Wednesday, 6 February 2013

When A Garden Feels Right

I went to the bank today and came home with a big smile on my face, for on the computer screen, nestled among a selection of dull but sensible salary payment options, was the glorious phrase, “undefined structure”. 


My concentration flew out of the automatic door and instead of talking money, I found myself daydreaming about that golden era of undefined structure: school summer holidays. If I had a superhuman power, it would be the ability to disappear down a rabbit hole or some similar fairytale conduit and be transported back to those blissful summer days when I was nine years old. 


I yearn for undefined structure in every area of my life with one exception: the garden. For me, a garden without clearly defined structure is like a human without a skeleton or a dancer without core strength. Many of us don’t think about our own skeletons until something goes wrong and we behave in much the same way about our garden bones, probably because, like a skeleton, structure in the garden can be such a quiet influence that it is easy to overlook it.

A garden with strong bones
 East Ruston Old Vicarage, Norfolk*
Some people enjoy formal gardens (and it is easy to appreciate the importance of structure in this style), while others prefer informality. I believe that all gardens, irrespective of size or style, benefit from time spent focusing on their structure. Garden bones might be hard landscaping elements such as paving or pergolas, or plants such as hedges, but whatever structure is in place, winter is the best time of year to take a critical look (just think of all the different hedge heights we see in one road of similar houses - one will be more successful than the next). 


Not many of us create gardens from scratch, which means that most of us work with an inherited structure. By analysing the bones we have, we can see if something can be done to strengthen them. Paths might be improved by following a more pleasing or logical route. Perhaps there is an eyesore from which we need to distract attention, or a beautiful view which would look even better were it to be framed and celebrated. With cold, harsh analysis we might decide that our borders are lacking in some way. Hedging plants or shrubs don't have to cling to the edge like wallflowers at a school dance, they can get out into the garden and throw some shapes, or create a backdrop, or form a static contrast with livelier, airier plants. 



Structural planting does not have to be evergreen as the photo above shows. Herbaceous perennials and grasses might also be used structurally, but whatever plants we select, they absolutely must be reliable in that position in the garden, for if they aren't, we will notice. After all, the peculiar thing about bones is that we tend to forget them when all is well, but they niggle like crazy when something goes wrong.

I will now get off my soapbox and go outside, but first I must tell you about my biggest regret in our farmhouse garden. You may remember that we installed rabbit fencing last year. I must report that it has been completely successful. Clearly this is disappointing news for my superhuman powers. 

* The last three photos were taken at a truly inspiring garden, East Ruston Old Vicarage. www.e-ruston-oldvicaragegardens.co.uk

75 comments:

  1. We sort of started our garden from scratch as the previous owners hadn't done anything with is and the house was only a year or two old at that point. WE have undefined structure to our lives now we are retired!

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    1. Lucky you - on all counts! AND your Iris is in flower!!!

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  2. I'm hoping to get rid of a great big eyesore of a structure in our garden this year, the trampoline. My daughter is fourteen now, so I'm hoping that she'll allow it to go, though I have to say that she and her friends do still mess about on it. I'll get half my garden back once that goes.

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    1. Trampolines are the biggest garden hogs! Needless to say, our children don't have one and will probably never forgive us for it. Enjoy getting your garden back!

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    2. I'm afraid I'm completely mean and have never allowed plastic play structures to take over the garden - plastic tractors, diggers and dumper trucks however, completely clog up my shed and I have the same issues with disposing of them, even though my giants can no longer fit on them.

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    3. We had that problem and we could never find the time or inclination to get rid of them, then we had to move house and put our stuff into storage. We soon found the time to rehome the toys when we were faced with paying to accommodate our belongings!

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  3. When we moved to this house we inherited a long narrow garden with a straight concrete path from A to B. Maybe one day we will get around to digging it up and create a path that is a bit more interesting. Trouble is there are plenty of other ways to spend our money rather than on a non-essential.

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    1. Have you tried dividing across the garden, say, with the occasional bit of hedge, so it doesn't seem so narrow? You might argue that the path is in the right place if you need to get to B. If there isn't a reason to go to B, might you create one with a bench... ornament... specimen plant? They'd all cost a lot less than replacing a whole path.

