Constraint, Repetition and Variation in Garden Design

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Certain gardens seem to nail it when it comes to design, leaving us immediately impressed with their effortless harmony, coherence and style. Yet, it can be hard to identify exactly what makes such gardens work so well. In this article we’ll learn how to identify some of the most important design principles.

1
Training the Eye

Most of us can recognise a well-designed garden when we see it, but somehow our eye isn’t tuned to identifying the underlying principles that such designs are built on. Although inspiring, we are not clear what the take-away message should be, so are unsure of how to translate what we are seeing into our own garden development.

Our first impulse may be to try to copy individual elements, such as a splendid water feature, a beautiful pot or a dramatic piece of topiary. These become ‘must-have’ items for us, promising to give us some of that ‘designer magic’. Unfortunately, this piece meal approach rarely works. Once installed in our own garden, such items do not to look as impressive any more, and our garden is rarely improved as much as we had hoped.

Interestingly, the reverse is rarely true. By which I mean, if you were to remove a particular feature from a well-designed garden, it would hardly make any difference. The “wow” factor would remain. You can check this by looking at the photo at the top of this post. Pick any element — the tree or the two round pots, the tulips or one of the pieces of topiary — and imagine that element gone. The remaining scene would still look pretty good, wouldn’t it? This is an important point about well-designed gardens. Their style does not depend on any one element.

What’s more, you will notice that unlike the typical ‘undesigned’ garden, in the scene above, it is relatively easy to visualise a suitable replacement item. For example, the tree in the photo above could be replaced with a large timber clematis obelisk, or a piece of modern or classical sculpture, or a white flowered Rhododendron (see mock-ups below). Not only can we see that such a substitution would work, but it is relatively easy to picture what material, colour and size the statue/obelisk/Rhododendron clump should be. Somehow, the garden itself provides the cues.

Mock-ups, showing how the Amelanchier tree could be removed (top left) without ruining the design. Plus three replacement ideas that would work very well, including: (top-right) stone urn (bottom-left) Clematis frame (bottom-right) White Rhododendron.

How can this be?

The fact is, that it is not any individual element that makes good design, but rather the way all the elements work together. Getting all the parts of a garden to work together might seem impossibly complicated — after all, there are hundreds of elements that go into a garden. Fortunately, it’s not as difficult as it might first appear.

Surprisingly, such coherence is the natural result of limitation: making things simpler. The trick is to constrain the palette of materials, colours and plants that you use. These elements can then be repeated and varied as long as they remain within the limited palette. You can see how this applies to the garden above, where there is actually only a very small range of plants: basically, clipped small-leaved evergreens and well-spaced bold white flowers. In contrast, most gardens contain too many disparate elements, all fighting for attention.

The consistent use of a deliberately narrow range of materials and colours leads to clear aesthetic purpose. A unique theme, style or ‘feel’ arises from such constraint. Working with a limited palette makes it easier to visualise what features will work, and what will not. Consequently, removal of any one element does not risk the integrity of the whole.

Constraint

Limit the range of materials, plants and colours to reduce complexity. Be especially ruthless in the early stages.

Repetition

Repeat elements from this reduced palette throughout the garden to create a coherent theme.

Variation

Arrange elements creatively in each part of the garden. Now and then include a unique or stand-out piece.

Throughout this article, you will see examples of these three principles being applied

KISS

(Keep It Simple, Stupid!)

Planning a garden actually becomes easier when choices are deliberately limited. The problem, it turns out, is having the discipline to stick to one’s self-imposed boundaries. It is easy to ruin a garden by introducing too many ideas, too much variety.

Generally, it is better to be overly strict during initial garden development, as it is relatively easy to introduce additional elements to a design that lacks sufficient variety – for example by using pots which can be moved in and out of the view. On the other hand, it is much harder to remove elements from a garden that is overly busy.

This last point is especially pertinent when trying to re-design a pre-existing garden.

Improving an existing Garden

The typical unplanned garden often contains a random assortment of unrelated elements, leading to an unsatisfying eclectic mix where nothing relates to anything else, so nothing makes sense. To turn around such a garden, one has to be brutal.

First, identify which elements genuinely work together and are in suitable positions, then single-mindedly set about removing everything else. Often, this will mean taking out 80-95% of existing plants (including some individually attractive specimens and possibly some hard landscaping), so that only a few coherent elements remain. At this point the way forward will become much clearer and elements can be added that complement the simplified palette. Extend the aesthetic using complementary materials and plants. Keep it simple and constrained. Repeat what works. Subtle variations in arrangement, size and groupings will keep it interesting.

Three Layers of Design Consideration

Garden design is multi-layered and hierarchical and requires consideration on at least three levels.

The most important level of the design is the hard landscaping — partly because it is difficult to change later, but also because it provides the underlying structure and “framing” into which everything else fits.

Second comes the structural planting: hedges, shrubs and trees, which have year round impact, but may take many years to mature. Third, the dynamic planting: perennials, bulbs and annuals which are the icing on the cake, so to speak, bringing the underlying structure to life and providing highlights across the season. In the remainder of this article, I will go into detail about how I have applied constraint, repetition and variation to each of these levels in turn.

My own garden is divided into several distinct areas at the back and front of my property (White Garden, Woodland Garden, Pond Garden). Although each area has a distinct feel, structure and planting style, they are linked together by sharing the same hard landscaping materials and formal evergreen hedges (=limitation). Each sub-garden uses these common elements differently (=repetition and variation), while having its own unique plant palette and specific features (=variation). However, it is in my White Garden that I believe the principles of constraint, repetition and variation have been most successfully applied, so I will use it as the basis of the following analysis.


5 thoughts on “Constraint, Repetition and Variation in Garden Design”

  1. What a FANTASTIC article!
    I feel like starting out on a whole new garden project, to work with all this superb advice.
    Perhaps this article should be seen as a seminar. Truly excellent!

    Reply
  2. Again, I am smitten with this wonderfully inspiring article. Thanks and kindest regards from the industrial Rhur region in Germany – Your sincerely Monika

    Reply
    • You are so kind Monika. I am glad you enjoyed it and hopefully got something useful out of it. I don’t know if I’ve said before, but my brother and his family live in Arnsberg so I have family and fond connections with Germany. Happy gardening!

      Reply
  3. You’ve put into words what has been in the back of my head for years. Really helpful. Super article, better than all my gardening books and magazines. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Wow Cat, that’s high praise indeed! Thank you so much. Like you, it had been in the ‘back of my head’ too. When I started writing the article it was going to be something quite different, but the more I wrote and rewrote it, the more I realised what I was trying to say.

      I’m soo glad it has been helpful!

      Reply

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