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Selecting and Placing Garden Structures

If your garden looks flat this spring, maybe all it needs is a little structure. With a
bit of imagination and the right elements, you can use garden structures such as
trellises, pergolas, and sheds to enhance your garden’s design. Here are some tips to
guide you.

Garden structures can be functional and beautiful.

No matter what type of structure you add to your garden, make sure it’s both functional
and beautiful. An arbor covered in fragrant climbing vines creates a memorable welcome
for friends and family, a flower-filled trellis screens out unsightly views, and a
well-crafted pergola seamlessly extends a home’s living space. Remember, the main
function of a garden is to please. So whether you want to add a garden shed or play
equipment for your children, it should be attractive as well as practical.

Repeat elements of your home’s style in your garden structures.

Tudor style home with matching fence and gate.
Every home has an architectural style, whether it’s ranch, cottage, bungalow, colonial,
contemporary, or something else. Key elements that distinguish one style from another
are the pitch of the roof, arrangement and size of windows and doors, and exterior
materials used for walls, windows, and shingles.

When you repeat these elements in your garden structures, they’ll fit comfortably into
your landscape and visually connect the garden with the house. For example, when I added
arbors to the entries in my fountain garden, the columns were the same style and color
as those on my front porch. A hedge connects the house to the arbors and makes the
garden part of the home’s design.

Of course, not everyone has the time, talent, or resources to create custom-made garden
structures that match the house. A good shortcut is to buy mass-produced garden
structures, then add your own moldings or trim to develop that direct connection between
garden and house.

Select substantial garden structures.

One of the most common mistakes is to add structures that are too small or flimsy. Instead,
choose substantial structures that reflect permanence and sustainability. A strong presence
in the landscape is reassuring and comforts us on a subconscious level.

How to locate your garden structure.

Tudor style home with matching fence and gate.
Selecting the right location for your structure is as important as its size and scale. First,
think about the structure’s purpose. For example, if you want to create a welcoming entrance,
use an arbor to show visitors where to enter your garden. Garden sheds, on the other hand,
need to be placed where they’re easily accessible. Since space in gardens is often limited,
the best location is often along the fence line. There the shed can serve as a point of
visual interest and as a screen to block views beyond your property. Bird baths and feeders
are best in a spot where you can see them from inside your home.

Updating existing garden structures.

Many times we’re faced with the challenge of how to improve the look of existing garden
structures. A little cosmetic surgery often helps. Changing the color to match the house is a
good first step. Or plant clinging vines and strategically placed shrubs to diminish the impact
of an unattractive structure while providing a wall of green that reinforces the architecture
of your garden and home.

Garden structures can add personality.

Don’t be afraid to embellish garden structures to reflect your own personality and add a touch
of whimsy. In the 18th century, English gardens often featured structures called follies, which
were fanciful buildings meant to add sense of fun. Modern garden follies include cabanas, gazebos,
and playhouses. With a little imagination, you can even transform potting sheds and storage
buildings into something spirited and delightful.

Framing the View

Garden PathMuch of the process I go through when creating a garden is similar to the steps I go through in developing a painting. I use many of the same techniques that I learned in art classes when I compose a garden vignette. One of my favorite techniques is to frame a view within the garden. Just as an artist identifies the subject and frames it within the painting, the views in a garden can be enhanced in a similar way by creating screens to block undesirable views and opening avenues to direct the eye to focus on a scene’s most striking components.

The process is twofold. First you find an appealing object or scene that deserves attention. You can choose to frame a borrowed view from outside your garden such as an interesting building or a point where the sun sets on the horizon. Within the garden you can frame focal points such as statuary or a plant that is particularly impressive. You can also choose to frame views into your garden with gates or openings in fences or shrubs creating a sense of intrigue for those passing by.

You might ask, "How do I determine which views to frame?" Well, this of course depends on the effect you want to create. In smaller gardens you can make the space seem larger by framing expansive views from the surrounding landscape such as a distant building, open field or even an appealing element in your neighborhood. In gardens with more commodious proportions, opening up vistas may not be as important as limiting the emphasis to a few of the strongest views within the garden. This will create a more cohesive design by keeping the composition simple rather than overloading visual circuits with competing focal points.

In both cases learning to recognize axial relationships in your garden is one of the best ways to site your framed view. A visual axis or sight line is simply the line or view the eye follows from one point to an object in the distance. Stand in the area of your garden with the strongest or most appealing vantage point. This could be your front porch, back patio or even inside your house looking through a window or open door. Look out from your vantage point and select the strongest object in view. This may be the vista of a river beyond, or a potting shed, a large tree or the steeple of a church in the distance. This line between point "A" and point "B" is your primary axis.

Once the scene or object has been identified and the sight line has been established, the next step is to consider ways to frame the view to screen out surrounding distractions and direct the eye toward the object or vista. This is much easier than you might think. The pendulous branches of a weeping willow can be removed above a path, thereby framing the path itself, heightening the pleasure for anyone who walks along the path. Allowing a climbing rose to trail around your kitchen window or offering a glimpse of your house through a grove of birch trees are just a few ways of creating garden vignettes without a lot of effort.

