have at least one focal point that leads the eye into the space and, if possible, beyond.  Focal elements placed snugly against a back wall may often look too much like ‘full stops’, so it makes sense to place them slightly away from the backdrop in order to create space leading onto the garden. The choice of a focal feature is broad and can include water features, pots, urns, statuary, artworks, plaques, frescoes and even architectural plants like cycads.

Focal points can be central to the surrounding garden from all sides, as seen in classical formality, or they can be extreme and placed near the end of the garden. In truth, powerful vistas – especially tunnel, vertorama and keyhole vistas – should have extreme focal elements. This makes them meaningful and more effective, and enhances the sense of depth and drama.

Elements used as focal features should also match the theme as well as the look-and-feel of the space in which they are set. While these elements bring cohesion and definition to the garden, the garden should likewise support the element.

It must be remembered that what makes a focal element what it is, is its relative uniqueness in the composition. A focal feature is a bold statement with substance and form that allows it to stand out in the surrounding space, but not overwhelm it.

This having been said, just because a focal feature has high visual impact value does not mean that two such elements together will have twice the effect; quite the opposite, in fact. A focal feature will lose its focal interest when repeated with an identical, similar or competing feature in the same space, and the more the feature is repeated, the more the effect is diluted. The watchword here is ‘restraint’, and it is said that this quality is far harder to master than copiousness.

Mike Rickhoff is the Faculty Head of Lifestyle College as well as a Landscape Consultant. He can be contacted at Lifestyle College on 011 792 8244, enquiries@lifestylecollege.co.za or at Michael Rickhoff Landscape Consulting on 083 408 1610, mike.rickhoff@gmail.com

The Gardener