Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

The lines of sight become clear now Drama: Winter is the time to study your garden's design, the set on which blooms will play next spring.


Some people think that there is nothing sadder than a garden in winter. I used to think this, too, and it depressed me a great deal to have nothing to look at once the "growing season" had ended. That was when I discovered that my garden had no bones.

When deciduous leaves have been shed, and the last blossoms have been killed by frost, what remains are evergreens and architectural features. These are what give the garden its strong, enduring and sheltering elements -- they are its "bones." Winter is possibly the best time for assessing your garden's design. It is then that the harmony, beauty and character of a garden -- or the lack of them -- are most starkly revealed.

Among the most important things the bones of a garden do is define the lines of sight and create the depth of view that is essential to a satisfying garden design.

This is not really as technical as it sounds. Sight lines are simply where you want people to look (and what you want them to walk toward). Often these become the main pathways. Depth of field makes what you are looking at more interesting by forcing the eye to "travel" into the landscape.

Think 3-D

Think of the garden in three dimensions. This sounds obvious, but it is amazing how easy it is to be lulled into looking at a garden as flat -- like a painting rather than a sculpture. Just as a sculpture seems to ask the viewer to walk around it, so does a garden silently invite the visitor to enter and become a participant.

A good way to do this is by imagining the garden as a stage, with separate back, middle and foregrounds.

No matter if your garden is designed to be seen from one or two stationary points or to be strolled about in, and no matter whether it is 20 feet square or 20 acres, with this creation of depth you are always led onward visually. This makes the garden seem larger and more interesting. To see an entire garden at first glance is to quickly follow pleasure with boredom. No matter how beautiful, you have seen it all -- what more remains?

The place to begin is with the background. This is the canvas against which you set your scene, and most of its function is to provide a harmonious backdrop that does not call undue attention to itself.

Good backgrounds, like the curtains and scenery of a theater stage, screen out those things that would interfere with the mood and beauty of the garden, while creating its basic ambience and character.

Backgrounds often hide the crude, backstage workings of garden life: the compost pile, the tool shed, the clothesline, the garbage cans, the heat pump or air conditioner. The background should also help to hide any unpleasant views while focusing attention on visual elements you want to keep -- a distant church steeple, a grand old tree, a finely crafted brick wall.

When you go outside, look for these pleasant views, whether near or distant, and imagine how you might plant -- or prune -- to emphasize them and make them part of your scenery. (They become what is called a borrowed or captured landscape.)

Evergreen trees and shrubs, dense hedges, and trellises or walls frequently form the background of a garden, since they perform this function the year round. Choices will depend on how rapidly you want to achieve your privacy or fully grown design, and what the style of your garden is going to be, as well as how much money you can afford to spend.

Generally, plants are less expensive to use, but slow. Brick or stone walls are classic, handsome and last forever, but can be outrageously expensive. Wood fencing is less permanent, but is HTC quick, and can serve as a secondary background until plants are full size.

The middle ground is what gives the garden a sense of depth, by separating the foreground from the background. It is most effective when it hides part of the background, thereby tricking the eye and enticing the imagination beyond what is actually there. This adds greatly to the impression of size, even in a small garden.

Various flowering shrubs, vines, trees and large ornamental grasses are good choices for the middle ground. They will act like the chorus in a play, adding depth, color and interest to the garden, and taking a cameo role from time to time without stealing the limelight.

Architectural features, such as arches, gazebos, statuary, low fences, and pools or fountains are also frequently used here for the same reason.

Right up front

The foreground is normally the first thing that catches your eye in a garden, of course. The most ravishing flowers belong here, with the most elusive fragrances. Whether tulips, peonies, tea roses or potted plants on a patio, these foreground plants are the garden's prima ballerina, so to speak. The foreground is the part of the scene that changes most often, sometimes daily. Here is the place to saturate the eye with color and create the strongest impact.

Yet the eye soon grows tired of such intensity. It will be drawn irresistibly back into the calmer middle ground, where it slows and begins to pick up different things: the shape of Japanese maple leaves, a cascade of shrub roses, the handsome foliage of a young magnolia, a beckoning bench.

Then it notices things beyond these, and again pauses and travels, guided by paths and the shapes and textures of plants into the retreating background, perhaps to a more distant view beyond.

Even if you know that all that lies around the corner of the pine tree and fence is a compost pile and a neighbor's chain-link fence, you can still create the illusion that there is more to be discovered. Illusion is the handmaiden of great gardens. It is what keeps us coming back, to look again and again.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad