By Mel Bellar
I think about perspective a lot. I/We are (hopefully) always “gaining perspective”, “putting things in perspective” and “keeping things in perspective”. Keeping perspective keeps me sane. When I get my knickers in a bunch over something of dubious import I try to get “out of the weeds” and view the situation from 10,000 feet and see how the situation looks from a different (more objective) perspective. Also, if I am having an irritating difference of opinion with someone, I find it very useful to try to see the situation from their perspective.
Enough therapy: perspective is probably the most important consideration in landscape or garden design. The most common and glaring mistakes I see in our man-made landscapes are problems with perspective (scale or proportion). It seems to be the hardest thing for folks to grasp, and it is really hard to convince someone that a small island bed with a cute bird bath in the middle of a huge lawn is not a good idea. It seems that this is something that some people just have to learn for themselves (or not!).
There are no hard and fast rules about the size of garden beds, but in general you don’t want something too small in a large space or too large in a small space. That goes for all elements of a garden: patios, paths, plants, furniture and structures. There are infinite subtleties involved in the proportions of a design, but if we keep this simple premise in mind, that is a good start. Oftentimes, this is an easy-to-understand practical consideration as well as a visual or aesthetic one. For instance, having a table to seat 8 on a 12’x 12’ patio would make it too tight to maneuver, and uncomfortable to boot. On the other hand, having a 2-person ice cream parlor table on a 20’x20’ patio would feel lonely and exposed and would look just as wrong.
These principles apply to the size of plants as well. When planting trees or shrubs we have to consider their full-grown size when choosing their placement (another whole column!). But in addition to avoiding putting large specimens too close to the house for practical reasons or blocking the views from windows, we also don’t want the plants to dwarf the house or space they inhabit. It is, aesthetically, equally important not to place plants that are too small to make a statement, or to have presence in a space too large around them. There needs to be the proper balance and perspective between the elements. The drawings below roughly illustrate the concept.
The other illustrations demonstrate how some larger shrubs or small trees at the corners of the house (and perhaps a large tree toward the front of the lot) can help balance the larger house enhancing its relationship with the overall landscape.
Susan Cohen, one of my teachers, a successful landscape architect and head of the continuing education department at the New York Botanical Garden, came up with a rule that the garden around the house should be approximately as wide as the house is tall. She calls it the Susan Cohen rule of course. I don’t necessarily practice this rule but it is not a bad guideline and works pretty well depending on the relationship of the house to the size of the property (she mostly works in suburbia). I do, however, really like a more intimate garden around the house, leading to a larger surrounding space with lawn and/or more informal naturalistic plantings.
* Don’t make little beds in the middle of the lawn
* Don’t make skinny beds along the edges of paths, fences or around the house. The beds should be at least half the width of the path, the height of the fence, or at least as wide as half of the first story of the house (bigger is better)
* Don’t make narrow paths to the main entrance of the house or to other important destinations; two folks should be able to walk side by side
*Don’t put little beds around trees; if you really want a bed around a tree the bed should be much larger than the canopy of the tree
* Use big rocks! They make gardens look great. It is hard to use rocks that are too big unless you put them next to little bitty plants.
During this gardening hiatus I hope you practice perspective when making your New Year’s resolutions. Happy 2015 to all!
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.~