Saturday, 30 January 2010

Elements of Design 1: Light

The least concrete of the elements that go into the creation of a garden, light is also the element that can have the greatest sway over the success of the designed space.  Managed correctly light renders the garden vibrantly alive, responsive to the seasonal changes in plants and colours.  Get it wrong and you will have a functional space that fulfills the requirements of the brief, yet feels lifeless.  Light is the magic that enlivens the garden and creates mood and atmosphere more fully than any planting or landscaping.
The most obvious consideration in devising a plan for a new garden is aspect - where does the light fall, at what time of year and at what time of day?  In the northern hemisphere a south-facing is plot good for full sunshine over the longest period, east-facing less good for spring plantings (a full dose of early sun on frosted vegetation is not recommended) and north-facing even more challenging.  However, even in the latter case it is unusual to find a garden which does not receive any direct sun at all - the job of the designer is to maximise the impact, even if the only spot which enjoys a daily dose of sunshine is that currently occupied by the garden shed.
The next consideration is the strength and quality of the light.  The nearer to the equator you are the brighter and more intense it is, and by the time you get to the Mediterranean light can have an almost crystalline, physical presence at the height of summer.  At more northerly latitudes the light is filtered through thicker layers of atmosphere and water vapour, with the resultant loss of brilliance found further south.  There are compensations, though, and there is scope for gentler effects, greater subtlety and softer colours: the vibrant colours that suit the Mediterranean light look dull and muddied by comparison. 
So how to manage light?  If the garden is exposed too fully to light then shade will be essential, if light is in short supply it will need to be maximised by reflective surfaces and pale colours.  Shade can be solid, a cool pool of dark, a retreat from heat and the brightness elsewhere, or dappled by overhead trees, speckling the ground plane and bringing movement to the scene.  If you are going for deep shade, especially in hot southern situations, the addition of cooling water will bring the necessary element of movement - the sparkling droplets or surface taking the place of the dappling that is preferable where light is not always reliably bright.  Even dappling can have varied quality - birches, with their loose forms and flexible twigs create a very lively carpet of light shade; more static trees bring shafts of light to ground level - with less movement but more definite puddles of illumination, glorious when they hit well-chosen plants like a spotlight.  In the image a mossy path enjoys just this treatment, and paths in general benefit from some overhead canopy of vegetation.
Decide what effects you need and enjoy in a garden, and consider how best to achieve them - look out for future posts on other essential elements of design.
Next: Space

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Winter Scent

It's dull out there.  Freezing cold, grey, damp.  The sort of weather that penetrates any clothing and turns the ungloved hands of the photographer into frozen talons clumsily fumbling with the dials.  And yet there are things to enjoy...
A walk through wooded gardens may reveal the great saviours of the winter scene - small trees or large shrubs flowering despite the low temperatures, and, given the lack of any insects, unnaccountably perfuming the air.  The best for lightly wooded areas or woodland margins are the Witch Hazel (Hamamelis sp.) and the Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox). 
The witch hazels, native to Asia and eastern North America produce their scented spidery flowers on bare branches in the cold months.  The species, H. mollis (top right) produces sulphur yellow flowers with deep magenta in the heart.  Varieties of H. x intermedia offer a greater colour range, and for me these are the more interesting.  'Jelena' (bottom left) opens from red-tinged buds into wonderfully coppery flowers, the petals subtly edged in yellow and becoming orange towards the purply centre of the flower; 'Winter Beauty' (bottom right) is paler, but with equally sophisticated colour combinations of bronze and burnt-orange.  The curious scent hangs in the air on a still day, and a grove of these terrific plants make a magnificent addition to a large garden or woodland path.  Their other great contribution is in autumn, when the vibrantly coloured leaves light up the understorey before falling.
The flowers of Chimonanthus praecox (top left) are equally fascinating.  A native of China, the shrub produces its flowers in the same way as the hazels, on naked stems, and as in the hazels the flowers have wonderful scent and deep purple hearts.  However the wintersweet flower is made up of strangely waxy petals, speckled minutely with the purple, hanging demurely from the twigs.  A much less demonstrative flower visually than the miniature fireworks of the witch hazel, the scent is no less beguiling, and this enigmatic plant is a worthy addition if you have the space.  Whereas witch hazels can have visual impact over a short distance, I would tend to grow the wintersweet near a shady doorway, where its fragrant pale lemon flowers can be enjoyed more easily during their season.
If these shrubs are well-established, there is nothing better in the darkest days of winter than to bring a few flowering stems indoors - the extra warmth will intensify the perfume and be some consolation for the inconveniences of the weather.
A note on the photographs:
I use a Nikon DSLR, and these images were taken using a 105mm macro lens.  With a wide aperture to help capture the photograph in low light, the depth of field is also reduced hugely, allowing the blurred backgrounds and highly selective areas of focus that I love in these types of close-up.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Hanging on...

