Elements of design: repose

ONE OF THE INEVITABLE and unfortunate correlations of gardening is that the more the gardener loves plants, the more difficult it becomes to achieve the quality of repose. A garden is, after all, conceived of as a haven, a refuge against the press of the world, a place set apart to be ruled by order, beauty, and serenity. But the enthusiasm with which the gardener often pursues his or her passion too frequently can result in a garden that, though it may be rich, complex, and striking, is anything but quiet.

Stating the issue this way is, of course, to build up a false dichotomy between still, serene gardens on the one hand and those rich and complex with the endless fascination of plants on the other. Within a good garden, whatever its size, these conflicting impulses can be reconciled, but not without an awareness of the problem and the conscious willingness to work out its resolution. For all gardens worthy of the name are not so much planted as composed

The surest way to achieve a feeling of repose in a garden is to balance those parts that are highly worked with parts of equal size that are simple. In many gardens there can be no better balance than that offered by expanses of mown grass, which create ponds of repose lapping against the shores of borders vivid with flowers or thick with masses of shrubbery. Though shrinking the lawn or eliminating it altogether has become a kind of credential for the serious gardener (or even the “moral” gardener), I can think of nothing so conducive to a sense of repose than a generous greensward. Of course it is not for all climates. But other expansive, neutral surfaces may work as well raked gravel, for example, or large flat slabs of stone, softened by creeping thymes or other drought-tolerant, mat-forming plants if the area is in the sun, or by gentle mosses and small ferns if it is shady. Whatever the material, the principle is the same–to counter much with little, to offset abundance with restraint. Read more