Garden Esthetics




Spiritual Reflections

Pagan Witchcraft


Who Is Starweaver?

Archive of Past Issues

Site Index

Blog: Starweaver's Corner


For me, gardening, whatever its other rewards, is an esthetic experience. When I was young, I followed the practical advice in vegetable gardening books and planted things in orderly rows, like a small farm. This was even how I treated my irises, when I grew them by the hundreds for showing and breeding.

But I became increasingly enamored of the beautiful outdoor spaces that some of my friends created with their gardens. Swirling drifts of flowers, dark green lawns, old trees providing a calm and cool microclimate, sheltering us from the summer sun.

A garden is always, to some degree, an unnatural place, and artifact of human design. No garden is the same as wild nature. But there are many different ways and degrees by which the stamp of human contrivance can appear in a garden. Through much of history, gardens were not intended to echo or emulate nature at all. Garden design followed the sensibilities of archetecture, and plants that failed to comform to the specifications and expectations of the designer were avoided. The formal gardens of Europe, for example, are certainly great works of art, but they sometimes leave me wondering whether marble and iron might not have answered the designer's needs more dutifully than living things.

During the Romantic period, a new appreciation of the natural world percolated up in Europe, and people began designing gardens with an esthetic that paid homage to natural spaces. Paths drifted sinuously between trees, flowers sprung up in drifts as though scattered there by Nature's hand. Increased exposure to Japanese gardens and their more fluid esthetic also left a great impact on 20th century gardens in Europe and the US.

I feel that nature has its own esthetic, which we see in the design of individual plants, and in the interpenetration of different species in the wild. In the garden, this esthetic comes into conversation with my own human artistic sensibilities. The gardens I like best now are ones where neither party completely dominates the conversation. We too, are natural creatures, though we are prone to forget that. We can bring into play the elements we enjoy: color, line, and form - without silencing the natural ways of the plants we grow or forcing them into preconceived roles. Plants that find their niche in a garden are always beautiful and healthy. When a plant makes such a choice to belong where it is, it becomes something I work with, changing my designs as I go.

Nothing fascinates me quite as much as old, overgrown gardens, that still receive some love from their human custodians. They are conversations matured into shared reminiscences. The groundcovers still remember the flagstones when they were first set, but now have added their own voice, creating a collaborative performance. The tree that was once a young sapling now dominates a space never designed for it, so the space has changed - no longer an exuberant flower bed, but a quite enclave of shade-lover plants and the creatures that enjoy them.

If your garden is not a hundred years old, you can still partake of this esthetic of give-and-take. Here are some guidelines I use to create more naturalistic garden spaces:

  • Keep outlines soft, marking boundaries with stones or other natural elements, rather than fences or rigid edging.
  • Let the plants expand and move as they choose
  • Place artificial elements with a little randomness (not too much, or they will look incongruous)
  • Avoid using straight lines
  • Intermingle perennials and annuals; plant the perennials in key locations, and fill in with annuals between them
  • Intermingle flowers, herbs, and vegetables
  • Intermingle walkways and ground covers
  • Place sprawling plants near boundaries, where their growth break up the appearance of the edge
  • Allow your garden plants to coexist with native plants

Your garden can express your personality, and yet become something more, with the passage of a little time and a willingness to listen to the plants' suggestions.

In the Garden is a regular feature of Starweaver's Gems from Earth and Sky

Copyright © 2008 Tom Waters