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.