Tag Archives: doing the unexpected

Doing the Unexpected

November 15th, 2015 | 12 Comments »

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.


Colour and shape smack you in the face.
The colour and shape of the red hot poker smacked me in the face, but in a delightful way.


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.)


Seen from a distance, the red bridge jolts the senses.
The lines of the bridge mimic the spiral paths on the three mounds visible here. The path through the grass, worn by visitors and passers-by, could do with some improvement.


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.


Througham Court is full of surpises. You can read my review of this garden from ?? at ThinkinGardens,
Througham Court is full of surpises. You can read my review of this garden dated February 25, 2015 at ThinkinGardens.co.uk


Unusual flowers or flowers arranged in an unusual way, like the muscari path at Glen Villa, can be a surprise.


This photo is from 2007, the spring after we planted the muscari bulbs for the second time.
This photo is from 2007, the spring after we planted the muscari bulbs for the second time.


So can hedges trimmed in an unpredictable way, like these at Le Jardin Plume in Normandy.


Scallop-topped hedges can also be seen at the Villa Capponi near Florence.
Hedges cut in unusual ways are a feature of le Jardin Plume. On my recent UK tour I saw equally inventive hedges at The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, Scampston Hall’s Walled Garden and Shepherd House, a small personal garden near Edinburgh.


And without doubt, objects that you wouldn’t expect to find in a garden any where can surprise the stuffing out of you.


A fire hydrant could be useful in a garden, I suppose, but only if it was connected to the mains.
A fire hydrant could be useful in a garden, I suppose, but only if it is connected to the mains. This one was not. Without dispute, however, it acted as an unexpected focal point, drawing your eye irresistibly.


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.


You may find these amusing, I don't. But then humour is a very personal thing.
These bicycles at Bryan’s Ground near Presteigne, Herefordshire are definitely unexpected. You may find these amusing, I don’t. But then humour is a very personal thing.


The same goes for garden utensils that look like pink flamingoes. I get the joke. It just doesn’t amuse me.


At Mt Cuba, an American garden that specializes in plants of the mid-Atlantic states, a pink flamingo made of spades and trowels seems decidedly out of place.
At Mt Cuba, an American garden that specializes in plants of the mid-Atlantic states, a pink flamingo made of spades and trowels seems decidedly out of place.


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.


Other trees are mislabelled as limes, willows, and oaks.
Seeing these deliberately mis-identified maple trees made me think of gardens I’ve visited where labels have irritated me — to an unreasonable extent, some would say.  On occasion my irritation is caused by a label misplaced, perhaps by accident. Sometimes a label identifies a bit of bare ground, leading me to think I’ve come at the wrong season. Sometimes, most irritatingly, the labels are just plain 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.


The colour of the gate is another nice touch.
The colour of the gate is another nice touch, one of many at Broadwoodside. I plan to review the garden as a whole in next week’s post.


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.