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Aspects of Design : Garden Space

Perception | Size | Proportion | Perspective | Weight

Good garden design aims to use space well. Open areas of lawn, paving or water give a sense of space. To enjoy the garden and its views, adequate space is very important, but space also has its own quality.

Some garden areas have a remarkable ‘feel’ about them, just as rooms in a house are described as ‘pleasant’. The way the garden space is divided largely determines the ‘feel’ of the garden, and how comfortable we are likely to be.

Perception

The proportions and dimensions of the garden, or its divided parts, affect our perception of the space. A long, narrow space feels uncomfortable, likewise a very broad space. It is essential to divide the ground area of the garden to get better proportions.

The height and ‘weight’ of plants and other objects, affect our sense of space. Tall trees can cause a reduction in our perception of the space of a garden without encroaching on the actual space. Likewise, tall deciduous trees are unlikely to cause as great a reduction in perceived space as ‘heavier’ conifers or broadleaved evergreens.

Size

It is interesting to have spaces and objects of different sizes in a design. Without being conscious of it, our eyes constantly record and analyse the size of spaces and objects. Size is measured in three dimensions – length, width and height. Every object and feature in the garden, plant or non-living part, has a measurable size – small, medium or large, and many stages in-between.

Objects like garden slabs, or a seat, are of a fairly precise size. The size of plants, both large and small is impressive; a range of size creates more of an impression – more to analyse. The eventual size of plants varies considerably depending on the soil and site conditions, but they are reasonably predictable.

For example, an oak tree can be expected to become large. It is very useful to have a notion of the size of the units of measurement – one foot, ten feet; one metre, ten metres – both horizontally and vertically.

Proportion

Our impression of the size of any object or plant is relative to other objects nearby. In a newly planted garden, a two-metre high shrub looks large, but the same shrub would be less significant in a garden with large trees. Our eyes measure size, or proportion, at a glance.

It is important to have everything in the garden in balanced proportion. This is true of the garden spaces as well as its features and objects. A very large tree in a small garden looks wrong; equally, isolated small shrubs look wrong in a large garden.

The relationship of the size of objects, and the space they occupy, must be pleasing to the eye. Things must be kept in scale. A little bed of flowers tucked away at the bottom of a large lawn is lost; a little pond in a large lawn is no more than a puddle.

Perspective

Far away objects appear smaller. Although an object like a summerhouse looks large close to, it might appear very small and inconsequential at a distance. The size of such objects needs to be considered in the perspective. Bringing it closer might solve the problem.

The effect can be used to give a garden a false sense of space. Since we expect things in the distance to be smaller, placing small objects and plants at the end of the garden will create an illusion of greater length. The opposite effect can be used to make a garden look shorter.

Weight

Although the dimensions of two objects might be identical, they can be of different weights. For example, a shrub does not have the same weight or mass as a boulder of the same size. We know this just by looking at the boulder. It has a ‘massive’ look to it.

The weighty solidity of hard materials such as paving and walls is one of the reasons that they are so important in the garden as contrast to the lighter living plant material.

Some plants seem to have more weight though they would not physically weigh more. Trees with large dark green leaves look ‘heavier’ than those with more open foliage. For example, lawson cypress is heavy, birch is a light tree. Conifers and broadleaved evergreens tend to be weighty plants; they can be used to good effect in winter among deciduous plants that look distinctly ‘light’ when their leaves are off.

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