Design and Planning in the Modern Garden

Climate, location and geology all play their part in determining how well plants will succeed in a given situation, but when designing and planning how a garden will appear and function, the needs of the people using it are just as important. And these in turn depend on lifestyle and, very often, age.

During our lives, there will be periods when we have time for gardening, but relatively little to spend on it; later, we may have more money available but are frustrated by lack of time to put changes into effect. Later still, it may not be time or money but physical strength that is lacking. So, when planning your garden, you should try to ensure that it matches your current needs, and ideally, that it can be adapted as those needs change. In this way, you’ll gain maximum enjoyment from it and minimise, although not of course remove, the frustrations. The planning and design of a garden is particularly important if you or members of your family have special needs because factors such as safety and access will take precedence over aesthetic considerations. Here I shall concentrate on some general principles.

It hardly needs to be said that the way we live now is very different from the way our gardening ancestors lived but the modern garden is nonetheless the embodiment of all that has gone before. Rather than see today’s garden as an isolated entity, frozen in time, I think it is both instructive and interesting to realise how our present day gardens evolved.

The Evolution of the Modern Garden

Until very recently, little more than a century ago, the specifically ornamental garden was the grand garden. Poor and ordinary folk were too busy with survival to have time or room for such things and the bulk of their gardening activity was centred on growing vegetables. Nonetheless, by allowing some of the more attractive weeds to survive, they became the unwitting catalysts for the development of a gardening style that has remained unchanged for hundred of years: the hotchpotch of flowers, vegetables, fruit and animals that has became known as the cottage garden. And ironically, this is many people’s ideal garden today, a Utopia for urban estate and village home alike.

The earliest ornamental gardens of any significance in Europe were those of the Romans and their planting styles reflected the gardens of their Italian homes. The plants they used were a blend of the herbal and ornamental, usually planted in lines or squares but often in containers too. Roman gardens were highly advanced yet after the empire’s decline in the fifth century AD, there are few records of any gardening activity until the practice surfaced again 500 years later in the kitchen and herbal gardens of the monasteries. The typical Medieval monastery garden had arbours.

Courtyards, raised beds and quadrangles: a place to harvest food but also for contemplation. Then, over the next 200 years, the ornamental garden became an adjunct to the stately home and the palace. Intricate geometric patterns of plants were produced by training and pruning; labour was almost limitless.

It is almost impossible to define an 'average' modern garden and one of the more unexpected trends has been a return to formality but on a much reduced scaleThe garden remained formal until the early eighteenth century when Britain led the way: Lancelot Capability’ Brown (1716-1783), and later Humphry Repton (1752-1818), led the abandonment of huge, formal, rigid geometric patterns, confined the flower garden close to the house and created instead sweeping landscapes. They were shapers of the countryside rather than gardeners and so inevitably their immediate influence on small home gardens was minimal. I like to believe, however, that if was their notion of a remodelled, more natural environment, combined improbably with the total informality of the cottage garden, that was to surface in the embryonic modern home garden of the nineteenth century.

cottage gardenAs the western nations expanded their influence throughout the world in the late 19th century, vast numbers of new plants were collected and the introduced to gardens. Many wealthy landowners took up plant collecting and had impressive gardens with a large stall to match. Their new acquisitions were grown either in beds or in borders. William Cobbett in his English Gardener published in 1828 described the difference: a bed contained predominantly one type of flower, a border was a mixture. Cobbelt would have been familiar with hardy annuals, biennials and bulbs such as tulips but if wasn’t until around 1840 that a fall in the price of glass led to the much wider availability of greenhouses and cold frames. It was this that encouraged an interest in half-hardy annuals, plants such as pelargoniums, tagetes, petunias, fuchsias, verbenas, salvias, ageratums and lobelias, so familiar to us today.

But gradually gardeners came to rebel against this formal bedding style. Inspired by what Brown and Repton had done for the landscape, they began to bring elements of informality and the collage garden to the fore. One of their aims was to produce a mixed flower border that had colour for months rather than just a few weeks without the need for replanting. So the border that came to such pre-eminence was the herbaceous border. The Irishman William Robinson (1838-1935) synthesised many of the border’s guiding principles in his book The English Flower Garden published in 1843. Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) took Robinson’s ideas to heart and adapted them to creating herbaceous borders for the houses and gardens designed by her friend Edwin Lutyens.

