Does your garden turn its face to the world or does it veil it off? The difference says a lot, about you and the style of your garden — and about the spirit of the times.
Recently I spoke to several groups about how to get the most out of garden visits. Learning to Look: the Art of Garden Observation considers what it takes to really see a garden. A handout for the talk asks some key questions, starting with the garden’s context. How does it relate to the world around it? Is it open to its surroundings or closed off?
Topography can make an enormous difference. Properties with panoramic views rarely shut them out, particularly when they look out on a rural landscape.
If the view is unattractive, however, the garden owner may want to block it out. Ugly walls, telephone poles, rooftops lined with satellite dishes: all interfere with a world view that excludes these urban elements.
Some gardens deliberately close themselves off from their surroundings, attractive or not, creating a private universe that holds the outside world at bay.
Sometimes views are hidden, by accident or design.
Cutting the view of the surroundings turns the view in on itself. At Great Dixter, one of England’s finest gardens, the view of the surrounding fields is blocked by a line of cars.
The effect of this is to turn the view and the viewer back towards the garden itself.
The garden at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s house in Lennox, Massachusetts, exists in a bubble, disconnected from everything around it.
By hiding the view, the house and the people who live there take centre stage.
Contrast this inward-looking attitude with Sunnylands, the historic California estate of Walter and Leonore Annenberg. At Sunnylands, everything is directed outwards, across open lawns towards the towering, snow-capped San Jacinto mountains.
The difference in orientation reflects a difference in the spirit of the place and the spirit of the times. The names of the houses do the same. Following English and Italian models, The Mount stands above, expressing in its architecture Wharton’s ideas about order, scale and harmony. Sitting low to the ground and with glass walls that connect indoor and outdoor spaces, Sunnylands becomes an element of the landscape, one feature among many.
An openness to the surroundings characterizes many American gardens. Neighbourhood streets are lined with houses that may be divided, one from another, by hedges or low flower beds, as are these houses in Hanover, New Hampshire.
A different sense of neighbourliness can be found in British properties. This small town garden lies as close to its neighbour as the American garden does but separating the two English gardens is a tall stone wall.
At Glen Villa, as in many larger properties, the view is open to the world in some spots and closed in others. For privacy, the view of our house from the lake is screened by trees planted many years ago by previous owners.
From inside the house and from most places in the garden, the view is open.
Historically, gardens were closed off from the outside world, for protection from animals or marauders. A change occurred in the 18th century in England, indicating a change in the way people related to their surroundings. Joseph Addison, writing in The Spectator in 1712, asked
“Why may not a whole Estate be thrown into a kind of garden by frequent Plantations, that may turn as much to the Profit, as the Pleasure of the Owner? … If the Natural Embroidery of the Meadows were helpt and improved by some small Additions of Art … a Man might make a pretty Landskip of his own Possessions.”
That’s what I’m aiming to do at Glen Villa, not to turn the landscape to profit but to turn it to art. I’ve written here about The Avenue, the allée of crabapple trees we planted last fall. Public roads on two sides of The Avenue make the “pretty Landskip” visible to anyone passing by.
Last week I made a short video about The Avenue that is now being shown on Garden Design’s Instagram page. As I write, almost 12,000 people have watched the 1 minute video. I hope you’ll join them, and join me as a subscriber to the magazine. It is an ad-free bundle of information, presented along with beautiful photographs.
I hope, too, that you’ll think about how your garden turns, to the world or away from it. Does it send the message you want it to send?