I’m not much more than an absolute beginner in gardening terms, and something I’ve hardly tackled yet is designing with plants — that business of attaining visual cohesion in different areas of the garden (and, hopefully, in the garden as a whole), with pleasing associations of colour and form. Just getting to know how plants work, and persuading them not to die, took so much time at first. In our old garden in Dublin, I planted an entire bag of daffodils upside down, and when we came to Scotland, I remember feeling annoyed when windowboxes I’d filled with red pelargoniums shriveled. (I had not watered them. At all.)
That was the year I resolved to stop growing flowers and start growing roots. I would prioritise the underground happiness of the plants, but I’d also start planning the garden around who I am, ie a neglector of containers. Except in winter, when a small pot of snowdrops sits by the back door to cheer us up, my only containers are huge ones which need just a little from me, and not very often.
Designing with plants has come so slowly, which is a major frustration, because all I’ve ever wanted from gardening is a live version of my first job at a florist’s: choosing the prettiest cut flowers and arranging them in bunches. I understand that developing a garden which looks abundant in every season can take a lifetime, but I’d like some abundance now — as well as visual cohesion. I visit gardens when I can, but mostly I’m gleaning design insights from books. Here are the top three most helpful design principles I’ve internalised:
- Control the use of colour: flowers of similar colour tones planted together are restful and harmonious to the eye — like the restrained palatte in the picture above, showing our small main border. I no longer buy “mixed” colour tulips, pansies, seeds or anything else. A single contrasting pair of colours, like blue and orange, is also pleasing and looks lively to the eye as opposed to restful.
- Foreshortened views suggest abundance: you don’t have to wait until your borders are overflowing like a botanic garden to get a feeling of abundance. Position garden seats (or your plants, if you’re starting from scratch) so that you have a foreshortened view down along the border, instead of across it. That way, to your eye, plants not located near each other will seem to come together, giving the impression of an overflowing garden, and bringing colours right up next to each other.
- Hide parts of the garden from view: paradoxically, even a tiny garden feels bigger if you find ways to hide part of it from immediate view. The hedge or fence with a gap in it, a plant placed to partially obscure a view, a path that winds away from the eye so you can’t see its full length, or even a false door in a boundary wall that leads nowhere — all these suggest an undefined “something more”. Subconsciously your brain speculates and projects about what it could be, and the garden ends up feeling bigger.
Too many design books offer blueprints and drawings instead of what I really want: inspiring garden photography where the plants are all identified, and clear, contextual explanations of design principles. At the moment I’m in love with the practical and beautiful Fabulous Flowerbeds by Gisela Keil and Jurgen Becker. If you have a design must-read book, or a design golden rule you’d recommend to me, I’d love to hear them.