January 31, 2019
Flow in the garden is not merely the glug glug glug of white wine on a hot summer’s evening, or the dribbling excellence as dad scores that incredible goal past his 3-year-old son, but also the sense and feel that the garden gives to you as you enter the outdoor space.
Why is it that in some gardens you’re tugged and drawn to head in a specific direction, or tempted to pause and reflect, to amble, or to surge forward on some great adventure as you are led along the garden path? There are some nifty tricks of the trade to this – here are some of our thoughts on the art of creating flow in the garden. Naturally this is not exhaustive – and there are even lots of examples that will contradict my approach – as with anything! Ultimately it is experience that helps you understand what will work for a given situation, and hopefully this guide will give you a feel to help you go with the flow… Tricks that we hope you can utilise in your garden in Kent, Sussex or Surrey – whether you have a tiny town house garden or a rambling estate.
Harmony and contrast
Harmony is when one object works in synchrony or matches with the next. For example, as we step out of the house, we typically find ourselves outside a large, hopefully beautifully formed, square and angular box. To maintain harmony with the house we use rectangular, straight features, producing formal, neat shapes which typically work well with the architecture of the house. This approach reduces contrasting themes which clash with the form of the building. However, we will often soften these angular features with planting, whilst maintaining the underlying structure, allowing for a smooth transition from your house to your terrace and to the garden beyond.
On the other hand, contrast tends to draw the gaze; it is a great tool to capture people’s attention and get them to focus a while on specific features you wish them to contemplate, before being distracted by the next attraction.
Linking space through geometry
Unlike rooms of a house that we tend to link with doorways, gardens give us the opportunity to overlap spaces and create floor plans that encourage you to naturally move from one area to another; this can be especially effective where there are changes in level. It’s these overlapping areas that become the ‘rooms’ through which you travel, drawing you through and around your garden – be it a postage stamp or a country estate.
The key difference when linking space through geometry between smaller and larger gardens is that in large country gardens, natural forms such as trees, hedges and the landscape beyond dominate the boundaries. Unlike the straight edges of your house, the countryside meanders in curves, becoming weathered and softly eroded over time. Because of this, the geometry in larger gardens will tend to transition from the formal, typically rectilinear, space by the house to the semi-formal/semi-natural and finally to the natural space, where gentle, harmonious curves become the theme. In smaller gardens, this effect can be much more difficult to accomplish, and sometimes it is best to keep the lay of the garden tight and formal – and perhaps with a hidden wilderness tucked into the corner.
Curiosity and surprise
There are some very effective techniques to stimulating curiosity in a garden design. We often work with sculptures or objects, which, when seen from a distance, draw you in to look more closely. Gateways, archways or gaps in hedges provide invitations to go and take a look at the hidden space beyond, and then surprise when you’re greeted with a grand vista, drawing you into the view. Here, our goal is to create a sense of tension, that ‘I must go and see’ feeling, then ‘Here I go’ and then, when you get there, a moment to think ‘Wow’ in surprise or to pause and contemplate the beautiful view.
The famous garden at Hidcote in the Cotswolds is an excellent example of a stunning grand vista, criss-crossed with alleyways that lead to the next surprise, creating a vibrant energy and a deep tranquillity.
Repetition and rhythm
When thinking about planting, using repetition – especially along a line – can help to highlight and define a way in and onwards. If every plant is different, every form irregular and every texture new, a garden can begin to feel very busy and chaotic.
Varying the spacing between repeated elements starts to affect the rhythm of your garden. Closely spaced elements are like fast paced semi-quavers in music. Elements which are spaced further apart are like the longer semibreve notes with the rests in between; this translates to a more leisurely walk. We’ve seen this done with excellent effect using box balls, topiary, specific plants, trees and even architectural objects such as chimney pots or stone balls.
Compression and expansion
Just as a river flows faster and deeper as a gorge narrows, the same is true of gardens; narrowing the space to constrict a pathway makes you want to walk faster.
There is a fantastic brick path at Great Dixter that is only four or five bricks wide; a narrow ribbon cutting its way through the tall meadow grass and past the repeated poplars. It sends kids (and unruly grown-ups) sailing and arcing across the landscape.
In contrast, just like when a river widens and the current slows, the wider a garden path, the slower the pace. This is highlighted as you move from a narrow path into a clearing, the flow slows to a trickle and a desire to linger is aroused. I remember this vividly from the Isabella Plantation in Richmond park, where a transition from a narrow path through rhododendrons into a wide clearing – perfect for picnics and long afternoons of fun with the kids – opens up. Or at Kew Gardens, where you walk beneath mighty trees, along mown paths in the long grass and then out onto expansive grasslands as you voyage out to the far east and the Chinese pagoda beyond.
Exposure and concealment
While man was a hunter, we were also hunted; we subconsciously retain all the instincts that served us well and protected us from ambush in prehistoric days. As a result, we have a natural dislike to being overexposed and so a bit of cover is a good thing – but be careful, too much cover and we can’t see what danger lies ahead! A long narrow path through woodland with no way to escape can be as subconsciously unnerving as standing in a wide expanse of garden with no cover from trees or planting to form barriers to any sudden rush from the enemy.
Linking back to compression and expansion, you can change the feeling and the desire to move quickly or slowly through a space by playing with the level of cover and protection offered. You can get a feel for this when you’re sat at a pavement café on holiday; with correctly placed umbrellas or a barrier of plants to protect you from the passers-by, it’s the perfect place to sit all day eating moules and sipping bubbly. But remove the canopy or planting and you wouldn’t sit there in a million years. The same concepts apply to your patio or garden terrace.
A well-designed garden takes all these concepts into account, applying them to your specific outdoor space, and adopting the feelings and energy you want to create. While some of these concepts may sound reserved for the grand and magnificent, a good garden designer will make them totally applicable to the small garden spaces to create flow and movement that complements your outdoor area.