Is It Hip To Be Square?
There was an interesting article in the June issue (is it already time for the June issue?) of Fine Gardening magazine with the vaguely Orwellian title of “Finding Freedom Through Structure.”
The author, George Schoellkopf, argues that gardens built around straight lines and right angles provides a more “attainable aesthetic” because “the structure is woven into the aesthetic itself.” He believes that it is a greater challenge to succeed with a more “natural” style of curved beds, because such gardens use “the plants themselves to provide most of the structure”, a structure that exists without being apparent.
I have to admit I’m not sure exactly what this means. Borders and paths don’t need to be straight to provide a degree of structure, apparent or otherwise. Also, plants are certainly part of the structure of many gardens built around a straight axis and rectangular beds.
Mr. Schoellkopf does not advocate gardens that are rigidly controlled. The owner of Hollister House Garden, a project of the Garden Conservancy, his article is illustrated beautifully to show how his garden combines straight lines, exuberance, and abundance: “My garden’s formal plan enables me to be much freer and more natural in the way I grow my plants.”
And here I find myself nodding in agreement. A formal layout can combine beautifully with plantings that are full and unrestrained. This combination can work so well because it contains a pleasing contrast between, as the author puts it, “order and chaos.”
We saw this principle at work at the upper garden in Monet’s Giverny, which is built around a central axis and rectangular beds. Even when we were there in April, the exuberance and abundance of the plantings was apparent. Walking through this garden was a truly joyful experience.
In my view, garden designs can work with either formality and straight lines, or informality and curved lines. What determines success or failure lies with other factors.
You can find both approaches used successfully at Giverny. While the upper garden has elements of formality, the lower garden, built around a pond, is entirely without straight lines or right angles.
My own garden uses mostly curved lines, except where the flower borders lie along the house, sidewalk, or driveway. I don’t think that the combination of curved lines with a full, informal planting style produces an effect of too much chaos. Structure is reinforced by trees, shrubs, paths, raised beds, an arbor, and sharply defined borders between lawn and garden.
I will admit I sometimes wish I had an entire second garden (maybe the neighbors would oblige me?) so that I could try planting a garden with more formality and straight lines. However, if I have to choose only one style, then give me curves.
For me, what really doesn’t work is excessive control, what I would call the “constipated style” of garden design. I found much of Versailles to be objectionable along these lines. Also, sometimes gardens are described as naturalistic but in reality are just sloppy. I don’t like that either.
What do you prefer, curves or straight lines, formal or informal? Or, like me, do you find yourself loving both if they are combined with the right sort of plantings?