Elements of Garden Design

Elements of Garden Design

by Joe Eck

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429998321
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 02/01/2005
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Joe Eck is cofounder of the garden design firm North Hill and coauthor of A Year at North Hill and Living Seasonally. He lives in Vermont.

Joe Eck, along with Wayne Winterrowd, is the co-author of The Year at North Hill: Four Seasons in a Vermont Garden and Living Seasonally: The Kitchen and the Table at North Hill. They are co-founders of the garden design firm North Hill, and live in Vermont.

Read an Excerpt

Elements of Garden Design

By Joe Eck, Lisa Brooks

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2005 W Joseph Eck
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-9832-1



Like all the arts, gardening must be guided by an intention. For many, that intention will be to recreate some other garden, one that seems, from childhood memory or adult experience, ideally beautiful. For others, nature will be the model, and the garden, on a smaller scale, will exist to remind them of a natural landscape — an alpine meadow, a field of wildflowers, or a shady woodland walk. But many of us, in making our gardens, are guided less by examples in the mind than by a simple passion for plants. And although all gardeners love plants, they love them for very different reasons, and so make their gardens from very different impulses.

Some gardeners want to be collectors; they are addicts given to the pleasure that comes from owning simply all of something — every variety in the species, every species in the genus, every genus in the family. Others are lovers of color, of rich masses of it crushed together in great romantic sweeps or shifting from shade to shade in subtle adumbration (yellow to yellow-ivory to rich cream to milk-white to chalk to ...). Still others love plants for their perfume, endlessly varied and susceptible to minute discrimination, one from another. ("The smell of nutmeg," a great nose once told me, "is really twelve distinct fragrances. Three of them are not pleasant.") And then there are botanists, whose interest lies in the infinite articulation of nature's order. ("It's a homely plant, to be sure, but it is the only member of its genus that is circumpolar.") Each of these intentions — and a thousand others — can result in the making of a beautiful garden, but only by acknowledging both the problems each poses and the solutions, successful or not, that other gardeners have attempted.

The problem posed by the collector's garden is one of sameness. Gardens composed chiefly of roses or lilacs, irises or daylilies or rhododendrons can fatigue even those who share the gardener's passion, for they are really but the vast multiplication of a single idea. Even the most beautiful gardens of this kind — Bagatette, for example, with its roses or Keukenhof with its masses of tulips — can be reduced in the eyes of a demanding critic to bloom on bloom and yet more bloom. Public or private, they are what one might call "tourists' gardens," the beauty of which might be breathtaking to visitors at their peak, but hardly sustainable throughout the growing year. They are only a step away from the growing fields, and there is neither quiet nor refreshment in them, because each garden unfolds all it has to offer at a single glance.

But the gardens of collectors need not reveal their intention at the first step we take into them. I know a garden of primitive plants, cycads chiefly, that still achieves in the dominant interest that governs it the qualities of variety and surprise. Its success lies in part in its terrain, a steeply sloping hillside threaded with paths and terraces that are hidden one from the other. But the gardener has also wisely varied his collection with other complementary plants — palms, aloes, and staghorn ferns — to create not just a sense of a primitive landscape, but also almost the idea of it, as if one were standing on the real bricks and looking at the real plants, transported into a landscape in the mind, a spot in the world — or its history — quite "someplace else."

The gardens of colorists face challenges of a different order. When one views a garden, the eye registers — often unconsciously — not merely color but also mass, volume, shape, and line. Gardens organized with an eye only to color, however successful its orchestration from shade to shade, often lack solidity even at the height of their season. One longs for a firm line, a satisfying neutral mass, an authoritative defining presence. And when not in flower, gardens that depend on color alone lack everything. It is for this reason that the carpet bedding still practiced in our large public parks is so unsatisfactory. One cannot look at such a plenitude of color without seeing the empty earth beneath. Conversely, the famous white garden at Sissinghurst is endlessly satisfying because it joins the finesse of its color scheme to the steady sustaining forces of yew hedge and green, trimmed boxwood and pavement.

The gardens of botanists, to give one last example, are concerned with scholarship. Their intention is the celebration of botanical or geographic relationships, sometimes to the minutest particular. At their worst, they can remind one rather forcefully of the dusty old-fashioned natural history museums to which one was taken as a child. They are not so much gardens as cases in which "specimens" are cataloged. If such plantings are to succeed as gardens, some larger and simply beautiful structure must embrace the botany. No better example of success in this regard exists than in Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco, where a defining frame of tall plants and trees surrounds the Arthur Menzies collection of native plants. A magnificent dry streambed structures it within, and a rondel of aged limestone defines its heart. The result is a satisfying picture during all seasons, even in the dead of winter and even to gardeners who may have no particular interest in the rich flora of California native plants.

