Mystery in the garden

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Hurdles woven from stems of Lombardy poplar used as dividing screens in Perennial Hill garden, Mittagong NSW

In my first garden, made many years ago, my initial strategy was to dig (rather narrow) borders all the way around the edge of the yard (which was basically empty) and plant these with various shrubs and a few perennials and annuals. Whilst the mere fact that some of these plants actually grew was enough to enthral me for quite some time, the layout eventually dissatisfied me. The whole garden could be seen in a single glance. I wanted it to be more alluring, to have a sense of mystery that would lead visitors on and make them want to explore the space. After visiting a number of gardens to see how other people managed space, the solution I found was to break the area up so that it couldn't be all seen at once, using shrubs and small trees to mask smaller sections within the garden, which eventually were each given their own different character.

Garden rooms at Red Cow Farm garden, Sutton Forest NSW

Whilst we might think that dividing up a garden (especially a typical suburban plot) will make it seem smaller, in fact it creates an illusion of a bigger space. Dividing the garden into areas makes outdoor spaces that feel comfortable to us as humans, and also allows us gardeners to form different parts that can each comprise a unified community of plants - such as sun-lovers, denizens of shade or a vegetable plot - and places for various activities in the garden, such as a children's play area, a sitting-out area and so on. And it makes a walk in the garden a voyage of discovery of all these segments. This is a time-honoured system of structuring a garden, but the resultant 'rooms' don't have to be huge or geometrically perfect like those seen in the grand English garden; they can be far more informal in shape and compact in size. It's ideal if all the parts fit together in a coherent way rather than as a higgledy-piggledy manner, however!

Garden rooms in the garden of Sandra Wilson in Sydney

Basically, the idea is to place some sort of visual barrier between one section and the next. This creates a sense of curiosity about what lies beyond. However, it seems vital to give a glimpse of the next section to pique the interest of the visitor! The gap in the screen becomes both the beckoning doorway to the next section as well as a frame for some alluring peek of what lies beyond. Whilst we may all yearn for the magnificent hedges and ancient bricks walls seen in grand English gardens like Sissinghurst or Hidcote, in our own more humble plots the screen can equally effectively be a trellis, some dense shrubs or small trees (or even tall grasses or perennials to create a seasonal partition), a picket fence, a wirework fence covered in a creeper, a grouping of large potted plants or a woven 'hurdle' (as seen in the lovely garden Perennial Hill in Mittagong NSW, pictured at the start of the blog). In the garden of my friend Sandra Wilson in Sydney, an old wooden door was painted blue and placed next to a doorway frame alongside a picket fence (pictured above) to take the analogy of entering from one room to another one step further, in a delightfully original way. It's intriguing how having a glimpse into a hidden area makes us want to keep on exploring.

A path disappearing around a corner in Chinoiserie garden, Mittagong NSW, invites exploration

Another way to generate a sense of mystery to lure people further into the garden is to have a path that winds out of sight around a corner, or into shadows (such as the one pictured at left, in Chinoiserie garden, Mittagong NSW). We just seem to feel compelled to follow that path to see where it goes, as if it's some primeval response! I've recently enjoyed visiting some Southern Highlands gardens where such inviting paths meandered through shaded woodland areas, with a selection of interesting foliage plants on either side of the walkway, opening out to little glades here and there. It's fun to discover a surprise along the path, such as a quirky statue or a rustic seat. In the Perennial Hill garden, such a path leads to an amazing circular sunken garden surrounded by low stone walls, the base of the garden being covered in mini mondo grass: the effect was of a hidden tranquil pond covered in some floating aquatic herb!

The entrance to the garden made by Wendy Whiteley, Lavender Bay, Sydney

In the Sydney garden created by Wendy Whiteley (pictured left), there are myriad paths criss-crossing the steeply sloping block, with sets of stairs connecting the paths to different levels, and the visitor must follow the paths to see the garden and its treasures. The journey into the heart of the garden and the feeling of being enclosed and embraced by it are all part of its immense appeal.

Tillandsia usneoides growing on the pergola in the garden of my sister Holly in Sydney

Another garden structure that can entice us in and create an aura of mystery is a pergola or arch covered with a climber, so that the surrounding garden and what lies beyond are obscured to some extent. Again, like a doorway or gate, the pergola or arch signifies that we are journeying through the area and who knows what we might find at the other end. In the garden of my sister Holly in Sydney, a long pergola is covered in creepers and bounded by shrubs on either side (pictured above). The arches of the pergola are adorned with clouds of Spanish moss along the way: entering it feels as if we are stepping into another realm! Our eyes and our feet are guided by such structures as this pergola and we feel drawn further into the garden.

The thrill of mystery in the garden is not just for the visitor: it is for the garden owner themselves too. Surprises always await us every day as each season unfolds, and if our garden cannot all be seen at once, a walk in the garden will reveal these to us one by one.