By Mel Bellar
I can’t count the times that I have gone to meet a new client and found a property that is confused and just all over the place. Maybe there are construction scars and large areas of weeds encroaching where it is impossible to mow. Or there may be attempts at creating beds that ended up taking on a weird shape because of an obstacle, lack of planning or just the running out of steam. Very often the shape of the mown area is determined by uneven areas, wet spaces, or piles of debris left over from some project. My personal pet peeve (and I understand it because I’ve done it myself!!) is the rock-lined bed or path with the grass growing into it and shooting up between the stones, eradicating the original intention (defining the bed from the lawn).
When presented with one of these situations, where it is unclear where areas begin and end, the blank slate and/or confusion hits me like a deafening roar. I so want to have something encouraging, smart and positive to say to the new client standing there looking to me for comfort and an easy solution (one that doesn’t cost a fortune!). And so I often mentally stumble around for a while before remembering to start with “definition.” Whew, it is a relief when my mind gets defined. Regardless of how manicured (or not) you want your landscape or how “natural” you want it to feel, some definition is essential to make sense of the space and to create a restful feeling. Some folks seem to be oblivious to the chaos, but I suspect that even they would feel better if it were reined in!
I often write around definition wrapped in other subjects: the importance of edges, cutting back, massing plants, balance . . . . All of these concepts, and many more, are about making sense of and providing some clarity to your outdoor space. When I see a property where the house was recently constructed, or has evolved over the years without any real planning (it happens to all of us), my first instinct is to get control of the area right around the house. Folks are so often overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge of grappling with the larger area, particularly in many of the massive (and wild!) properties in our expansive and beautiful countryside. If we reduce the size of the challenge by claiming a space around the house that will be ours, that we can manage, it will be a very positive step psychologically, and will create some beauty, order and peace.
This principle holds true in nearly all situations. I often say that the lion’s share of attention and detail should be focused on the areas we experience the most, which is usually the walk from the car to the primary entrance to the house, and close to the house. It can be nothing more than deciding on a definitive area around the house to mow or weed-whack and a comfortable way to get from the car to the house. I say “Never waste the opportunity for a beautiful line,” so I encourage folks to mow a line that makes sense and not just what is avoiding obstacles. If you have a village lot, the shape is probably predetermined and most of it will be mown. Still, with a smaller area to tackle, the area around the house could be defined with some beds, a patio and some paths to separate it from the larger space and to create a feeling of intimacy. If you are one for having expanses of mown lawn, creating a more “defined” area around the house will frame the structure and provide a specific area to have a more refined style. I know it may seem corny or clichéd, but carving out a space with a split rail or picket fence nearly always adds charm and makes a place seem more cozy and inviting. It is the same idea as placing the furniture in a room to create an intimate seating area rather than having it lined up against the walls all around the room.
There are many other ways that definition plays into the appeal of a garden. I love paths in the gardens for many reasons, but maybe the most important is that they provide some definition and structure. When you have paths, they create shapes and help immensely in organizing the placement of plants. One of the main things that I always do in my garden before having visitors (or being on a garden tour!), is to cut back plants that are encroaching on each other or the paths. I love densely planted gardens and don’t want each plant to have a big area surrounded by mulch, but it just makes things look and feel better to have a little definition. On the other hand, I often frame a specimen tree with a pretty gravel to separate it from the fray and provide definition.
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.~