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  4. Started from scratch and it's never ending. Time goes by I want something new or different.
    Cher Sunray Gardens

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    1. Which is why a garden is never completed!

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  5. The Old Vicarage garden looks lovely! It's good for the sould to jump on the soap box occasionally ;-) and you're quite right saying that the structure is so important - especially this time of year when it's the only thing left!

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    1. The Old Vicarage garden is wonderful. I have visited many times and always come away feeling inspired.

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  6. I too like structure in the garden. We once had a professional photographer come to the garden for pictures. He commented that structure in the garden, whether a fence or building or wall, whatever, makes his job much easier. I had never thought of that before then. But agree with him...gives the eye a frame somehow.

    Really good post and photos.

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    1. Thank you! I had never thought of it from the view of a photographer, so that is a really interesting point.

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  7. The subtlety in your comment about rabbit proof fencing passed me by!
    My friend Peter in the village (who has I think one of the best gardens in Yorkshire) put up what was every effective rabbit proof fencing. When I went to see him yesterday, he was devastated. Rabbits had completely destroyed his much loved grafted plants. Someone had left the gate open!
    Put Weathervane House, Seaton Ross, York in your diary for his open day first Sunday in May

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    1. Oh the poor man. If I can get to Yorkshire at the beginning of May I will go and see this garden.

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  8. And it is so true that the garden's bones are shown off in winter. That is the only thing of interest and I must admit it gets rather boring by now, unless there is snow to change it up a bit!

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    1. Hi Barbara, I can't believe I'm writing this, but here at the farm, we have had snow on the ground more often than we haven't in 2013. I sense that you are in the mood for spring!

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  9. Superb thoughts on garden structure, structural planting that is so essential as it holds the garden together.

    Hoping to visit East Rushton this year, heard and seen so much about it an it looks beautiful.

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    1. Thank you! DO go to East Ruston Old Vicarage - I've visited it over many years and it always inspires me. By the way, they have ponds!

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  10. Nice blog 'shoe, I loved the comment that 'shrubs don't have to cling to the edge like wallflowers at a school dance': nicely put and a good point. In my very small garden I have two maples, a witch hazel and a Sacred Bamboo performing some sort of minuet well in from the edges. But, as you say, winter does emphasise the faults with those same edges, there's little for them to hide behind...

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    1. Thank you, Erica. I like the idea of minueting plants - very upmarket!

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  11. Very nice blog on garden structure, it's basic for every garden !

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  12. Now I would love to get some of that structure in my garden and have it look a little more 'designed' and a little less 'allotment' - just don't know where to start, but it looks like a visit to East Rushton might help!

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    1. A visit to East Ruston would be a fine start indeed. The apple walk (see the 4th photo above) illustrates that edibles can be make great structural elements; and if you need a food fix, there is also a veggie garden.

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  13. I start from scratch everyday with my job. It allows for many different garden styles and preferences. When I design, especially large properties, the 'bones' go in first. It establishes the foundation on which to work. It gives the overall directive. You have many fine thoughts in your post on gardening, but one dear to me as a designer, is your noting the winter scheme and how the 'bones' plays a huge part in design for all seasons.

    Also, can you add your blog link when posting a comment? I had to come to Blotanical, where I come very infrequently to get to your blog. I would very much appreciate it. There is a box for adding your URL. It also helps my readers discover your blog as well. My next post is on this subject too.

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    1. Thank you for the tip. I am sorry that you had to go on a hunt to find me, but I am very grateful that you made such an effort. I am still a relative newcomer to blogging and I am constantly delighted by the effort people make to support and advise one another, so thank you!

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  14. I think big perennials like Joe Pye Weed, Cup Plant, Sunflower, and Hollyhock also provide a kind of structure.

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    1. Absolutely, Jason. I also like to use Salvia uliginosa and large grasses, since they are reliable here.

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  15. Very inspirational. I loved seeing the bones of this gardens - so many times we only see famous gardens when they are in full bloom. And you are right - now is the time to look for those bones!

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    1. Thank you. I think it's a shame that more gardens aren't open in winter for this very reason.

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  16. Good post and thought provoking as well, structure in a garden is so important, as you say it is the bones of the garden. The last photo with the trees is wonderful.

