Formality and Surprise in a Garden Design

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This formal 32-foot-square garden is packed with vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers.
An archway marks the gardens main entrance.
A French antique iron bench is the perfect resting place for a contemplative gardener and guests.
This formal 32-foot-square garden is packed with vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers.Click To Enlarge

This formal 32-foot-square garden is packed with vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers.

Photo: Jodie Delohery

by Marcia Macdonald
February 2000
from issue #25

When I designed the kitchen garden for Arrows Restaurant, which feeds some 12,000 patrons over the course of a season, I was concerned primarily with issues of production—with creating a plan that would ensure not just a massive harvest but also an uninterrupted succession of crops from early spring through late fall.

When you scan the garden at Arrows, you see  long rows of butter lettuce, frilly fields of frisée, battalions of baby bok choi. But after building a new house for two years and acknowledging the demanding time constraints of my profession as Arrow’s head gardener, I reconsidered plans for a large kitchen garden of my own on the rocky shores of Cape Neddick, Maine. In reality, I must be able to do all the garden’s weekly maintenance within two to three hours, the wonders of computerized watering systems aiding during hectic morning dashes to nearby Arrows. Yet I wanted to create a garden that would reflect my design capabilities and produce a summer’s bounty of greens, heirloom tomatoes of all sizes and colors, herbs for flavor and fragrance, edible flowers for artistic presentation, and a selection of vegetables, many of which would find their way to the outdoor grill during summer gatherings of friends.

An archway at the entrance
An archway marks the main entrance to the author's garden. Its ample depth gives visitors a sense of passing through an enclosure and into a rume that's distinct from the world outside.
I had one more big demand for my garden. It had to allow for experimentation and discovery, without losing its sense of identity. I like to experiment, to try new plants and varieties, unusual colors, uncommon plant combinations. Some work, some don’t, and that’s okay with me. I like to be surprised. And yet I appreciate continuity and structure, a garden that is reassuringly dependable and at least somewhat predictable.

I came to realize that drawing up and working from a formal garden plan would allow me to achieve all of my seemingly conflicting goals.

Balancing formality with spontaneity
Having studied garden design in England, I harbored visions of Rosemary Verey’s beautiful Barnsley House potager, interspersed with flashes of the vast, formal, geometric patterns of the potager at Villandry, in France. I wanted the clarity, planting coherence, ordered appearance, and ease of harvest and maintenance that formality in a garden design offers. Geometric patterns combined with the sculptural effects of carefully placed perennial plantings would visually carry the garden through the winter months. Yet I also love the informality and spontaneity of the English cottage garden, with herbs and flowers that spill over walls and beds into pathways, softening hardscapes and fusing colors and textures.

Detailed garden plan
  A detailed working plan helped determine the form of the garden as well as the placement of the plantings. Click here to enlarge this image.
 
With these thoughts in mind, I drew up a plan for a garden room 32 feet square, with raised beds in geometric patterns separated by pebbled paths wide enough to provide maintenance with a wheelbarrow and garden cart. After working weeks on a design grid that would produce a visually pleasing yet efficient and productive pattern, I realized that my final design, in fact, resembled one of the planting grids at Villandry.

Harmonizing color and form
As I drew up my plan, I kept color and form firmly in mind. I decided to place two long beds of mostly perennials outside the garden room itself, along the two sides closest to the house. This break with the traditional four-square form has an impact from both within and without the garden room. From inside, the tall, colorful plantings in the exterior beds form a  backdrop for the mostly shorter edibles in the raised beds. From outside, the exterior beds help conceal the garden, providing a greater sense of enclosure and mystery, and heightening the sense that you are entering a room, because you must pass through the outside beds when entering either gate.

The color of the house—natural cedar shingles with a weathered stain—is reflected in the color of both the fence and the raised beds that I had cut at a local saw mill. The neutral gray and wood tones are a perfect background for a summer color scheme of soft pinks, white, and subtle blues in the exterior beds. In spring, a mass of daffodils and narcissus in soft peach, pale yellows, and white heralds the start of the gardening season. Wonderful antique single hollyhocks, pinkish-buff foxglove, fragrant ‘Miss Lingard’ phlox, ‘Alaska’ Shasta daisies, echinacea (purple and white), delphiniums, and ‘Casa Rosa’, ‘Snow Queen’, and ‘Casa Blanca’ lilies stand tall against the fence. The arched arbor entrance is flanked by two ‘Sir Thomas Lipton’ white climbing roses that will, in time, cover the arbor framing the gate, further enhancing the main entrance to the garden room.

The side gate supports two David Austin ‘Kathryn Morley’ roses and is flanked on the left by a mint garden and on the right by a trellis of heirloom tomatoes and plantings of tomatillos, sunflowers, and herbs like borage and sorrel. I wanted these beds that surround the kitchen garden room to become a soft frame for the geometric pattern within, especially when viewed from the house.

Four views of the garden's form 
Field vs. ground

Field vs. ground
A formal geometry borrowed from the classic four-square kitchen garden ensures that the garden has a discernible pattern. The raised beds can be seen as solids, or field, the paths as void, or ground. The center garden reads as a solid in plan, though in three-dimensional reality, it’s so low it could be considered path, or ground. This ambiguity adds to the interest of the design.

