Archive for January, 2014

January 24, 2014

Getting in touch with your inner designer!

by Ciaran Burke

Carefully placed objects can enhance the garden experience

It is brown, barely visible, one has to look closely and bend down to examine the small flowers, thin and sinuous, like a dark rodent tail, almost hidden by the foliage. I think it is fabulous, Asarum probiscidum. The green flowers of Primula ‘Francisca’, ruffled and clustered on short stalks, pretty, not showy. Snowdrops, Galanthus sp., imagine a garden with fifty different kinds, a gardener proud of the collection. This is the world of the plant enthusiast. We plant people can be terribly nerdish, true anoraks walking around a garden on a wet February afternoon, bending to admire the subtle differences between one snowdrop and another. We “ooh: and “aah” at the green markings, only visible when viewed from beneath the white skirt of petals. Perhaps we are a bit odd.

Living in Ireland, we have the opportunity to grow a wide range of plants. The winter air is warmed, most years, by the Gulf Stream. Our island is spared from the harshest cold by our enclosure of ocean. The rain that we all complain so much about, waters our plants. Our gardens do not really stop during the year, even in the depths of winter there are plants in growth, flowers blooming, there are fruits and foliage to admire.
Not everyone can get as excited as me about the mouse-like blooms of Asarum probiscidum, many will think snow drop fanciers are a little bit mad and very sad. That is okay. A garden is more than a collection of plants. It is not just a cabinet to display the prizes of the collector: the freaks, the beautiful, the rare and expensive.

Gardens can fulfill various functions and fancies. It can be a picture of beauty, a lively composition of colour, an outdoor room to entertain and live. It is also a sanctuary for the mind, a rest for the tired body, a rejuvenator of the spirit. Gardens can provide vegetables for the kitchen pot, fruits for the dining room table. Gardens are places to interact, with nature and each other.

Experience is essential, it makes us what we are, gives us life. The space around our homes is not just a picture, framed by the windowpane, viewed from a patio door, glanced at while putting out the bin.
Raindrops held like jewels hanging from a flower, the smell of fresh cut grass, the aroma of a crushed lavender sprig. The quiet calm of an autumn morning, the golden glow of a summer’s evening doused in sweet scents, the murky winter morning shrouded in fog, coated in frost; moments of magic, unique and sometimes fleeting. The view, the smell, the feel, they create atmosphere; we live the experience and cherish the memory.

Strolling through a beautiful garden we admire many things; the flowers, the colours, perhaps the perfume on the air. A path might lead us to a destination, but it also might guide our sight. We might be blissfully unaware that our gaze moved slowly along the airy flower heads of lady’s mantle that complemented the other yellow blooms. A golden foliaged conifer; its placement provided the structural form and resting place for the eye as the path curved way from view, invited us to explore.

Sitting on a stone bench, the air is quiet except for the rustle of leaves and the hum from insects. Comfortable and secure, restful and serene we take for granted the beauty of the scene, the experience of escape. The placement of the seat in this garden room is no accident. The height of the enclosure, the light that enters, the amount of space and uncluttered feel are elements that make this place so perfect.
If the hedges were any higher, our seat would be darker. If the opening to the path was narrower we might feel imprisoned. The hedge is high enough to make us feel private, low enough to allow us to see the sky, a protective boundary to keep the world out but not to incarcerate. Here in the haven, the degree of our enclosure, how the hedge surrounds the space and leaves a gap for entrance and exit, is a comforting hug not a tight grasp.
Beneath our feet is gravel, light, grey and rounded, a similar colour to the stone bench on which we sit. Harmony of the materials and their colour rests our senses, provides comfort. The colours around us are predominantly green, the soothing shade that relaxes our eyes. But if is not dull, not boring. Some soft pastel shades, a billowing catmint, a tall purple verbena and arching Dierama waves its angel fishing rod flowers above the stones in the slight breeze. The green leaves are not all identical; there are soft ferns in the shade and wide hosta leaves and shapely lady’s mantels topped with frothy soft yellow flowers. A quiet combination of foliage that arouses an interest but does not impose, and colour blends that recede to a respectful distance; soothing and pacifying.

Garden path

Garden path

Leaving the serenity of the secluded seat we walk to the open borders. We are invigorated by the frenzy of colour that fills each facing bed separated by the fine lawn. Burning bright Crocosmia masoniorum blazes with bright orange Helenium autumnale and golden Rudbeckia. The sight is lively and inspiring.


We take for granted the depth of the borders, how each one mirrors the other in size and shape. They are deep enough to accommodate the tall plants, separated by a lawn of good proportion so that we can admire their show along their entire lengths; excellent proportion. The balance either side is subtle, almost imperceptible, yet if it is not right we notice.
The path between the borders leads us to a water feature, this garden room enclosed by the plain backdrop of soft textured yew hedges. The borders appear longer than they actually are. The designer has played with the perspective, the line are not quite parallel. The colours are chosen and graded, hot colours as we enter gradually cool; the reds and oranges mellow to yellow, mauves cool to soft shades of pastel pink and wispy hues of palest blue. The colour gradient emphasizes the fact that the hot reds jump into out vision while soft pastels move away, drifting to the distance. The result, the border seems longer that it is.

The water feature at the end is carefully constructed. It is a focal point on which our eyes will rest, for a moment. Not too big to be an exclamation. Not too flamboyant so as to out do the borders but punctuation in the long space.
From the centre of the round pool, water bubbles from the centre of a rock, tumbles peacefully over the sides and returns to the pool creating a lively ripple. This carefully placed pond and well designed fountain retains the atmosphere of the lively but controlled herbaceous border, the central stone is similar in tone to the surrounding paving, harmony of style and colour.

Plants can be used as ornament to decorate a space or to create the design. They can add texture, colour, form, fragrance and interest throughout the year. How they are combined, where they are placed and how they are used with other features with in our garden; if done so with thought and careful consideration, this will create a more beautiful garden. There is a little bit of a garden designer in every gardener; we must not ignore this creative part of our persona. Instead if we develop our hidden designer, express our creativity, enhance our awareness of colours, forms, balance and harmony, we can transform a collection of plants into a part of something even more beautiful.That strange dark mouse plant, that collection of bright snowdrops and the green ruffled primrose can be details in a composition of garden beauty, components of a greater garden heaven.

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