A particular intention does not of itself yield a successful garden. One may have the clearest idea of what one wishes to create, but an idea — however necessary it may be as a starting point — still exists only in the mind. Its success will lie in its concrete realization, in the arrangement of treasured plants within a framework of less transitory elements, of trees, shrubs, hedges, pavement, architecture. Lucky is the gardener who begins with a clear intention, even though, as with all aesthetic impulses, it must be subject to endless adjustments, additions and deletions, delicate tamperings. Most of us, however, come to consider the dominant intention of our gardens rather late in our gardening life. ("I have begun to realize," a wise gardening friend once said to me, "that I have not actually made a garden. I have only made a nursery.") There is a point, after we have acquired our favorite plants and learned to grow them well, when we realize that the parts of our garden do not actually make up a whole. It is at that point that we begin to crave an intention, an idea that will make of the garden a unified whole, an aesthetic entity.

Fortunately, at that point, one need not go it alone. One can turn to memory, to the wisdom of other garden makers, to gardens one has lived in, or visited, or merely read about. For this much is certain: Gardening, like all the other arts, is not finally a private act. Whatever their personal passions — to collect, to gratify the sense of sight or smell, to study — gardeners are engaged in a colloquy, in a rich and complex conversation between garden and garden, gardener and gardener, living, dead, and yet to be born. The subject of that conversation is both the definition and the achievement of a beautiful and satisfying place.



Of all the arts, perhaps painting and gardening are the most closely allied. Each is concerned with form and color and with the definition of space. Each is intended for the eyes. And much of the vocabulary appropriate to the one serves also for the other — color, mass, texture, volume, contrast, and so forth. But when one art is held against another, the most illuminating comparison is often the one that notes differences rather than similarities. Of all the differences that suggest themselves, none seems greater than the blank canvas with which the painter must begin, and the anything but blank site that confronts the gardener.

Both site and canvas are givens. But whereas the painter works on an essentially empty surface — or if he does not, at least chooses not to — the gardener works on a site that is already occupied. Further, the gardener is not the only maker of the garden. For from the first, the gardener shares the making of the garden with nature. And nature is often the more potent of the garden's two creators; sometimes it is its destroyer as well. The making of any successful garden, therefore, requires a congruence of the gardener's intentions and what the site will allow. Obvious although this fact may be, it is still useful to review the major limitations that considerations of site impose on the gardener's creativity.

First is the soil, which might be heavy or free-draining, rich or barren, deep or thin, acidic or alkaline. It is sometimes simple to alter the basic composition of the soil. A little lime, for example, can make acidic soils appropriate for the growth of most border perennials. Conversely, a thin soil can be amended by the addition of peat or humus. But, sometimes, the alteration of the soil is a daunting labor and a sure path to heartbreak. Usually the gardener will be far happier if he comes to love what his soil allows him to grow well, rather than willfully imposing on it plants that it can never support. On heavy clay, for example, he will do far better to nurture roses than to attempt the lightening and draining of the soil for high-mountain alpines. An acid, peaty soil might perfectly support a collection of rare heaths and heathers but be a dismal matrix for delphiniums and Oriental poppies.

As much as the soil, the climate of a garden radically affects its nature. The beautiful blue Himalayan poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia), for example, will not grow on the humid mid-Atlantic coast, yet it flourishes in the cool hills of Vermont, a compensation for so much else that does not survive there. Camellias make winter gardening exciting in the Deep South, but would never survive the winter in USDA zones 3 and 4. And the lush herbaceous borders so many gardeners covet are practically impossible in arid Los Angeles, where the fascinating drought-tolerant flora of the Mediterranean coast and Australia, the beautiful, winterflowering South African bulbs, are all perfectly at home.

The shape of the land — its topography — also controls the nature of the garden that lives upon it. Formal gardens require level terrain, since they depend on the regular planes of geometry for their effect. Where the land is hilly, a formal garden can be achieved only by artificially leveling and terracing the land. A garden of winding paths, of rustic steps up and down to follow the terrain, of woodland and spontaneous, seemingly wild plantings, would look far better on such a site. Similarly, a garden carved into little hills and valleys looks artificial when placed within an essentially flat landscape, where there are not greater hills and valleys to reflect its shape.

It is true that nature, up to a point, can, and often should, be compelled by the gardener. But the very best gardens are made when nature is a collaborator rather than an adversary. Often, that part of a gardener's site that seems at first a painful liability turns out in the end to be the very genius of the garden, its best asset. So the swampy area over which the gardener envisions yet more lawn, or perhaps a patch of roses or border perennials, could be drained and filled, with much labor and expense, and perhaps, in the end, limited success. But it could also be preserved and enriched just as it is, to provide a habitat for the many beautiful plants that might thrive in such a place. That bit of wet and squishy ground might provide the perfect home for candelabra primroses, Siberian and Japanese iris, for splendid "skunk cabbages" (Lysichiton americanus and camtschatcensis), for the outrageously large elephant ears of Petasites japonicus var. giganteus, for the tender bright gold of marsh marigolds in earliest spring. Such plants would flourish there, and are the despair of gardeners with ever so much emerald lawn and delphiniums in towered ranks.

