Landscaping Lesson: Making the Most of Space

After you have decided upon the style of your garden, the next step is to define its space. Begin by thinking about your garden’s exterior boundaries. On small lots, especially urban ones, the demands of living in close proximity to one’s neighbors often force the owner to define and defend boundaries with a fence, a hedge or some other device. Whenever space constraints and privacy are not an issue, we have a tendency to neglect this concept often to the detriment of our landscape’s overall cohesiveness. The best metaphor I can think of is that a landscape without a boundary is like a picture without a frame. Even an exquisite canvas looks better with some kind of border.

This principle is well-illustrated in the adjoining illustrations taken from a 1930s guide promoting evergreens (which explains the heavy emphasis on their use). In the illustration showing the garden before the addition of exterior boundaries, the lot looks open and exposed: it has an unfinished look. With the placement of some simple plantings along the perimeter, spruce trees in this example, the landscape begins to take shape and the various design possibilities are more clearly evident. As with a frame for a painting, the type of plant material or structure you choose to define your garden’s outer perimeter should relate to the overall style of the garden. I would not necessarily recommend exclusively using spruces there are far more interesting solutions but you get the idea. The need for an outer perimeter doesn’t mean total enclosure. Far from it. Often the suggestion of a defined border is the only requirement to achieve the desired effect. Traditionally, if an attractive vista or some other interesting prospect lay outside the garden’s immediate borders, it would be framed so as to enable the viewer to peer past the foreground into the distance, as if through some large picture window. This idea of framing the view is borrowed from art you only need to look at most good landscape painting to see this is the case.

Any space, no matter what its size, needs definition to be effective. This premise is valued in interior design, but for some reason the need for visual enclosure is rarely given much consideration outdoors. Think of the boundaries of your garden as you do about the walls of your house: as organizational features that allow you to define your space, keep out unwanted elements, and let in pleasant elements. Equally important is how you use the space within the yard the internal divisions, if you will. Your house has rooms, after all, and so should your garden. Historically, our gardens were always separated into different areas by their use or function. Pleasure grounds were distinct from work areas, carriage yards from vegetable gardens, and so on. Obviously, there were practical aspects to this: in keeping unwanted animals, sights and smells away from the more recreational areas of the landscape. But there was more to this separation than practical, day-to-day concerns.

Outside, spaces look better when their different components are delineated in some way. Our Colonial forebears knew this lesson instinctually, and as easily as they carved out their house plots, farms, and fields from the virgin continent, they subdivided the space internally into a series of rooms that progressed logically, according to the dictates of use and the desire for aesthetics. A glance at any old New England farm, each field bordered with those wonderful old stone walls, will confirm this.

Look at the picture of the small suburban lot above. The yard is pleasantly divided into three main areas. Off the living room there is a small oval lawn for games and other outdoor entertainment; adjoining it, and separated by a short flight of steps, is a flower garden area with a lovely, small summerhouse adjoining the lawn; behind the garage, and screened off from the rest of the yard by an arbor and a hedge, is the vegetable garden. Each space comes alive and makes sense to the viewer because each has been given a logical definition and purpose. Obviously, the choices made here reflect the wonts and habits of the owners: a swimming pool could easily have been substituted for the vegetable garden, for example; the small sundial garden off the oval lawn would also work nicely as a lovely terrace and outdoor sitting area. Your use and needs will ultimately determine what your garden will contain. The important thing to realize is how much better these elements will look if different areas of the yard are clearly defined.

There are many different ways to divide a property into logical rooms. The idea is to choose a plan or layout that is appropriate to the feel and look of your garden. Also, you should consider the degree of separation or privacy you require. For example, a 6-foot brick wall will give a much greater degree of enclosure than a low row of hedge shrubs such as boxwoods. Historically, lines of trees, flower borders, fences, walls or changes in ground level (such as descending terraces) were common features and continue to be appropriate means of subdividing and defining space.

As important and historically correct as it is to logically divide and arrange your garden space, be careful not to do so to such an extent that it becomes a series of chopped up spaces that ceases to function as a whole. Each division should be justifiable and, most important, should seek to maximize the internal space available in each area. If you are lucky enough to have a large field or open space, for example, don’t subdivide it into three or four little sections unless there is a very good reason for doing so. Similarly, in very small gardens, a good general rule is to fortify the exterior boundaries, and maximize interior space wherever possible. You should also try to carve out windows, or views, into areas beyond your garden to suggest an open, expansive feeling.

After you have decided how you can make the most of your garden space, the next step is to make sure that all the various pieces complement each other. In the same way that you strive to unite the decor of the various rooms of your house, you should do the same with your garden. This is what we call unity in design, and that will be the subject of our next Landscaping Lesson.

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