Does your garden suffer from the blahs? You know, that late season feeling when everything looks past its best before date and a walk around the garden drags you down? That’s how my garden has been looking recently, and that’s how I’ve been feeling.
But I may have found a remedy. To prepare for a short talk I gave last week, I flipped through my photographs of gardens in Scotland and the north of England. Some photos I passed by quickly, others made me stop for a second look. Why? Sometimes because a photo was really good. But more often because it reminded me of why I’d taken it in the first place.
Those photos showed Wow! moments. You know what I mean — those times when you see something that stops you in your tracks and takes your breath away. I went back and looked at each image more carefully. What made those particular moments different? What caused the excitement?
At Gresgarth Hall, the personal garden of the internationally renowned garden designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd, it was an unexpected colour.
A tall outburst of colour, so different from the colours seen in other parts of the garden, created a real Wow! moment. Literally, my eyes widened with surprise. The red hot pokers were visible from other parts of the garden, too, always drawing the eye and acting as a focal point. They were a Wow! from every direction.
At Charles Jencks’ Garden of Cosmic Speculation, two red bridges stood out from the verdant surroundings. While the shape and colour of both were striking, they weren’t really unexpected or unpredictable. Red is often used for bridges in Chinese gardens or in gardens inspired by traditional Chinese garden design. Since the spiral mounds which are the centrepiece of The Garden of Cosmic Speculation rise out of that tradition, painting them red was not a surprise.
The red bridge Jencks designed for Jupiter Artland, a sculpture garden near Edinburgh, was. The mounds there bore no relationship to Chinese tradition, so the colour could have been anything. Did Jencks pick red for aesthetic reasons or was there some other motivation? To my eyes the colour seemed chosen deliberately to startle viewers and jolt their senses. (Was the jolt pleasant or unpleasant? That depended on who you asked. I was a fan but not everyone in the group I was leading liked it. Even the head gardener who was showing our group around preferred the bridge’s original gun-metal colour.)
Still, this difference pointed out something important. To be unexpected the surprise element — whether it is a colour, a shape or an object — needs to differ in some significant way from the rest of the garden. It has to vary markedly from the garden’s norm, whatever that norm may be. In a formal garden a curving path can be unexpected. In a garden with Arts and Crafts elements, it can be a white line drawn on the grass.
Unusual flowers or flowers arranged in an unusual way, like the muscari path at Glen Villa, can be a surprise.
So can hedges trimmed in an unpredictable way, like these at Le Jardin Plume in Normandy.
And without doubt, objects that you wouldn’t expect to find in a garden any where can surprise the stuffing out of you.
At York Gate, a garden near Leeds, I turned a corner and came unexpectedly across a stark white fire hydrant. To say I was taken aback is an understatement. I actually blinked to make sure that I was seeing what I thought I was.
I admired the way the white hydrant was positioned, beside a variegated shrub and in front of white birch trees, reinforcing the tonalities of both. But a fire hydrant? Possibly there was some personal or historic reason that accounted for it, some reason I still don’t understand. But for me the fire hydrant came dangerously close to kitsch.
I’m not a fan of kitsch, in gardens or anywhere else. Bicycles hanging from trees are unexpected, and can occasionally make me smile, but that doesn’t mean I like them.
The same goes for garden utensils that look like pink flamingoes. I get the joke. It just doesn’t amuse me.
Doing the unexpected can be risky. It takes courage to go beyond the usual, and going there doesn’t always succeed. But when it does, it lifts a garden out of the ordinary.
At Broadwoodside, a garden near Edinburgh, maple tree are arranged in a grid in a courtyard. Each tree bears a label, hung like a sign on a decanter of Scotch. Each label identifies the tree — and every identification is wrong.
Also at Broadwoodside I saw a rather common garden ornament, a wire basket full of stones carved like fruit, sitting atop a garden wall. This typically Italianate ornament was not surprising in a garden with Italianate features. But when I looked more closely I saw that the stones weren’t carved fruit, they were simply stones. This bit of cleverness made me chuckle out loud.
Clearly the element of surprise is a key factor in creating unexpected Wow! moments. It’s important to remember, though, that the unexpected can’t be announced. An arrow pointing to a ‘surprise view’ as I encountered at one garden I visited on this tour negates the very possibility. No surprise is possible after a give-away like that.
Even if doing the unexpected is risky, I think it is worth a try. Too often we move through gardens seeing only what we are accustomed to seeing. Coming across something that is truly unexpected can wake us up. Even more, it can wake up the garden, shake it out of the doldrums, lift it out of the ordinary into something closer to Wow.
So I plan to look at my garden with these ideas in mind, to see if I can create Wow! moments by adding more unexpected touches. The additions could be unusual plants or unusual colours; they could be ordinary plants or objects used in unusual ways; they could be odd juxtapositions or unusual objects. Whatever I add, I hope that doing the unexpected will lift my garden out of the blahs, and lift my spirits as well.
What about you? If your garden is suffering from the blahs, will you consider adding something to shake it up? Are you willing to take the risk? Have you already?
I look forward to hearing your stories.