Structural elements

Structural elements
The formal geometry of the garden is reinforced not only by such hard features as the fence and the beds, but also by key plantings (most of them perennials) that mark corners, entries, and edges. With these stable elements holding down the visual fort, the annual plantings can vary, and plants can take on the rambling habits of a cottage garden, all without destroying the garden’s essential form.

Axis and focal point

Axis and focal point
The garden is laid out on two central axes that pass through an entry and cross at the center of the garden, each establishing a sight line. From the main archway entry, the primary axis ends at a wrought-iron bench, set in a break between two raised beds, suggesting a third entry. From the side entry gate, the secondary axis ends at two tall tomato tepees. The center garden prevents you from walking straight across the garden on axis, causing you to experience the garden as larger than it is.

Enclosure and entry

Enclosure and entry
The beds placed outside the fence on two sides of the garden room mark a break with the four-square tradition. These outer beds, filled mostly with tall plants, serve as a backdrop to the inner beds when seen from inside the garden. The tall plants in the outer beds also help conceal the garden from the outside, heightening its sense of enclosure. In addition, the outer beds combine with the inner perimeter beds to double the width of the archway and gateway, subtly enhancing your experience of the entries.

   

A dance of planned and unexpected

To achieve a cottage-garden effect, I planned ample space for flowers along with the food crops, as well as pockets in each bed within which I could add whatever plants caught my fancy. For instance, I planned a bed with a squash hill anchoring one end, nasturtiums anchoring the other, and a tomato tepee holding down the middle, but I left room in between for spontaneity: carrots and greens the first year, then who knows what. The solid structures—the raised beds, the fence, the gates, the arbor—liberated me to pursue my fancy and to allow some of my plants to run wild, all without diminishing the coherence of the garden.

In preparing a planting list of vegetables, greens, and herbs, I had only to return to Arrows’ garden. After growing 43 kinds of greens at Arrows, I was clearly able to select my very favorites, not only for delectable taste, but also for just the right visual statement.

Raised beds
  Raised beds are an integral part of the design.The four inner beds are just 10 inches high to help accentuate the 12-inch-high beds along the fence.
 
Raised beds are an integral part of the design. I made the beds around the inside of the fence 12 inches high, and the four inner vegetable beds 2 inches lower to accentuate the colors and shapes of the perimeter beds. Each of the four inner beds is accented by formal corner plant­ings of boxwood ‘Green Velvet’. The inner edges of the beds are softened by a combination of thymes and lavenders that echoes the center garden.

In deciding what to plant in the inner beds, the visual feast became as important as my culinary demands. Eggplants ‘Turkish Orange’, ‘Kermit’, ‘Asian Bride’, ‘Tango’, ‘Orient Express’, ‘Little Fingers’, and ‘Violette di Firenze’, which run the gamut of color, shape, and foliage texture, are in the first quadrant. In the second quadrant is a selection of peppers (my husband’s request), from tall, sweet bells to poblanos, Anaheims, and serranos, to a border of small, colorful, decorative ‘Pretty in Purple’. Rows of colorful scented basils, ready for salad garnishes and pestos, make up the third quadrant. And, of course, lettuces in ever-changing patterns—‘Samantha’, ‘Simpson Elite’, ‘Cocarde’, ‘Merlot’, ‘Freckles’, ‘Vulcan’—fill the fourth quadrant.

The center of the garden needed to be an axis and a focal point, but also had to be low and to contain soft neutral tones to set off the dramatic changes beyond. Still undecided on just the right design, I came home one evening to find a huge earth mover carefully lowering a beautiful granite sculpture with a bird bath into the center. A friend’s gracious gift became the perfect focal point for the cobble-ringed circle of silver herbs—artemisias, rue, curry, and sages, accented with annual licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare), and dusty millers—that spills out softly onto pebbled paths.

A picket fence   Iron bench
An alcove opposite the main entrance is just the spot for a French antique iron bench (above). A fence (left) reinforces the feeling of the garden as a room. Working with a local fence company, the author designed the scalloped pickets and the finials.
     
Now that I’ve lived with the garden for two seasons, would I deviate from my plan and change anything? Of course! That’s the wonderful and ever-challenging part of this art form we call gardening. Perhaps a nursery bed on the slope behind. Or how about a sunny greenhouse? And  hen there’s next year’s dwarf fruit tree allée from the side gate, a path to gardens beyond. . .


posted in: design

Comments (4)

williejohnson writes: Great information thanks for sharing it
Posted: 5:22 am on November 3rd
elliejackson writes: Awesome
Posted: 3:53 am on September 10th
Varekai47 writes: It's likely 32 foot square (as stated), not 32 square foot. i.e. 32' x 32' = 1024 sq ft.

Ironically one foot short of my own garden for which I am looking for inspiration. This may be exactly what I was looking for - thanks for the article!
Posted: 6:15 pm on October 27th
JoeBee writes: Beautiful design, but I beg to differ on the 32 sq ft area.
This plot is a Minimum of 120 sq ft, and probably closer to 200 sq ft.
Posted: 9:26 pm on February 8th
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