The eye of the beholder: What is it, then, that brings beauty to a garden?

06/13/2013

In January, when maple trees are leafless and dormant, I venture out with my clippers to do some pruning. Professional nurserymen and gardeners doubtless have precise notions about  pruning. I don’t. I just stand back, peer at the maple for a few moments and then clip away. My objective is modest: I seek to make the tree appear neater and more comely. So I clip branches that are dead or distorted, or which seem out of place. 

While so occupied last January, I began to harbor a few doubts. Don’t the trees themselves have a better idea than I do about what is suitable? Shouldn’t nature itself dictate the appearance of the tree?

The great 18th century English poet Alexander Pope wrote, “All nature is but art unknown to thee.” Maybe the maple’s art, I thought, was unknown to me. If one took Pope’s dictate earnestly, nature should be considered the superior craftsman and it was best to let it pursue its own course. Even if its devices remained mysterious or uncongenial to the eye, it must know what it is doing.

An appealing idea in the abstract, but one that held me only fleetingly. What, after all, is a garden if not an attempt to condense or improve upon nature, an attempt as ancient as civilization itself? Certain designs are demonstrably pleasing, others are not. While the features of a particular garden will likely reflect its geography and culture, concepts inherently gratifying to the human eye are common to all. 

Place two pictures side by side, each showing a man walking on a path. In one picture he is walking toward the center of the scene, in the other he is departing. Almost every observer prefers picture number one.

Similarly, experiments have confirmed that certain colors or shapes play differently upon the emotions. Green, not coincidentally the color predominant in gardens, is regarded as restful. Some research has even suggested that green boosts motivation. 

The rectangle, particularly the so-called “golden rectangle” that is roughly five by eight in proportion, also has particular aesthetic appeal. It is a shape found virtually everywhere - in books, screens, credit cards or in the paper you are now reading. And again not coincidentally, rectangles are a common feature in garden design. So, for that matter, are circles, triangles, conical and pyramidal forms and sinuous curves.

The way forms are placed within the garden is a central element of garden architecture. James Van Sweden, a leading landscape designer, puts the matter this way: “Different types of forms inspire different emotional reactions, so manipulation of form becomes a powerful tool for shaping a visitor’s experience of the garden.”

Proper positioning of forms requires a balancing of scale, plant size and space. Landscape architects sometimes refer to “negative space,” meaning areas in which everything superfluous has been removed. Simplicity is the key. The famous Japanese gardens in the Zen tradition are masterful examples. Empty spaces are as, if not more, important than filled spaces. Equally important is the means by which spaces are apportioned and divided. Borders, either geometric or following the natural contour of the garden, guide the eye in the desired direction. They can be formed by pathways, by lines of flowers and hedges, or, most dramatically, by an allé of trees.  

If borders guide the eye, what landscape architects call “focal features” are the objects the eye lands on. Although these must be sufficiently distinctive to draw attention, they can vary widely. Sculptures, rocks, trellises, fountains, bird baths and mounds of earth beset with flowers all qualify.

Rather than standing isolated, the central items that draw the eye should be well integrated with surrounding areas. In an ideal garden, the mixture of flowers, plants, shrubs and trees, their shape, color, texture and size all artfully combine. 

While a garden represents man’s effort to edit and enhance what nature provides, this hardly means the two must clash. The best gardens are those that harmonize with the landscape that exists over the fence and the environment beyond.

Frank Seidner, a retired diplomat, moved to Inverness in 1992, at which time he took up gardening, a pursuit he continues to enjoy. This column is sponsored by the Inverness Garden Club.