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.

As important as a flat and quiet plane of grass or gravel or stone in achieving repose is the use of the large gesture. Particularly with herbaceous plants, it is frequently better to create large drifts of several individuals in a species, enough to make their use seem to be the stroke of nature’s hand rather than a niggling, arbitrary human caprice. Such bold plantings run contrary to the gardener’s urge to grow all his or her favorite plants, even if only as one of this, one of that, and one of another. And in very confined gardens, an extraordinary degree of restraint may be necessary if repose is to be the result. But in gardens of more ample size, a secluded place can usually be found–a bit of rockery, a cutting garden, a corner of the vegetable plot–where the collector’s impulse can run free, and where the gardener can go when his energies are high and when the balm of repose is not what he is seeking. From such places he may be glad to retreat, at the end of a day of fiddling and a surfeit of color, to quieter, more restrained parts of the garden, where only a few species, in large groups, rest the eye, the spirit, and even the muscles.

Another device useful in achieving repose is that of repetition. In formal gardens, where hedges, topiaries, and paths form an ordered rhythm, repose is easy to achieve, though its younger sibling, tedium, may quickly shoulder it away. In informal gardens, the repetition of elements, even of rather formal elements, is no less valuable, and far less subject to such sibling rivalry. So the disheveled and untidy tumble of a garden of old roses might be given order by the repetition of columnar evergreens, by fat, rounded cushions of boxwood, or even by the glossy foliage of peonies out of flower. In a perennial garden, exuberant with bloom, one plant of quaint and beautiful leaf, such as the silvery Artemisia Iudoviciana, might be repeated at re intervals to draw the eye in a quiet rhythm over the whole. And even in the “wild” meadow or woodland garden, an ordered sequence of strong repeated shapes the pyramids of native hemlocks and junipers or columns of yew could add, by their solidity of form, a quality of repose to the lush tumble of lesser plants around them.

But if the garden itself is a quiet retreat from a busy world, one sometimes craves within it a still further retreat, even from the garden itself. No one knows better than the gardener the degree to which its beauty is won by unrelenting and often exhausting labor, a labor that is really never done. Sometimes a place apart–one that asks little and does not confront the roving, anxious eye with the chores of deadheading, staking, pruning, tying in, tying up, cutting back, dividing, or replanting–is necessary to the gardener’s sanity and even to the garden’s continued existence. He needs a resting spot, where he can sit and stare, and such spots should be literally hidden away, sheltered all around, out of sight not only of the world but of the garden itself.

In my own garden, this resting place is a small round terrace of fieldstone, almost covered over with mosses and surrounded by sturdy shrubs of the easiest care–Viburnum dentatum, Berberis Xmentorentis, and Enkianthus campanulatus. Around their ankles are swirls of groundcover, glossy-leaved myrtle, blue-eyed in spring, and patches of Geranium macrorrhizum, pine-scented on a hot summer day and softly pumpkin-colored in autumn. There is hardly a weed to pull, and there is a seat, an old weathered stone nicely flat on top, convenient for only one person and too low to jump up from in a hurry. The labor of prying it from the neighboring fields and setting it just where it rests is all but forgotten. It is there forever. But I am not, for 1 confess that I seldom settle in this spot to rest. It exists mostly as a possibility, a feeling in the mind, as repose, in gardens, always is.

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