Quote of the Month

There can be no other occupation like gardening in which, if you were to creep up behind someone at their work, you would find them smiling.

~Mirabel Osler

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Principles of Garden Design : Presentation July 9th 2013

The Principles of Garden Design
Presentation to Axarquia Garden Club on Tuesday 9th July 2013 at the Centro de la Juventud, Competa

Carol Starr

Garden History
Since the dawn of civilization man has sought to tame nature. The Muslim conquest of Spain in AD711 had a massive impact on design and led to the introduction of ornate gardens of terraces, orchards and aviaries. Water was greatly prized and ponds, fountains and cascades were artfully contrived. Examples of this still exist in the Generalife at the Alhambra, Granada and at less tourist infested King Juan Carlos’s garden in Seville. The Alcazaba in Malaga also has a delightful Moorish garden.

The Egyptians planned their houses and gardens as one entity using their courtyards as outside living space. So did the Romans. Evidence of this can be seen in the ruins of Pompeii and now Heracleum.

The enclosed court was used throughout the Middle Ages when it was unwise to venture outside the walls. In Spain, as the patio, it reached its highest development as a decorative addition to the house giving sun, shade, fresh air and cooling fountains, fruit trees, colourful vines and potted plants but, above all, seclusion and privacy. The Patio Gardens of Cordoba are a prime example of this.

Early travellers brought plants back from their travels which gradually influenced garden design and greatly enriched the variety of plants available to gardeners in Northern Europe. We like to think that box edged beds and parterres are a peculiarly English invention; they are not; they are directly influenced by the early Moorish and Roman gardens. In fact, most of the plants that go to make what we think of as English gardens were brought to England from the Mediterranean and other parts of the world such as South Africa, China and the Americas. England had few native flowering plants at the time of William Shakespeare. The temperate climate of England, however, was perfect for the proliferation of plants brought from around the world by the crusaders and plant hunters.

The Renaissance gardens of France, Italy and Holland served as models for gardens in England. Holland still remains one of the biggest suppliers of nursery plants in Europe. In fact, most of the plants you buy from the viveros here are imported from Holland.

Following the long years of religious unrest and power struggles, Elizabeth 1st’s reign gradually brought stability and with it relative wealth to the ordinary English people. Those two factors laid the foundations for the beginning of the English Garden through all its changing fashions, styles and fortunes through the following centuries. In the 18th century Lancelot “Capability” Brown almost entirely obliterated the ornate parterres of the 16th century to create parklands which led right up to the house walls. He did not create instant gardens, much to the annoyance of some of his clients. He planted so that future generations could enjoy the result. A sublime existing example of his design is the park at Blenheim Palace. One notable and impressive garden that escaped his massacre of formal parterres is at Levens Hall in Cumbria. In fact, for those interested in history the house is a beautiful example of unspoilt, sympathetically maintained Elizabethan architecture. It has remained in the same family since it was built in the 14th C.

The late 19th and early 20th Century saw Gertrude Jekyll come to prominence as a plants-woman extraordinaire whose influence is still felt today by modern garden designers. She pioneered the use of the Colour Wheel to help gardeners choose the right plant combinations to compose a harmonious whole. Her chief collaborator was Edwin Lutyens, a young architect and landscape designer. One excellent example of their gardens is at Hestercombe House in Somerset.

The former designers had the luxury of aristocratic and rich patrons. The changes in society brought about by the two world wars ushered in a new school of garden designers and new types of clients. Once virtually immune from paying taxes, the English landed gentry were now heavily taxed on their assets. More money, therefore, circulated to the lower orders and more and more people could now aspire to own their own houses. Leisure time became available for the masses and with their relative new affluence they began to maximise their homes by using their gardens as outside rooms. In came the army of modern garden designers who could inspire and create these dream locations on a domestic scale. In the middle of the 20th C one of the most notable and influential of these designers was Thomas Dolliver Church who designed outdoor rooms for his mostly Californian clients. He recognised the need for easy-to-maintain outdoor spaces and designed his gardens accordingly. His book Gardens are for People.

Russell Page was an Englishman who designed
gardens around the world for exceedingly wealthy clients including the exiled former King Edward VIII and his wife Wallis Simpson in France. Page was greatly inspired by the gardens of Spain particularly their use of water both as irrigation and ornamental fountains “which produce negative ions which clear the air and make people feel well.” In his book, 

The Education of a Gardener, he mentions The Alhambra, of course, and a garden in Motril. I don’t know anything about that one. Does anyone else?
Another influential and well-known modern English designer of whom you may have heard is John Brookes, an early advocate of the outside room in the UK, who has written many “how to” garden design books. He too had been greatly influenced by the gardens of Europe.

Lastly, I can’t help but mention my favourite to date designer,
Arabella Lennox-Boyd. She is an Italian married to an Englishman and she also designs for wealthy clients around the world, many in southern Spain, Italy as well as France and England and she has won several Gold Medals at Chelsea Flower Show for her show gardens. Her gardening style most closely relates to what I try to achieve in my garden unfortunately without the spectacular results. I found her book, Designing Gardens inspirational and relevant to our conditions here.

What is Garden Design?
Design is different from garden style
There are many different styles of gardening - we all have our own tastes, abilities and preferences; no one garden I’ve visited is ever the same as another. And neither should they be as each garden creates its own special features and represents different challenges to the gardener. The condition of the soil - indeed if there is any - is a top consideration so is location whether the garden is on a steep hillside in a hollow or by the sea. Access to sufficient, economical water is a paramount consideration as is damage from high cold winds in winter and the amount of sun and shade in summer.

Therefore, Garden Design is a matter of Principle while Garden Style is a matter of personal taste.
Garden Design can be summed up into 4 Principles comprising the following:
- the architectural and planting elements of the garden need to relate to the architectural style and proportions of the house
- unobtrusive space for the ugly but necessary dustbins, washing lines, compost and for burning debris, tool storage etc.
Simplicity -
don’t try to include too many different elements in a small space. The temptation is great but this can make the eye restless because it doesn’t know where to settle.
Scale -
consider height and mass of the plants as they relate to the house. Relative scale means the relation of one part of the design to another; absolute scale means the relationship to the human figure.

Let’s examine these Principles in more detail.
1. Unity -
means unifying the house and garden with its surroundings. The use of the same colour rocks and gravel found in your local area helps to unify and blend the garden with its surroundings. The ancient dry stone walls we see here in the countryside were built with what lay to hand rather than using expensive imports and look right within their setting. Eg. Homes in the Cotswolds are built with locally available Cotswold stone. To introduce flint wall structures in that area would look totally out of place.
Sometimes the whole garden can be directed towards the view. Often too wide a view can be visually disturbing. Plant to provide framed views perhaps to catch the rising or setting sun at certain times of year. The world famous Hidcote garden in Gloucestershire is a good example of using framed views of the countryside between high windbreak hedges. Lawrence Johnson, the garden’s creator, built the garden on a steep hillside where the prevailing winds would have made it difficult to grow the many different plants he wanted to grow so he planted miles of 20’ high hedges with gaps for large wide gates so the wonderful views below could be glimpsed.
Unity also means using large groups of one plant or single specimen plants at regular intervals in the garden.
The eye likes to see this symmetry of rhythm and movement. If planting trees, restrain the urge to buy and plant different varieties. As a plantaholic myself this is a temptation almost too hard to resist but if you have space for 3 or more trees a more visually pleasing appearance will be achieved by planting trees of the same variety. On holiday in Australia 2 years’ ago we passed through a town called Grafton NSW. The town was flat and planned in a grid pattern and all the verges of all the intersecting roads were planted with Jacaranda - all in bloom. It was a truly spectacular sight and an exercise in bold town planning.
2. Function - .

It’s all too easy, when caught up in the excitement of planting a new garden, to forget you need space for the washing line, the dustbins, compost bins and burning bays, and maybe a shed all placed as close as possible for ease of access and, we hope, as unobtrusively as possible.
What do you want to use the garden for? 

A place to relax or for your children or grandchildren to play safely or space for animals.

Also space must be given for storage and use of wheelbarrows and garden machinery not to mention the siting of BBQs and seating or accommodating the family pet or rearing chickens. All need to be considered and carefully planned in the overall design at the outset.              Paths should be planned. There is more to designing a path than just creating a hard surface on which to walk. Straight paths give strong direction especially edged with plant edging of the same variety. You can use a feature at the end of a path, such as a large pot or sculpture to create a full stop. John Brookes says “try to avoid paving patterns that are too strong as they can interrupt the visual journey and it is the journey along the path that really matters”.
Indirect paths slow down the walker enabling the discovery of new areas or corners. Use planting masses at intervals to interrupt the route.