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  17. Great post! When I first started developing the my garden, something was missing and for a while I could not put my finger on it. Then I realized I had a lot of plants, but no structure. Even in its informality and sometimes wildness, it needed boundaries.

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    1. Exactly! You've hit the nail on the head. Thank you!

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  18. I am all for structure, in my garden and everywhere else. I have so much chaos in my life that I have no control over (health situation) so I demand structure wherever I am able to, including in my garden. I have heard people say my garden is too tidy. Is that even possible?? Good thing we all like different tings, would be boring if we were all the same :-)

    As for superhuman power, yes please I’d take one of those any day! Flying would be great, I am not very good at walking!
    Loved your post and photos.

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    1. Thank you, Helene. You're right, it would be boring if we all liked the same things. Your comments about health and the lack of control we feel when our bodies have problems are spot-on. Thank you for sharing how you respond to your health issues here. Your openness is much appreciated.

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  19. As far as bones go, I'm a bit of a squid. However, I was thinking that adding a giant TRex femur to my dogwood garden would really spice the place up. ;o)

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    1. At least you're not a slug! Tell me, when you were removing the turf to extend your borders... how far exactly did you dig down to find the T-Rex femur? ;-)

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  20. Thanks for joining my blog, I'm now a follower of you!

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    1. Welcome... and thank you for taking the time to stop by and leave a comment.

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  21. I love Casa Mariposa's comment two before mine. She is too funny!
    For me structure gives a sense of calm and order to any garden and I appreciate that. I also like symmetry for the same reasons.

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    1. She is!

      You're right about the sense of calm. I think that is what I like about winter gardens... nothing clamours for my attention and if the structure is strong, I feel that calming influence more readily.

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  22. Goodness me how we intersect away: I was just looking through old pics taken at Gibberd Garden and taking a close check on an image of that bottle wall. ALSO gearing myself up to ask Alan Gray for permit to go and talk to him at East Ruston.. I am liiking your blog

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    1. Thanks Catharine! I didn't imagine the bottle wall then? How reassuring! Did I imagine the washing machine at the Gibberd Garden? I think it was used to create some kind of rapids... or perhaps it was a kind of white goods gabion. I'm sure I'm not imagining this....

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  23. I got distracted there, with happy daydreams of summer holidays stretching out endlessly before me, days spent rushing around with great purpose in a crowd of others, lost in our own world. But you are so right about the importance of structure. I find it the hardest thing about gardening on a really tight budget, you can think a pergola would be the very thing to bring height but then have to stop and re-think, work out what alternatives there are, or wait until the money become available. Which is where real life differs so much from the show gardens or garden makeover programmes!!

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    1. I think the key words here are "re-think" and "alternatives". There are relatively few people on our planet who don't have to stick to a budget and like you say, we have to wait for the money to be available or reconsider our approach to achieving height, for example. This is where creativity really comes into play and sometimes the solution can be better than the very item we originally thought our garden needed.

      Have there been any TV programmes about what the gardens from the heyday of makeovers look like now?

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  24. Interesting post at this time of year when we are looking out at our bare gardens. Have you been watching the Monty Don series on French gardens? Some of them are super-structured, a bit too much for me but I guess you can only really appreciate the calm and order when you are actually present there. Gardens Illustrated has a feature this month on a London garden that is ONLY topiary and a magnolia tree...it is a bit stark for my liking. Nevertheless I am definitely in the 'needs to improve' category for garden structure at the moment.

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    1. Hi Claire - I haven't been watching Monty (I am a "Great Night Out" addict), but I have been meaning to catch up and watch this series, so I had better get a wriggle on.

      Your comments regarding super-structured gardens are interesting. Some people prefer a garden where little changes and their outdoor space is as controlled and tidy as the interior of their home. It is almost as if the plants are furniture. Gardens such as this can be incredibly relaxing for some people, but others find them too static and need to see a little summer flesh on those bones and have the seasons reflected in the planting. For highly structured topiary/hedged gardens, simplicity and editing is key. Too many conflicting shapes and all hell breaks loose!