In some cases, it will be important to screen undesirable views or objects to eliminate distractions, such as a neighbor’s house, power lines, or trash cans. Once you determine the view that you want to highlight look for existing elements to help build your screen. Privacy fences, buildings, existing trees and evergreens can all be incorporated to eliminate distractions and frame the attractive components.

I’m not advocating that you block off the entire world. A combination of solid and transparent elements is an effective screen without screaming "Keep Out!" For instance, a picket fence encloses my property. Along the fence line I have created a bank of evergreens, deciduous shrubs, roses and small trees. I place the evergreens where I want to completely shield a view and use the other plants to soften the screen and allow windows both in and out of the garden.

As you create your framed views, it’s also important to keep in mind that a balanced composition doesn’t necessarily mean that it is symmetrical. A symmetrical composition is one that is framed by its mirror image, so on one side of the view you may have a large tree and on the other an indentical tree. This is a good route to take for a formal design, but in many cases I find it more desirable to achieve a balanced composition where each side of the view has the same visual weight, but is not necessarily a matching pair. Let’s say a view in a garden had a bank of dark evergreens sited to the left side, it could be brought into balance if the right side had a cluster of trees completely different in shape and form and even color, but equal in visual weight. It wouldn’t even have to be trees or shrubs, a small building or part of your house could also help bring the composition into balance.

"Reframing" is a phrase we hear in modern psychology, which suggests taking a different view on an issue or a situation. How something is framed in many ways is about containing, establishing boundaries and parameters. It becomes the first step toward focusing on a center of interest. Just as reframing in psychology helps us to reassess a situation, effectively framing the views of our gardens helps us to focus and draw attention, teaching us to look for ways to frame previously unrecognized views or potential in our own gardens.

Creating Mystery in the Garden

But she was inside the wonderful garden and she could come through the door under the ivy any time and she felt as if she had found a world all her own.
The Secret Garden
Frances Hodgson Burnett

One of my favorite stories is that of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. What a wonderful tale of discovery and healing. The allure and mystery of that hidden garden has always been an inspiration for me in the gardens that I design.

Creating a sense of mystery is often the most overlooked element in a garden’s design because it has such a subtle presence. Unlike color, enclosure or structure, mystery is more about feeling than seeing.

Ivy Covered ArborAdding mystery to your garden is all about using the unknown as an element of design. A bubbling fountain, a bend in a path and a hidden alcove are all features that pique curiosity, begging the visitor to journey onward toward discovery. By igniting your visitor’s imagination the moment they enter your garden, you create a heightened awareness in them.

Just as Mary from The Secret Garden knew there was something special just beyond the ivy covered walls, with the added element of mystery, visitors to your garden will be inspired to discover the beauty waiting to be found within.

Creating a Garden Entry


Catmint Lined Entry Path

Entry to A Japanese Garden

Ivy Covered Entry Arch

Flagstone Stoop

Blue Gate

An important component to your garden home is the entrance. A welcoming entry not only improves the curb appeal, but it also signals to your guests, "You have arrived. This is where my garden home begins."

An entrance can be as simple as an upturned stone beside a flagstone path or as grand as a gilded wrought iron gate. It all depends on style, setting and budget. The best entries offer a hint of your personality and your home’s décor.

Begin the design process by evaluating your site. Where would you like to place the entrance?

Sometimes the choice is predetermined by existing walks. In other cases you may have a blank slate. Also, how would you like visitors to reach your house? Do you want to create a direct path or perhaps guide them through a portion of the garden first?

Next pretend that there are no house numbers on your street. Without these indicators, how would you describe your house and garden so that guests would know they have come to the right place? Now incorporate some of these descriptors in your entry design. Using similar elements creates continuity between the house, garden and entrance.

Finally decide on a budget. It doesn’t take a lot of money to establish an entry. Two boxwoods planted on either side of a sidewalk or a cluster of containers might be all you need.

Here are a few tips that I use to create garden entries.

Make the passageway broad and commodious. A comfortable width for a garden entry should be at least four feet wide.

Scale the entry in proportion to the home and garden. A large house and grounds can support a grand entrance, while something subtle is more appropriate for a small home.

Repeat elements from your home’s entry at the garden entry. Similar details, stylistic touches, and/or materials will knit the house and garden together and provide continuity and a sense of style.

Encourage your visitors to slow down. Accent the entrance with fragrant, colorful or soft plants. A few pots of lavender, bright dahlias or fuzzy lamb’s ear will invite people to stop and smell the roses.

Make the destination clear. While it doesn’t have to be a straight line, the primary route leading from your garden’s entrance to your front door should be somewhat direct. If a path takes you markedly out of your way, it will seldom be used. Use your habit as your guide. What course do you naturally take? Ask yourself, "Will I is this a path I will use if I place it here?"

Your front porch or stoop is a transitional point between the garden and the inside of your home. If space allows, make the area large enough to accommodate several people. A good rule of thumb for the size of the landing is one and a half to two times the width of the path.