The Virtue of Less is More

     The fast pace of golf course and swimming pool construction in the 1970s dramatically altered the American landscape. The biomorphic sand trap and the suburban kidney-shaped swimming pool set precedence for new forms in an ever-changing landscape. Rectangular planting beds and straight lines were discarded for the curve. Simple flat green lawns were dug up and in their place architects mimicked the putting greens of miniature golf courses with raised mounds of soil and snaky contours. Formalism was tossed out and the swinging curve was in. The residue of this period can still be seen in the garden choices for many homeowners. I guess it was an inevitable part of the evolution of a culture that is wild about change.

I don’t think the forced curve works except in a large landscape, and even then it’s difficult to implement. Many suburban neighborhoods were laid out in a grid with boxy houses. Winding roads leading to cul-de-sacs were thrown into the mix like spice into leftovers. Overnight the planting beds surrounding a house looked more like a plate of spaghetti than a home for plants. By making the planting beds curvy, the homeowner competed with the natural shapes of the trees and shrubs and thus robbed the plants of their special qualities. Over time plants naturally take on a similar form. The undulating lines of trees and shrubs contrasted against a formal geometry are pleasing to the eye. My favorite gardens have that element of combining the controlled and the wild.

Entry Garden room: plants spill, creep, and soften the straight lines of paths, walls and boarders.

The biggest problem with planting is when there is a lack of unity, repetition of plants, or consistency.  Gardens are successful when plants are repeated, or a palette of plants is repeated. When there is no cohesive element tying the garden together, plantings look disjointed, much like fast-food restaurants dotted along a strip mall.

In East Hampton on Long Island tall privet hedges are planted everywhere for privacy, but they also act to unify the coastal suburban landscape. The dark green hedges make a perfect backdrop for plants. In most natural settings a small selection of plants predominate the landscape. Here in the northeast the maple has been the tree of choice. Whether lining city streets or country roads to the town square, this tree has withstood, in Yankee tradition, many horticultural trends. On New York City’s Fifth Avenue the classical building foundations are dressed in boxwood, yews, hollies and rhododendrons, all evergreens, which presents a unity from building to building.

Rhamnus Fineline hedge creates formal backdrop to planting, paths contrast straight lines to loose planting.

I travel all over New York State to see gardens and while driving recently on the Long Island Expressway, I noticed the new plantings alongside this highway. In the median of the freeway is a bizarre construction of cement bollards which contain butterfly bush, and on the sides enormous prefabricated walls were erected to protect suburban neighborhoods from the noise and visual assault of the highway. Planted at the base of these towering seagull-mural-walls are hundreds of shrubs of forsythia, which crash against the hillside like an enormous yellow wave. I am sure many accidents have occurred by drivers being blinded by the yellow flower overkill. I wonder who made the aesthetic choices for one of the busiest roads in America?

In Freeways (1966) Lawerance Halpin wrote, “Freeways out in the countryside, with their graceful, sinuous, curvilinear patterns, are like great free-flowing paintings in which, through participation, the sensations of motions through space are experienced.” Interstate 87 and 88 which are heavily traveled roads through the Catskills achieve this. When plantings are added to these two interstates they seem to incorporate existing species of plants. Though these highways do not have encroaching communities butted up against them, I think there is a lesson to be learned by landscape architects in going back and looking to these more natural plantings. I love looking at the working farms, and orchards along these highways. There is tranquility in driving these roads.

Don’t get me wrong; curving lines can work well in a garden. I prefer a driveway that has some curve to it rather than a straight road. A mown path that weaves through high grass adds interest and mystery to the garden. Curves are an important garden element when used sparingly. Begin with formal shaped beds, especially near buildings and structures. Once planted, the very same rectangular planting beds over time will loose the formal shape and take on their own natural form. For hundreds of years designers have used the concept of a house having rooms and extended this concept outside into the garden so that the transition from structure to landscape feels less abrupt. As we move away from the house there is less need for formality. The middle ground between structures and the existing landscape need to meet seamlessly.

It’s important to let plants spill, creep, and break the lines of border boundaries. One of the biggest mistakes I see people committing is placing a flower border in the middle of their lawn. It looks so odd to see the bed floating in a lawn unrelated to any other structures. If you are at a loss to why your garden is not working, here’s what to do. First consider where you live and what trees or plants predominate the landscape. Then approach your garden to see if the plantings can be simplified. Could you choose three to five plants for the bones of the planting and repeat them? Or could you select a few complementary colors that repeat through the garden?  Next, look at the shape of the borders that surround your house. Do they follow the lines of the house or do they curve? Consider the work involved if you decide to change the layout. Remember, perhaps, what the poet W. H. Auden said, in talking about the new craze for free verse: “One needs boundaries in order to play.”

Plants spill softing formal lines of borders.

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3 Responses to The Virtue of Less is More

  1. Anna West says:

    I never thought about the curves before, good point. I think I’m not unifying plants enough, thank you.

  2. Holly says:

    I loved this post. It gave me a chuckle. I am a child of the 60’s/70’s and I have a lot of curves in my teeny, tiny yard! But. It is a rectangle bounded by a fence. I, like a lot of amateur Gardeners have learned the lesson of restraint, little by little over time. Also, mother nature is forcing me to notice which plants do best in my environment. I think if I am smart I will listen to her. Thank you for posting!

    • Don Statham says:

      Hi Holly- The more I garden and I am around gardeners who come from all sorts of different background & perspectives; I can’t help but appreciate the different ways they approach gardening. There is a scientist living upstate and she of course see’s all the bugs – (that I never notice)- and gets into a level of biology and appreciation of plants in a completely different way than I do. I was speaking to Michael Dodge the other day from Vermont Willow and he said in terms of design and simplyfing the planting scheme would be hard for him because he loves plants and wants them all! I get that and appreciate his vision of gardening. I hope my posts aren’t saying we all have to be the same, becasue I don’t believe that. My garden articles are a way for me to work out my ideas and of course I share them here on my blog and Kaatskill LIfe. Best, Don

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