As gardens get cleared up ready for the coming season, some of the remnants of last year's growth are difficult to ignore.  Of all the dried, sere relics rattling in the winter breezes, the bracts of Hydrangeas and Viburnums are the most dramatic.  In the flowering season these forms have colour and some presence, but are competing with the flowers of hundreds of other plants for attention; for me they are at their best in late winter when, almost everything else having died back or been cleared, they catch the eye and tease the mind with the promise that summer past is also summer to come. 
Papery and stiff, the bract stalks are more rigid than in growth, and the wings held more steadily.  If you are lucky, some will have decayed just far enough for the skeleton of veins to be revealed in each, a small graphic statement that looks amazing when frosted or backed by snowy ground.  In the low light, the stalks even manage to disappear into the surroundings, leaving the large flowers to hang seemingly unsupported, like satellites around the remains of the centre of the inflorescence. 
Set at odd angles to one another the flowers catch what little light is available in their own way, and monochrome photography shows the tonal differences that close inspection will reveal to those patient enough to stand in a cold garden for five minutes and examine them.
These images were all taken at RHS Wisley in Surrey during a visit in early February 2009 - some of them have been entered for the IGPOTY photo competition 2010.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Grow your own?

I'm missing my vegetable garden.  Having moved just over a year ago from a house with a garden large enough for a sizeable vegetable plot, I am currently looking at my half-completed courtyard garden and considering the new planting in terms of productivity.  My aim is to create a garden that uses largely productive plants to tick both ornamental and culinary boxes.  There are plenty of plants to choose from that will thrive in my south-facing patch, and I have my eye on a Noir de Caromb fig for the giant Cretan pot currently stranded outside the front door.  I need to remove the fence to get it into the back garden, but once there the pot and tree will make a great statement and set the tone for the rest of the garden. 
Asparagus - tricky to get going, but giving a long display of its hazy fern when established - is also on my hit-list, along with masses of the woody Mediterranean herbs that I love for their form and flowers as well as their value in the kitchen.  A vine should cope outdoors in this sheltered aspect - maybe a scented Muscat, the type of grape it's difficult to buy in the shops, is pushing my luck, but it has to be worth a try, doesn't it?
And then there will be the annual crops - there are some classy-looking individuals here as well, but they need careful deployment to fit in without turning the planting into an allotment.  Leek 'Saint-Victor', with glaucous blue leaves is both delicious, and if allowed to run to seed in a few cases, beautifully ornamental as well, the loose allium head standing at head height and fading through the winter.  Sweetcorn, with silky grass tassels and the red-flushed Cos lettuce, 'Cocarde' should look good with red orache weaving through them.
Well, that's a start - for the time being I have to satisfy myself with a photo of a frosted plant pot, and a well-thumbed seed catalogue.

Sunday, 10 January 2010


What are the most frequently used words in this blog?  See above!  There's something lovely in the way this simple program analyses and arranges your chosen text - it will be interesting to see how the emphases change over time...
Make your own at Wordle.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010


We are having a hard winter.  Unusually heavy snow for the start of the winter and prolonged periods of sub-zero temperatures across the country are creating difficulties for travellers, but open up wonderful opportunities for photographers and give gardeners all the justification they need for leaving the garden untidied!
The skeletons of perennial plants such as Echinacea, Phlomis, Eryngium, Echinops, Selinum and Sedum as well as the myriad varieties of grass - Miscanthus, Pennisetum, Stipa - look almost better in the depths of a hard frost than in their summer glory.  The forms of the flowers and what remains of leaves and stalks are delineated and exaggerated by the crystals of ice, and the brilliance of the frost contrasts wonderfully with the sere and subdued colours of the vegetation.  In still conditions the rime develops into a spiny shroud, which at distance hazes the shapes and volumes of the garden.
These photographs were taken in the overcast conditions of the coldest morning of our winter so far - the desaturating effect of the soft light reduces the impact of colour in the scene, with the presence of the frost blurring colours into one another.