GARDEN THERAPY: Garden Appreciation 101 – November 2016

Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

When I was in college there was a popular course called Music Appreciation 101 that everyone took to get an easy A, or at least a B, and receive the elective credit with very little work. I was a music major and this was not an option for me so I took Art History instead which was definitely not a no brainer. However, I learned more from that class than any other course I ever took and loved it. I learned about history, religion and culture in ways that I had not before. I began to appreciate art and learned some basics that have enriched my life and travel experiences ever since. Hence, the enlightenment of this month’s Garden Therapy! In a mere 800 words I hope to give you some painless education, an easy class credit and enhance your enjoyment of viewing gardens and landscapes forevermore.

I find myself always looking at private and public properties while driving (much to my wife’s dismay) and I take every opportunity to visit gardens, so I think about this a lot. I am not really a garden snob (promise!) and I don’t walk onto someone’s property looking to criticize. When a homeowner or organization opens their garden to a visitor, they have put a lot of energy and time into it and deserve some respect. It seems to me that a lot of garden observers start by noticing the opulence (or lack of it) and then begin looking for unusual plants and features. The first thing I notice is how the entrance to the property looks and feels. Is it inviting? Do you feel that you have arrived? Or is it a tease with a subtle beginning opening up to a bigger payoff?

After arriving, it is all about the feel of the garden that literally permeates the atmosphere and creates the general aura. I notice how the garden is framed and how it uses the “borrowed views” which contribute greatly to the overall feel, particularly in our mountainous and wooded landscapes. The scope and style of the design becomes the next thing that forces itself on me: Is it more formal or informal, wild or manicured, grand or intimate or a combination or mix of all of the above? Also interesting to note, is the garden anchored around the house or is it more of a stroll garden with paths drawing you in to see what is just around the next bend or corner? A huge contributing factor to the garden’s feel is whether it is a wooded garden with a lot of trees or one with open areas and abundant sun.

Being a huge fan of hardscaping, I always take note of any walls, steps, paths, decking and garden structures that give a garden its architecture along with the trees and lines of any beds or borders. Are there elevation changes and how are they managed? This is a big challenge in our neck of the woods. The hardscaping provides function as well as interesting construction details, functionality and aesthetic appeal to observe. Ask yourself: Does it do its job, feel good and look good? Is there something interesting about the materials used and how it is constructed?  And of course, look for cool ideas to borrow!

Then there are the plants. The first things that most of us notice and are drawn to are the blooms. One has to think about the time of year when visiting a garden to fully appreciate the floral display. But also remember that it is important to observe the contrast of the foliage colors and textures as well as the branch structures. This leads to how the plant choices are laid out to create a color palette and the texture of the garden. Notice if the garden is bold with strong colors and contrasts or does it exhibit more of a pastel, soft feel with gentle transitions. Did the gardener use tall spikey plants, dramatic textures and contrasting heights or did she employ a more traditional approach with plants of similar heights going from short in the front to taller in the back?

I always note how much of the garden is made up of native plants versus exotic plants. And who can help but look for and appreciate seeing unusual plants! I revel in that as much as anybody and I am particularly interested in zone-busting specimens and anything that I can’t identify.

The most important thing is to keep looking and just enjoy! I approach a garden with open eyes and an open heart and try to appreciate the efforts of the creator. Every garden is unique and reflects the personality of the designer. Even the amateur just starting out is a designer because he is making choices and giving it a shot. The most important ingredient of a garden is always love. If the gardener puts love into the space, it becomes a garden, so just add the love and your garden will be fine.~


Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener