Issue: Spring 2010
Conceptualizing the Garden
Written by Eve Gilmore
The best gardens or planted landscapes begin with a concept — an idea of what is to be accomplished. This is where every landscape design begins.
Landscape design, as I like to think of it, embraces both fashion and function; it is about making a space look great while meeting the needs of the people who spend their time there. Looking great to one person may mean a subtle blending into the nature that surrounds the garden; to another it may mean bright, striking color throughout the season or a place to showcase sculpture and other artwork.
Landscape design is a practical art form. Every design is different, just as every person is different, and assembling the right mix of elements and placing them on the land artfully is the challenge and the beauty of the process. Succinctly stated by George Schenk in The Complete Shade Gardener:
The arrangement of plants into a garden is an art I find indistinguishable from any other arrangement of objects for harmony. This most universal art seems to me a kind of sculpting of the features of one’s environment toward one’s sense of home and accord. In this sense, a garden is a sculpture modeled, basically, out of soil, air, and plants.
Panayoti Kelaidis, renowned horticulturist and senior curator of the Denver Botanic Gardens, refers to gardening as the slowest form of performance art. I love thinking in this way, because it captures the essence of the garden — intentioned and orchestrated by humans, yet still rooted in nature. We may well manipulate many lovely and varied species of plants around a theme or a concept, but much of the performance in a garden is what happens from there. The plants dance through their seasonal changes according to the programming in their genes, showing up with amazing fragrance one day, gorgeous magenta flowers another, and, if they’re in the mood, brilliant red in the fall.
Sometimes the most spectacular part of the performance comes from the comingling of the array of different plants living on the stage of the garden. Much thought is given to this collage in the planning phase. Some of the performance is managed — pruning, weeding, transplanting — but behind the curtain magnificent things happen that could not be planned or created. Some plants reseed themselves, migrating to new locations, highlighting outstanding and unthought-of combinations of foliage and flower, richly adding to the performance.
Also, like performance art, a garden is temporary. We hope our gardens will last as long as we do, as long as the buildings they surround; but ultimately, they are a part of nature and will one day be reclaimed by nature. Andrew Goldsworthy, world-famous nature artist, readily acknowledges, and actively plans for, the ephemeral quality of his art. In his words:
Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. Nature is in a state of change and that change is the key to understanding. I want my art to be sensitive and alert to changes in material, season and weather. Each work grows, stays, decays. Process and decay are implicit. Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature.
We have such a wonderful palette of show-stopping plants that thrive in our southwest conditions and such striking natural landscape vistas. The landscape artist has no shortage of material or inspiration from which to choose. For this reason, the success of a landscape design, the beauty and performance of a garden, really do depend on the concept, the idea that will help reign in the endless options, that instigating force that caused the design process to begin.
Eve Gilmore is a landscape designer, garden coach and owner of Gardens by Eve, LLC. She currently writes the monthly gardening column in CREA’s Colorado Country Life magazine. Eve’s passion is working with plants and people in hopes of optimizing the experience of both. She can be reached via http:// www.gardensbyeve.buzztown.com or by calling (970) 769-3319.