In our hillside gardens at some point we’re going to need steps to get from one level to another. How should they be constructed and in what style? Steep steps, to my mind, are neither visually pleasing nor easy on the knees. They make you climb faster than you might want and leave you out of breath at the top. Shallow - maximum 7cm high risers on wide steps slow down the pace and are therefore more inviting to use.
Gentle changes in level have huge visual interest as well as adding structure to the garden design. They can provide impromptu places to sit down and rest or stand pots on. Even if you have limited space, be as generous as possible with the dimensions when designing steps. If the climb is steep consider staggering your steps with landings at regular intervals to make the climb easier. You will not regret it.

Retaining walls
Our steep hillsides demand the use of terracing to create flat planting surfaces, prevent soil erosion and to make maintenance easier. Dry stone walling or cladded concrete blocks, moulded and coloured concrete or wicker can all be used depending on cost - if you’re going to pay someone else to do it or whether you have a strong enough back and willpower to do it yourself.

You are welcoming people in (we hope) so the route should be generous, the surface non-slip and level changes lit. Entrances should set the scene and tell you something about who lives there. The architecture of the house creates the style but it is the door-scape, the levels, steps, colour, lights and planting which complete the picture. The surfacing should tell you where to go and lead you on.

It is really the bits between the planting and what we use as a substitute for grass that present the real surfacing problems. As a general rule what is local both looks best and is the cheapest. It looks best because the soil of an area has a direct relationship to the rock below. An introduced natural material will look foreign. Unless you’re going to use gravel all other surfacing materials and their construction are going to be expensive - though the possibilities are endless, ie granite setts, pebble mosaics. Concrete is popularly used here but I think it is cold and ugly, as is tarmac.

Pergolas and arbours
You walk along a pergola and you sit down in an arbour - that defines the difference between them.
When designing a pergola or arbour near an existing building you should try to echo some of the detailing and dimensions of the main building. Try not to make the proportions of the verticals too heavy because otherwise when your climbing plants grow up over them they will look too strong for the horizontals they support and become overpowering.

Sculpture and ornament
When it comes to sculpture and ornament personal taste becomes critical. Both modern and traditional sculpture can be expensive. It is just a shape that is required, a manmade shape that contrasts with, complements or terminates a view.

Scale is almost more important than content in making your selection. We usually end up with objects that are too small (smaller is cheaper). Not just size but mass too is vital. Anything too thin simply disappears when seen from a distance.
Remember that these features will be seen through winter too. Your sculptures will need some solidity when seen against bare plant stems.


One large container well planted can be most attractive. Positioned singly the pot (it doesn’t necessarily need a plant) becomes a sculptural feature. Same sized pots used repetitively become part of the overall design.

3. Simplicity
Often, less means more. A restricted pallet of only 4 or 5 plants, repeated and planted in quantity, can be more visually pleasing than a restless riot of single plants dotted about. I know that to achieve this is easier said than done. The usual advice is to plant repeated groups of a minimum of 3 or 5 let alone 15 or more plants. Most cannot afford to buy that number of plants in one go and perhaps content ourselves that the purchase of one will quickly spread naturally or can be easily propagated to make more.
4. Scale
As an example of scale think of King Louis XIV’s palace and garden at Versailles, designed by one of the most famous Renaissance garden designers, Le Notre. He advised that to be in scale and proportion, the terrace or space in front of the house, or the plinth on which it sits, should be the same dimensions as the first floor of the house. A wrongly proportioned terrace unsettles the house creating an uneasy feeling of teetering on the edge.

Scale naturally follows through in the planting; try to avoid planting in narrow borders making borders, if you can, at least 3 feet at the base of house or retaining walls. This stops plants looking squeezed and gives space for them to develop without having to be constantly restrained and replanted.

Choose your trees with care as too large a tree will engulf and unbalance a small house. Another example is if you place a very large pot in a small, enclosed courtyard - instead of the pot diminishing the small space the pot makes the space appear larger.


the eye detects a meagre dimension more easily than it does a generous one.

Gardens are for People Thomas Church
Designing Gardens Arabella Lennox-Boyd
John Brookes Masterclass John Brookes
The Education of a Gardener Russell Page

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