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Maintaining balance: Objects and spaces in the garden

Before focusing on the small details, zoom out on the big design picture to create a garden where all elements are in balance.

I think you know what you’re doing. You’re looking for some garden ideas and a photo to inspire you to get creative. This is the moment to break a stubborn case of designer blogs.

I encourage my readers to analyze and deconstruct the design principles that underlie the gardens that inspire them. Humans have a strong fascination with color not surprisingly, we have six million cones in each eye, so it might seem logical to focus our design energy on creating beautiful foliage and flower combos.

For me this is the final step. Before you get excited, zoom out and think about how your inspiration garden uses the entire space. Without getting too technical, observe how many things you have in your garden and how much space you have left. “Objects” is a not-so-complicated term that refers to the plants, rocks, furniture, and architectural elements found in most gardens. “Space” means an unobstructed surface such as a path, lawn, paved area, or pond surface that you can pass or see without hitting your shins. Object-space principles apply to a variety of design disciplines. Think of the way graphic artists use white space to visually balance text and images on a page.

Also notice how these two complementary elements are arranged and balanced. Are the masses and objects formally aligned along an axis? Or does the visual weight of the composition feel less intentional? This simple yet often overlooked design principle influences our fundamental experience of space and should be considered when designing a completely new garden or revamping a few beds in an existing yard.

Let’s look at how this concept applies to garden choices.

 

I find this space enjoyable. The grids give order to this vignette, but avoid the overly static feel of bilateral symmetry, as there are four grids on the right side of the path and only one on the left. The main mass of the space, the fountain, is located two grids away from the path but centered between a seating wall and a loosely cut boxwood hedge. The checkerboard arrangement of the pavement and plants is fun and vibrant, while also being a recurring theme that ties the garden together.

The huge shrubs at the far gate provide a nice balance to the undisturbed lawn. Also, pay attention to how the perception of this space is determined by the arrangement of elements rather than the color of flowers or the characteristics of plants.

If you don’t have a lot of outdoor space to work with, but living space requirements are a priority, utilities should be a priority. Consider the activities you want to do and the furniture you need to support those activities. Leave enough space around the area to allow for unimpeded circulation.

Here, as young trees grow, they form a light canopy over the room and, like leafy shrubs in the corners, change the ratio of mass and space. If you feel your arrangement of plants and open space is too small for your liking, you can convert a gently cascading water feature into an additional planting bed. Looking at the spatial arrangement, all shapes are arranged parallel and at right angles to the building, giving it a somewhat formal feel. Think about what the distribution of space and objects would look like in a pie chart. I’d say it’s about 80% space and 20% materials, at least until the trees grow more.

This tightly packed, narrow outdoor space feels like a modern art gallery, with empty hallways filled with a few objects and plants. The overall effect is that of a still life composition viewed from inside the house, which is similarly decorated in a spare, clean style.

The lessons we can learn from this are: If you’re attracted to this type of garden, it probably reflects your desire for a simple Zen aesthetic. Continuing the pie chart analogy, it would probably look like 95% space and 5% stuff.

Using my very unscientific method of analysis, this garden is made up of 40% space and 60% objects, giving it a more intimate feel. The garden has a clear central axis, with garden elements on both sides mirroring each other around an imaginary line. All plants except the wall-crawling Ficus pumila are no taller than knee height, keeping the flower beds tidy. This approach focuses the eye on the jar in the center of the ‘keyhole’ while maintaining a sense of openness.

And now something completely different. My first impression of this garden was that it was intimate and romantic. Why? It’s not the specific plants that the designer chose, but the way they overhang the path and invade from the sides. There’s plenty of room to pass, and the rest is taken up by a luxurious, verdant canopy and delicately textured ground cover. The clumps of vegetation on either side of the path provide a degree of balance, but the winding nature of the stepping stones creates an organic flow that sometimes obscures the destination.

How would you divide this? I’m comfortable calling it 10% space, 90% stuff.

I just looked up the definition of “cozy”. I didn’t have any pictures of this exact garden, but I could have. Comfort doesn’t happen by accident. Check how much space is allowed for the voluptuous bed behind the chair. Tree trunks and shade patterns indicate that there is a generous canopy protecting this seating area. However, the mass appears to avoid feeling claustrophobic as it is balanced by a small open lawn. Placing a colorful flower pot next to a chair can compress and embrace the space and increase intimacy.

This would be a great garden to end this design lesson with. It may sound obvious, but assuming you have at least average gardening skills, your plants will grow from the day you install them. Unlike interior design, where your coffee table stays roughly the same size as when you brought it home, plants are constantly changing. This means that objects and their spatial proportions evolve over time. This is neither a good nor a bad thing, but it’s worth thinking ahead about how many plants you’ll buy and how you’ll space them out.

This messy garden seems to be swallowing up the road. Everywhere you look, flowers are clashing with their neighbors like puddles of perennial moss. It’s attractive, fits well with the style of the home, and seems to suit the owner’s sense of style. The point is that if your goal is to maintain a certain balance of space and mass, pay attention to the mature size of each plant you choose to allow adequate space to achieve the size nature intended.

 

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