The first half of the twentieth century saw times of war and economic depression and meant the returning of the home garden to its role of providing food. After the end of the Second World War, people wanted a change from the drab and merely useful and longed again for colourful flowers in their gardens; roses and bedding plants in bright colours were popular. A generation or two later, such gaudy colours were out of fashion and pastel became de rigueur, but more importantly, the whole approach to gardening came to be questioned. There grew up a generation that questioned the use of artificial (or indeed, and less advisedly, any) chemicals, both on farm and garden, that wanted ‘pure and wholesome’ food, and that wanted to do its bit in saving the planet; a movement that led to what I call ‘free-range gardening’.

The ‘Typical’ Modern Garden

The typical garden today is less than 200 sq. metres in area. As gardens have become smaller (or we want to use them for more activities so they simply seem smaller), the plants we grow must really earn their place. In a large country house garden for instance, setting aside a large area for a double herbaceous border through which to walk in summer was quite feasible. Out of season one would simply move to another area of the garden (or another house). In small modern gardens, by contrast, there might be room for one small border, visible all year round from the house. It makes far more sense today for the border to contain a mixture of plants, one that offers something in each season: bulbs in spring, herbaceous perennials and annuals in summer, berries, foliage and the bark of shrubs in autumn, evergreen colours and shapes in winter.

Many people today wish to spend less time on gardening chores, staking, weeding and digging and more on planning colour schemes and using their garden for leisure. The garden industry is very aware of this and now offers us a variety of labour-saving tools and labour saving plants: dwarf varieties that need no staking, weed suppressing ground-cover shrubs that need no pruning, and dwarf rye grass mixtures for lawns that are harder wearing and need less mowing. The deep bed system for growing vegetables has reduced the need to dig, and mulching beds and borders has lessened the need for weeding and watering. Growing plants in containers close to the house fits in well with many people’s way of life. Half-hardy plants no longer have to be raised but can be bought at almost any stage of growth. An increasing environmental awareness has led to an interest in organic gardening and native plant gardening. Even perennials have been rescued from the border and experiments are now underway to grow them in more natural groupings with the aim of reducing maintenance.

Gardeners are more than ever before influenced now by fashion and marketing. Part of this is, of course, due to greater communication through the broadcasting and publishing media but the growth of garden centres, superstores and garden shows has also played a part. Even non-gardeners are encouraged to think of their ‘room outdoors’ and there are plenty of people willing to help them fill it, if not with plants then with furniture, barbecues, swimming pools, summer houses and the other necessities of modern gardening life.

Garden Styles

Trying to decide in advance on a garden style rather than buying things on impulse will help ensure that your house, the non-living parts of the garden and the plants all work together to create a pleasing environment. In a small garden, you may be restricted to a single style but larger gardens are often most successfully subdivided into smaller areas or garden rooms, each embodying a rather different approach. What follows are some of the possible approaches (not all mutually exclusive) that you might want to consider.

The Formal Garden: Here, the hard landscaping is usually based on a geometric shape, often symmetrical. At least some of the plants are used in regular patterns; clipped yew or box are popular choices but formally trained roses, lavender and other flowering shrubs play a part as well. Lawns, if used, are neat, regular and well-maintained but paving and gravel are often more appropriate, especially in smaller areas. Attractive containers and ornaments play an important part; the formal approach probably finds its greatest value in small town gardens.

The Informal Garden: In an informal garden there is an absence of obvious patterns and order. The planting seems more natural, with plants in irregular drifts rather than straight rows. Paths and lawns should flow and wander, structures of wood and natural stone are often used and the rigid shape of boundaries is concealed with plants.

The Classical Garden: The classical garden needs a highly disciplined approach with clipped green hedges, a symmetrical layout and classically inspired ornaments. It is uncluttered and relaxing but impractical for plant collectors or those with young children. The classical garden is rarely successful in a small space and is a style that most often fails today.

The Cottage Garden: blowers, herbs and vegetables grow- together in informal plantings. At least some of the flowering interest is produced by plants self-seeding but although the planting is very informal, careful management is required to keep it under control and to distinguish between the good and the bad among wild species: a cottage garden still needs weeding. Ornaments and structures are simple: ha/el hurdles, picket fencing, terracotta pots and rustic arches.

The Architectural Garden: Here there is bold and very obvious planting with specimens chosen for their shape rather than flower colour. Grasses, bamboos and large foliage plants are often used in very conspicuous groupings with modern hard landscaping materials. This is a low-maintenance garden but one for people whose interests lie more in art than horticulture.

26. July 2013 by admin
Categories: Garden Design | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Design and Planning in the Modern Garden


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