By Paige Patterson
Where’s the secret in your garden?
In mine, the land rises so that until you walk to the middle of the yard where the garage lives, you don’t realize that the garden continues for at least another acre and a half. The front is more stuffed with plants, but invariably when you get to the back of the garage and you see how the second half of my land rolls down and away, the thing most people say is, “Wow.”
Isn’t that kind of what we’re all looking for when we create gardens? Not just a space filled with flowers or manicured with various shades of green, but the creation of an outside arena that each time we experience it, or share it with others, there’s that little moment of surprise, the thrill of the reveal. Sometimes the surprise is a simple as a hedge not actually being a border, but a way to delay the truth.
To increase the feeling of discovery at my house I transplanted a hodgepodge of hydrangeas from all around my property to create a mixed bed on one side of my garage. It gives the eye a place to rest and fools you into thinking the property might stop there. I didn’t want to create a wall; just wanted your eye to hit lacy white flowers and get distracted. It blocks some of the view out my back windows, but it also forces me to get out of my chair and to go visit the rest of my own garden and so get a little of that “Wow” myself.
Most of us, when we look out our back windows, see the entire back of our property all at once. And for most of us, it’s a rectangle of green surrounded by a hedge or screen of brown and green. Pretty basic, right? Which is not to say it’s not beautiful, most gardens are out here, but what you’re missing is the ability to create mystery that a garden with a secret can provide.
One of the basic tenets of landscape design is that you don’t want to see everything at once. To take in the whole space in one sweeping glance means there is no impetus to go explore, to see what’s around the corner, or through that gate or off to the left. Now granted you can’t see the front yard from the back, but I’m challenging you to broaden your way of thinking about gardens and create intrigue in your yard by hiding a part of it.
Perhaps instead of one long rectangle of back yard you can create a series of rooms that connect and open out on each other, with openings that link one to another in a chain. Or maybe in the middle of the screening at the back of your property you could mount an outdoor mirror on a slight angle (a la Bob Dash) so that as you approached it you don’t see your own reflection but that of the garden creating the illusion of an entire undiscovered area of green that extends way beyond your actual boundaries.
Even the simple act of setting a sculpture, birdbath or garden ornament in such a way that you can only discover it by moving through your garden will add a frisson of excitement to your world. Hide it with a shrub or behind the trunk of a tree so that it can be discovered and you will have changed the entire tone of your yard.
There’s a garden in North Haven that is created as a series of paths that meander and weave under a stand of trees that came with the house. The couple could have simply fed their need for color by removing most of the trees, limbing up the rest and creating deep perennial borders on all three sides of the property. Instead they sacrificed some of their lawn and created a deeper walk through a woodland they built from scratch. The garden is still lush and beautiful in a 270 degree view from the back of their house, but to really see it you have to enter it and let it lead you through. Then you get the reward of discovering the scattered fountains, statuary, specimen plantings and visual pauses that are only accessible to those who are willing to explore.
I promise that you can add mystery and excitement to any of the areas around your house by just changing the way you look at it. I once worked with a couple from East Hampton who wanted to screen their back yard and plant out their deer fence. Based on their light requirements, the existing trees and their need for height in some areas, we started with a mixed tapestry of evergreens on the extremely close neighbors’ side. This turned the corner and morphed into a white pine grove that blocked another neighbor. The pines segued into bamboo that provided the height needed to block a garage and the airiness required to not cast a pool into deep shade. Bamboo transitioned into pines again and then became a mix of viburnums and other flowering shrubs that turned the corner and continued onto the third side of their property. On that side all they needed to hide was overgrown scrub and thicket that led into woods on preserved land. The screening worked great on paper and they were happy when all the plants were placed before planting, but I asked them to indulge me for a moment. Walking over to the corner of viburnums I grabbed a plant, threw a ball cart under it, and dragged it out of line. After the third plant was pulled out of place the couple started asking me why I was making their property smaller and cutting off a chunk of their land. I didn’t answer until I had the plants curved perfectly, then I walked over and stood quietly next to them until they stopped muttering.
“Watch,” I said, and walking back to the viburnums I grabbed one and tugged it out of the curve and back into the corner of their property. Moving that one plant opened a “door” and invited the woodland behind back into their landscape. Suddenly a path to the beyond appeared so now instead of being walled in, it appeared that if they just strolled through the viburnums they’d find a meandering walk that would lead to the large woods that rolled out behind their house for acres. One couldn’t actually get to those trees, the deer fence was only about five feet away, but the whole yard changed when I pulled that one plant back and opened their minds.
We planted it that way. It was too provocative not to, and through the art of selective pruning, it’s still working for them. Unfortunately, the sweep of hydrangeas I talked about earlier isn’t pulling your eye around the corner as well as it initially did. In the last seven or eight years it’s gotten too tall, the flowers too high, so soon it’s going to be time to move them. But it’s okay, gardening is like that – everything keeps growing, everything keeps changing, and who knows, the next time I move them I might even surprise myself.
Paige Patterson avoids weeding her own garden by visiting those belonging to others.