Designing A Sculptural Garden
As backyards increasingly become extensions of our living spaces you can look at your garden design as you would that of a room inside your home, making it personal, inviting and an area you and your loved ones want to spend time in. When it comes to creating a beautiful garden, size doesn’t matter. You can make big dreams happen in a small space with artful design and a dose of creativity.
Creating a beautiful garden is similar to the art of sculpting! When one talks about ‘sculpting’ in the garden, one’s thoughts immediately turn to either ‘garden art’ in the form of sculptures, or topiary, the art of sculpting plants into specific shapes. However, there’s more to it than the obvious. It’s about sculpting your existing terrain and creating a space that’s pleasing to the eye. A suitable way of achieving this is through repetition of elements that lead the eye around the space. This could involve:
contouring your soil, adding grade changes or levels to add interest and help define the space;
screening off specific areas into ‘rooms’ which lends itself to making a garden more intimate or;
using plants of different heights and colours as a living sculpture.
Less is more
Firstly, keep in mind that when it comes to design, often less is more. A mistake that many gardeners make is trying to grow one of everything, which leads to a ‘scrambled egg’ garden, a space where there’s no uniformity or sense of oneness. Having ‘clutter’ in the garden – as indeed indoors – leads to the space feeling constricted. So to create a sense of harmony, go for a smaller palette of plants and fill beds up with one or two varieties in complementary colours. Planting in drifts gives a more harmoniously natural and architecturally pleasing dynamic. These patches will give the eye a chance to rest, and you’ll appreciate and experience each plant type on a deeper level.
Talking about levels, don’t keep everything on the flat. One dimensional gardens don’t add interest or show plants off to their best. Go vertical, especially if you have limited linear space. Add plants such as star jasmine, clematis or climbing roses to walls, trellises and pergolas to pull the eye up to the sky. The climbers don’t have to blanket the wall or fence either – experiment with growing them along twine or espalier wire to create interesting designs and patterns on the wall. You can add other vertical elements and accents such as plant stands, containers that attach to walls and hanging baskets. Create a living fence that does double duty as an edible landscape by espaliering small fruit trees interspersed with strawberry plants and blueberry bushes. A novel take on a suburban ‘farm’ in a small space, with the trees getting to a couple of metres tall, the bushes up to around a metre and strawberries flourishing happily at their feet.
The easiest way to sculpt your garden is to work with layers. Choose plants with differing textures, heights and colours to build your layers and add variety – this way you won’t have a flock of similar plants drowning each other out. Each will have a place to shine. If you have containers or garden beds that are viewed from all sides, place your tallest plants in the centre, then stairstep plants outwards with the shortest ones along the edge of the pot or the bed edge. Work on a ‘down-by-half’ approach – once you’ve placed the tallest plant, step the height down by half, for instance, underplanting a tall purple canna with a shorter orange flowering Zinnia. Then find something that will only grow half as tall as the Zinnia, such as Ageratum, in a complementary colour.
Repeating elements makes a dramatic impression, so mirror plants on either side of a long garden wall, with eye-catching trees at either end to frame the area. In a narrow garden, planting can be used to trick the eye to create a more dramatic effect. A sculpture placed at the end of a narrow lawn, where the hedges subtly get closer together the further away you go, creates a false perspective that makes the sculpture look further away, and therefore the garden feels bigger than it really is.
Use ‘petite’ plants in small spaces
If you’re working in a fairly small space, there are ways of making your garden seem bigger. Using ‘petite’ plants which are specifically bred for growing in pots and smaller spaces will still give you the pleasure of their beauty in your backyard without creating a jungle where little will be seen to their full advantage. Once again, too much variety is confusing to the eye and can make a garden seem smaller, so when using containers keep to the same colour and style so as to keep focus on the plants. To create contrast and visual liveliness, situate shapely containers on stairs and fill them with interestingly shaped plants, like spiky-leaved geraniums or serrated agave. Go for plants that create interest year-round to maximize your precious garden real estate.
Incorporate decorative elements
You can also add mirrors to walls or fences to give the illusion of more space. Place a large mirror in a spot that doesn’t get too much direct sun, so as to avoid it reflecting light onto your plants. Surrounding the mirror with a frame of plants will make it look like a door going on into another part of the garden, a gateway into another world – a simple trick to add space.
If you enjoy a more formal dynamic, parterre gardens are a sculpture in themselves, with their decorative arrangement of beds and paths making an elegant addition to backyards of traditional or modern homes. They can be designed into all sizes of backyards – from small courtyards to large country plots. Their ornamental pattern of symmetrical beds, with styles ranging from:
historic, embroidery-inspired designs;
intricately fluid designs interlaced with gravel paths, or;
modern geometric flower beds within a lawn.
All traditionally enclosed and formed with a surrounding of low evergreen clipped hedges such as Buxus spp., Lonicera nitida and other evergreen plants with small leaves and tight growing habits. These are also the plants you’d use to make topiaries and shapes, as they’re ideal for shaping and pruning into not only hedges, but also into unique forms – immediately striking focal points. Topiaries of spirals, cones and spheres add visual interest and a sense of sophistication, elevating your outdoor space.
It is easy to make your garden more interesting by adding backyard art, such as a sculpture. Just be careful not to go for things that are too kitsch, or those that are specifically thematic, unless you are creating for instance an Italianate feel, and would then use those objects which lend themselves to it. These hardscaping elements will enhance the space, and act as space fillers in large gardens, creating a focal point around which your garden can grow. Use those with similar colours to your planting scheme to create a sense of relaxation, or go for contrasting colours to create excitement. Leaf texture and colour can either make or break your work of art, so if for instance, you have a sculpture in a dark colour, avoid having a dark ivy background or else the sculpture may get lost when viewed from a distance, rather than being front and centre. Make sure that you keep the planting surrounding your art simple, so they don’t ‘fight’ with each other and remember to keep them tidy! Don’t allow your plants to swamp the piece, sculpt them to enhance it.
As with many things in life, form follows function, so consider carefully what the purpose of your garden sculpture is. Sculpture is there to be appreciated, to be seen, so make sure that the chosen position delivers this.
Approach your garden as an art form, and give yourself the time and focus you might give to any other art you want to master. This way you will create a thing of beauty that will give you and others joy for years to come.