The core of garden design is concerned with garden ground patterns, and the spaces within the patterns, based on an understanding of simple geometry. We can achieve this in difficult ways. Inspiration can came from many different disciplines – collage, abstract painting, architecture, furniture, Persian carpets, textiles or packaging, for example.
Contemporary landscape architects look to the work of painters such as Mondrian, or Modernists architects such as Le Corbusier for ideas. They in turn were influenced by the Ancient Greek and Renaissance artists, whose work was inspired by abstract ideas of beauty expressed in geometry and the principle of the golden section.
The latter, in simple terms, is the most ‘comfortable’ point at which one naturally divides a straight line or rectangle, almost two-thirds of the way down its length and not, as might be expected, in the middle.
By keeping your garden ground patterns relatively crisp and ‘architectural’ close to the house, and more fluid further away, you will achieve a logical progression of shapes as you move down the garden, which will in turn create a feeling of space.
Rectangular shapes used near the house as a series of overlapping garden ground patterns based on the golden section, with raised beds, a pool, built-in seatings, and planting to spill over and soften the outline, can make a fascinating garden ground pattern that links naturally with the shape of the building.
In the middle and more distant parts of the garden these patterns can become more fluid. Curves are one of the designers most important tools, allowing features, paths and the underlaying pattern to link and merge with one another. A design based on curves can be drawn with a pair of compasses so that one shape flows smoothly into the next. On the ground it can be reproduced by using a line attached to a metal pin or a cane, and marking the arch with a trail of sand.
Remember that any scheme will look stark on a drawing and when first pegged out on the ground, but a strong design will be enhanced by planting, whereas a weak garden ground pattern will simply look a mess. Remember, too, the visual difference between shapes drawn on a plan and actually laid on the ground. You will be hovering like a bird over your plan. When the same shapes – and curves in particular -are seen at eye level they appear sharper and flatter. A useful trick to try is to hold your plan at eye level and sight across it.
Formal gardens, fashionable again today, a based on symmetrical garden ground patterns, with one part mirroring the other. Often laid out along a central axis with groups of plants echoing the underlaying geometry of the composition, formal gardens can be used to reinforce the architectural style of a period building, and to provide a link between the house and the landscape beyond.
Informal gardens depend on asymmetric designs. Here, instead of mirror images, you have to imagine two unequal weights positioned round a fulcrum. To achieve a balance, the heavier of the two weights must be placed nearer to the fulcrum and the lighter one further away. In garden design terms this means that the visual weight of one feature must always be offset by another smaller or larger one in order to balance the overall composition.
A rock garden, for example, might need to be offset by a group of trees in another part of the garden, and the associated planting surrounding them; a water feature may effectively be placed near to a screen heavily planted with climbers. The scale of these features will balance one another in visual terms, depending on their distance apart and size.
There is a growing trend towards creating total informality in the garden, which often favors the development and planning of wildlife and ‘ecological’ compositions. Although such areas should look as natural as possible, they require at least as much attention to planning as formal or asymmetric designs. Areas of wildflowers or dense shrubs will provide the ideal habitat for wildlife, but they can look messy. Try to maintain an area of formality immediately around the house, increasing the informality as you move away. Ensure that your balance each area of dense planting, and mow access paths through tougher grass so that the whole composition works as a cohesive unit.
Garden ground patterns of this kind, around which the whole basis of garden design revolves, are used to form the working spaces within the garden. For, ultimately, it is the spaces created by the patterns that are important, rather than the patterns themselves.