Constraint, Repetition and Variation in Garden Design


Soft Landscaping

Planting should be thought about in two parts: structural planting and dynamic planting.

Structural planting refer to shrubs, trees and hedges that have a consistent presence in the garden all year round. In contrast, dynamic planting includes herbaceous perennials, bulbs and annuals: plants that come and go with the season, providing an ever-changing palette of colour and texture. Structural planting serves two roles. Firstly, it acts as a kind of living architecture: hedges are living walls; topiary living statues; shrubs take the place of columns, balls, finials; trees: ceilings. Secondly, structural planting provides a backdrop against which the more ephemeral dynamic planting is displayed.

Structural planting is often overlooked when planning a garden, possibly because most trees, shrubs and hedges take several years before they start to fulfil their role. Another reason can be the understandable reluctance to rip out existing mature shrubs and trees that are getting in the way of the design. Of course, one should always make use of well-placed specimens, they may even prompt novel design ideas — but once the overall theme of the garden has been established, it is best to ruthlessly remove any incongruent plants. My family thought I had it in for trees, as in the first few years after moving to our property, I cut down most of the existing trees, including a young Eucalyptus, Walnut, Pittosporum and two Leylandii.

What appears as ruthless destruction is often a necessary step in reducing the complexity of the design, and where possible should take place before anything new is introduced. In the case of my garden, I kept the privet hedge at the end of our garden and sculpted it into a formal backdrop. I then repeated the theme by creating other evergreen hedges as dividers within the garden. You can see the result in the photo below.

Only the rear hedge and oak tree remain from the original garden. The line of the far hedge has been copied to create a series of parallel divisions. Although the hedges in the garden are several different plants (yew, privet and box-leaved honeysuckle) they are sufficiently visually similar that they create a sense of harmony. (As an aside, notice how the structural planting of box balls in the White garden is carried over into the pond garden above (=repetition), but in this space they are arranged in a formal pattern in keeping with the layout of the beds around the rectangular pond (=variation))

It will usually be several years until a hedge reaches full height, or a shrub has grown large enough to be clipped into a dome. However, there is nothing as effective as a well-manicured hedge or topiary to set off more ephemeral perennials such as iris, foxgloves or ferns, as shown below.

Evergreens with a distinct natural or clipped form are especially important in this respect. When planning a garden, structural plants (especially shrubs and hedges) are as important as hard landscaping elements (such as paving, walls and fences) for establishing the overall rhythm and character of a space.

I believe much of the success of my White Garden is due to the careful use of these structural planting elements. As you can see in the planting plan, above, I have used just a few such plants: clipped box cylinders and balls, a wonderful 2m high Lonicera nitida boundary hedge: perfectly cut to produce a background ‘wall’ of fine-textured dark green, and a columnar Irish Yew.

The choice of structural plants goes a long way towards creating a unified aesthetic. For my structural planting, I have used small-leaved, dark-green evergreen such as Box and Yew — a classic English Garden style. Traditional Japanese gardens used pine, azalea and bamboo. For a Mediterranean feel: clipped lavender, olive trees and pencil cypresses would work. I have always wanted to plant a garden based around a Scottish theme of pines, heathers, gorse and Burnet roses; or a small formal orchard of crab apples, underplanted with autumn cyclamen, enclosed by a formal hawthorn hedge and tightly clipped grass paths with split chestnut palings. If you haven’t seen it, check out Tom Stuart-Smith’s formal landscape immediately outside the great glasshouse at Wisley which uses clipped beech columns and mounds of evergreen Sarcococca, showing how much can be achieved just with structural planting.

Once you know how to look at a garden, you can find inspiration on many levels: What are the constraints applied to this design? Which elements are repeated? What variations are any play? What is the material and colour palette? Which plants provide structure? Which provide texture?

NEXT: In the final section of this article, we’ll look at how I planned for foliage and flowers…

7 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!

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

    • 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!

  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.

    • 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!

  4. What a fabulous article, I too have trawled through books and websites to find a cohesive white garden plan and you have explained it so well…off to the garden centre I go! Thank you.


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