Hard though it might be for the gardener in possession of a new site to hear, the first thing to do when beginning a garden is to do nothing at all. Attend acutely to what is before you. Learn the fall of light and shade across your site (in both winter and summer), its wind patterns, the places where autumn leaves and snow gather or are swept away. Pay attention especially to how water — from rain or out of the ground — flows over, through, or around it, or stands in puddles. Come to know the site intimately, and perhaps to love it, or parts of it, just as it is. Only then will your site and the garden in your mind conspire together to yield a garden on earth worth the name.



In the language of gardening, the word frame is usually understood to mean any device that sets off some part of the garden for special notice or contemplation, such as a pair of gateposts, a gap in a hedge, or a "window" carved among the branches of trees that reveals a view of the distant hills. Enclosure, by contrast, refers to any structure — whether hedge, wall, fence, or line of trees — that defines the garden as a whole, marking it off from all that lies around or beyond it.

Clearly the terms are related, as both designate attempts to focus and guide the eye of the viewer as he surveys the garden; but of the two, I prefer frame because its etymology suggests a positive rather than a negative gesture, an opening rather than a closing of possibilities. In the Germanic languages from which the word evolved, frame meant variously "to benefit, to construct, to manage, to proceed or make progress, to go forward or contrive." In gardening, as well, frame suggests creativity rather than negation, a bringing in rather than a leaving out.

For gardeners of an earlier age, the concept of the frame was both practical and emotional. From Eden on, gardens have been places of refuge — worlds set apart, nature heightened or nature perfected, but first, nature enclosed. The world beyond the garden might be arid or barren, or dark, tangled, and inhabited with beasts. Alien bands with bluepainted faces might lurk there, hostile of intent. But within the garden, life was ordered and fertile, soft, and safe. Our word garden derives, in fact, from the Old High German word gart, an enclosure or safe place, and the etymology of the word is preserved in kindergarten, a safe place for children.

Although we do not face the same threats our ancestors did, frames in gardens can still perform a practical function. Few Americans live in climates as hostile as those in which the walled garden developed, but we still all need refuge — as much spiritual as actual — from the world beyond. The noise of traffic, the visual afflictions of power lines and filling stations, the happy but heedless enthusiasm of the neighbors' children, perhaps even the ill humor of the neighbors themselves, all are distractions that are best left beyond the garden wall. But even when these irritants do not exist, and there are only open fields and woods beyond, a garden still needs a frame. The love of enclosure may come to us from the womb, or it may be the result of our ambiguous attitude toward our species, which causes us both to love and to need to be apart from the company of our fellows. However it is, we seem to crave a little world all our own, set off from the greater world we inhabit and from which we so often feel the need to retreat.

If a garden is considered to be merely a space in which plants are grown intentionally, then there can be gardens without frames. But such gardens will seem vaguely incomplete, like a book without a cover, or beads without a string, or — to offer the most obvious analogy — like a painting without the border of wood or metal that sets it off from the blankness of the wall beyond. The uncovered book, the unstrung beads, the unmounted painting, all might be valuable, and even beautiful, but they will seem to wait for the one thing that will organize them and give them the full force of coherence. So it is also with the garden that lacks a frame.

An actual wall is not the only way to set off a garden and provide it with a frame, although if your resources are ample and you live in the right place, a firm structure of brick or mortared stone or even stuccoed adobe may better suggest a world apart than any other device. Usually such walls look best in an urban setting, where the inert materials that fashion them are not discordant with the surrounding streets and the masonry of buildings. Even there, however, the somewhat unfriendly statement they make needs softening by vines and creepers and shrubs. A fence, a really sturdy fence built to last, can do as well as a wall, and is sometimes almost as costly. It, too, seems to look best in worlds where dwellings are thick and the terrain is reasonably level. And it, too, will need the gentling of vines and shrubs.


Excerpted from Elements of Garden Design by Joe Eck, Lisa Brooks. Copyright © 2005 W Joseph Eck. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Part I - Theory,
Part II - Practice,
Foundation Plantings,
Lawns and Ground Covers,
Porches, Decks, and Terraces,
Other Garden Structures,
Cardening on Slopes,
Water in the Garden,
Sculpture in the Garden,
Vegetable Gardens,
Children in the Garden,
Greenhouses: The Winter Garden,
Utility Areas,
Gardening in Small Spaces,
Garden Materials,
Wood to Garden,
Animals in the Garden,
Copyright Page,

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