Deciding on what path to take

>> Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My yard is beginning to evolve from a typical suburban landscape of lawn, a few trees and a fence. I have added some raised beds and a few level beds. Although I am pleased with the progress in this first year of perennial gardening, I can’t help but think the design is boring.

Maybe it’s because I have time on my hands now that the winter chores are done and I can take the time to just look around.

I have noticed a distinct pathway developing between the rear door of the garage, where I keep the bird seed, running past the deck and on toward the two trees where I have bird feeders hanging. I make this trip every evening at dusk to refill the feeders so I don’t have to go out at the crack of dawn when the temperature is at its coldest. Plus, this way the feeders are already stocked full when the birds decide to show up. Sometimes, they would actually get their before I would in the morning so this method just works out better for all of us.

It is amazing to me how a path can be worn through the grass by only two human feet making this trip just once a day, but I’ve been doing it now for about three and a half years. Granted the path isn’t real obvious yet and it gets blended in when I mow the lawn, but I know it’s there.

Now that I see this path being laid out for me I have turned my thoughts to building a path through the yard. It would make sense to have the path follow this straight-line course that I obviously have felt is the best way to get to the feeders because, as they say, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. And since there are no obstructions, a straight line is what I take. But sometimes taking the long way around is more enjoyable and my right-side brain tells me to make the path more, shall we say, 'interesting'.

In order to make the trip from garage to feeders most interesting there should be planting beds along the way. This intimates that I would design the path first and then the beds, but hold on. I have a few concerns about what I want to see from the deck, since that is where I will view the garden most often, and what I don’t want to see. For instance, I would like to be able to view the bird feeders and the birds on the ground under the feeders that don’t sit on the feeders, such as the Mourning Doves, the Dark-eyed Juncos, the ducks, etc. Also, I would like to block the view of the compost area. So these consideration dictate that I should design the beds first and build the path around them.

Starting a path from all entrances and destinations would seem to be the most logical, i.e., the garage, both sheds, the deck steps, compost area, bird feeders, vegetable beds and both side entrances from the front yard. Where the individual starting points of the path would meet depends on the design of the beds and the path would, of course, run along side some of the beds. Maybe this path design is creating itself for me.

The beds would have to be designed to be inviting enough to come off of the deck to investigate. Up to this point my beds have abutted fences around the outer edges of the yard, in a very typical manner, and although the leading edge is curved, giving each bed varying depths, I have not yet reached toward the center of the yard. Since I have been thinking about paths, I now feel compelled to expand my gardening experience into this uncharted territory. I will no longer be restricted to creating beds for three view points, I can now design them for viewing from four sides. The shape of the fourth side, previously dictated by the straight line of a fence, will now become curved as well. I feel so liberated.

I have never been fond of a balanced or symmetrical appearance in any design, except where efficiency or safety has to be a factor. Even the wall hangings in my house are not perfectly balanced or symmetrical in their layout. I find symmetry to be boring. Nature is not symmetrical so why should I force symmetry where it is not natural?

But I digress. Allowing oneself to be drawn into parts of the garden that are unseen from somewhere else in the garden is like giving yourself a gift. Rounding a shrub in order to view a particular plant, and then comparing that new vision with that which you remember from the last time you saw it offers a sense of newness, a freshness that cannot be had with the constant familiarity of a plant that is always in view such as that obtained from standing in the middle of the yard and being able to see everything at once..

Your garden should be a place of surprises. It should be your personal amusement park drawing your senses from one combination of plants (grouped by color, texture, fragrance or height) or single specimen to a contrasting group or single specimen. You should be able to arrive at your destination by traveling through a range of sensory triggers. Textures, fragrances and colors that both soothe your spirit and give a sense of well-being and peace are something we all strive for in our gardens.

Most books I have read concerning landscape design says you should have one or more focal points for your eyes to rest on. I can see merit in this. Focal points could be anything, a statue, a trellis, a shrub or other planting and can fit anywhere within the garden. But they don’t necessarily have to be seen all at once. Winding paths through the garden allow these focal points to be hidden and encountered singularly.

Hiding focal points can be extremely challenging in a small suburban yard so the paths and beds need to be constructed in such a way as to make the yard appear larger. I have heard the term ‘garden rooms’ used to describe just such an illusion. I’m not so sure I want garden rooms in my yard, mainly because of the limited space I have to deal with, but smaller areas along the path like pockets can work the same way.

We are told to always put the shorter plants up front with the tallest to the rear in order to see everything. Nature doesn’t do it this way and I would prefer not to either. So creating pockets of surprises tucked in here and there allows you to see everything from the path but not from everywhere on the path. For instance, if you move just two feet to the right you can now see that 18” tall Heuchera that was hidden between the 36” tall Chrysanthemum and the 6’ tall Viburnum. This apparent randomness in design, I think, is much more appealing. It may be considered too messy for some, but I think it looks more natural.

Building a pathway that forces you to explore, in addition to getting you to where you are going, should be a worthwhile goal. And as such I think I should build curved beds, not necessarily circular or symmetrical beds. This, hopefully, will allow visitors to want to explore and discover. If you cannot see the entire garden from the porch, deck or windows of your house then you are more likely to walk out into the garden in order to see everything, to experience it more first hand, if you will. Standing in the center of the yard, turning 360 degrees to see everything your garden has to offer, seems a bit boring. This is what I have now.


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