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  25. Nicely done! Gaston Bachelard, French scientist and philospher, suggests we "read a house" or "read a room" in his "Poetics of Space, the Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places". (As much as I try, I can only comprehend bits of his book at a time as it is very thought provoking and makes my brain hurt a bit!)
    In a way, we also read a garden, with its structure the central focus giving an overall vision of wholeness, yet coaxing and pulling us into its corners and recesses where we can marvel at the beauty of its individuality in each plant. I feel transported to my "happy place", every time!

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    1. Hello Le Farm - and welcome! Your second paragraph sums it up perfectly!

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  26. I agree, our gardens need a strong foundation in the form of structure. We must have the cake in order to ice it! I enjoyed your lovely post. :-)

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    1. Yes - because although icing can be the best bit of the cake, it is too sickly on its own.

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  27. I was about to say you sound a very knowledgeable garden designer....then I remembered that is exactly what you are ;-) I think we all need some structure in all aspects of our lives, otherwise we lose motivation, something I find rather too easy :-(

    The Old Vicarage garden looks a lovely place to visit.

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    1. Thank you! I would love a little less structure in my life if only to test your theory about losing motivation... it doesn't have anything to do with my desire to do just what I please for a few weeks!

      The Old Vicarage garden is a lovely place to visit. I think it is one of those gardens with something for everybody.

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  28. Thanks for this inspirational blog. I am struggling with some of the "bones" on my plot at present and how best to work with them so all creative thoughts are appreciated. Still not sure about the how but clear about the what.

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    1. Thank you, Sue. I am sorry that you have been struggling to sort out the structure in your garden. So often when things don't seem to work in a garden, structure gets overlooked, but since you can see what you need to do, I think that you are well on your way to finding a solution.

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  29. Any ideas for a sloping football field of a back yard? Just joking, definitely needing some structure here.

    Jen

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    1. Goalposts.

      They offer height and frame the goalkeeper perfectly.

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  30. You are so right about structure and I am so lucky that my property already had a lot of structure when I moved in. I am all about plants I wouldn't have done it myself.

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    1. You are fortunate Carolyn; you are also wise, since some people do away with structure to make room for their favourite plants.

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  31. Great lead in - had me hooked. I'm still working on the structure for my garden, the hard paving etc is there but it doesn't seem quite right - more tinkering to do next winter.

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    1. Thanks Liz. At least you'll have plenty of pickles to eat while you're working on that structure!

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  32. Previous owner had all sorts of structures in place in our garden. I am now trying to add more to that but it is a huge task as I have so little knowledge about plants.

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    1. Please don't lose heart, the greatest thing about plants is that there is so much info available about each one. Start with what you have - know your climate, soil, aspect (shade/sun), situation (coastal, hill etc) and if you match the requirements of your plant to this, you are off to a good start. In any case, if a plant doesn't like it where you have placed it, don't worry, most plants will tolerate a move to somewhere more suitable.

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  33. Nice piece indeed on East Rushton and hurray that I do not have to scrawl down a coal face of other comments.

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    1. Thanks Catharine - you do make me laugh!

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  34. I keep my garden quite informal, but I do have "structure" punctuating through it in the form of rose arches and large shrubs as well as other things. I find these help to "anchor" the garden down and they stop your eye from just wandering over everything with vague dis-interest. The planting softens the structure while the structure provides a framework for the plants and somehow, it works quite well for me!

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    1. I agree completely, Sunil. Even informal gardens work better for me when there is a readable structure in place.

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  35. You have lovely pictures of different gardens here. I love English gardens. Both form- and cottage gardens. You have such an adorable dog!

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    1. Thank you very much. I know what you mean about loving both formal and cottage garden styles - even though they are very different, each has its own appeal.

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  36. I imagine the rabbits aren't as pleased about your fencing as you seem to be, LOL! Thank you for visiting my blog ... and greetings from my corner of Suffolk.

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    1. Hi Caroline - the rabbits around here are the bunny version of the butcher's dog. There is plenty of food for them to feast upon - tucking into the delights of my borders would be plain greedy! The fence is still doing its job - I have just trudged through the snow to check for paw prints. If my confidence in the fence grows any more, I may try growing the occasional salad crop.

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  37. I couldn't agree more! I enjoyed this post because so many think that structure is formal when in my mind it is a design element that can not be overlooked. Wonderful points here!

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