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Garden landscape design


There are few points connected with the art of garden design over which greater differences of opinion are likely to arise, than those associated with the preliminary consideration choice of site. For this reason, the present page must inevitably prove more suggestive than dogmatic; less concerned with particular instances, than with the broader aspect of the question.

It is rare, indeed, to find two persons, each about to build a residence and lay out a garden, whose ideas as to the most desirable site for the purpose are in any way concurrent. One prefers an elevated situation from which a good view of the surrounding country may be obtained; the other dislikes the labour of climbing, and must perforce live in the valley.

The proximity of other buildings, giving a sense of companionship and security, is essential to some; others, again, seek no better society than that of the woods and silent heath. A (wo)man's profession or hobby will considerably influence his or her choice of locality for a home. Instances could be multiplied ad finitum, all clearly pointing to one end, namely this: that it is useless to regard any one position as ideal, such a conclusion only being possible when we are fully cognisant of the peculiarities of the individual for whom we are working. However, there are certain characteristics which, if not indispensable, are at least highly desirable in almost every case, and in briefly discussing a few of the foremost considerations which must present themselves to everyone about to build and lay out grounds, it is left to each one to modify or alter according to his own opinions and preconceived ideas.

In the first place, the accessibility of the piece of land which it is proposed to treat, must be carefully studied, and this before any possible advantages or disadvantages connected with the actual site come to be weighed. The exigencies of modern life demand that ample facilities shall exist both for ourselves to visit others and for others to visit us. There are many who have settled in delightful places in country districts whose subsequent regret is that they are out of the beaten track. They can neither make calls nor receive their friends without great difficulty and inconvenience. A time comes in the lives of most city people, when the only form of existence which seems desirable is that known as "buried in the depths of the country."

Carrying the question of accessibility a step further, it becomes necessary to ensure that the property shall be approached by a convenient road. As to whether the road is little frequented, or is in the nature of an important thoroughfare, individual taste and opinion will necessarily be divided, but the main consideration, applicable in both cases, is that the road shall be a good one. No comfort can be expected if the approach to one's residence is ill-made and badly kept, a mere "boreen," as the Irish would say.

Neither should it be deemed sufficient that a road is likely to be made in the near future. The authorities often move with unaccountable slowness, and cases are by no means uncommon in which unfortunate residents have been kept waiting for years before anything more than a mere track has been made to their property. Whilst other details may to a great extent be modified and adapted to meet requirements, this primary consideration is unalterable: either there is suitable access or there is not. In the latter case, it is extremely doubtful whether a host of minor advantages will act as adequate compensation.

Unless it is proposed to approach the residence by a fairly long drive, a garden situated beside a main road has many drawbacks. Chief of these is the dust which is constantly raised during the summer months. Especially in this age of motor cars, many otherwise pretty places are completely disfigured during the time they should be most beautiful: shrubs, trees and hedges are alike smothered with a thick covering of dust. On this account, and for other obvious reasons, a branch or bye-road, if well kept, is far preferable as a boundary line.

Presuming that the question of approach has been satisfactorily solved, the character of the land, its aspect, surroundings and other details present themselves for careful examination. Much will depend upon the class of soil with which we are dealing, not only as regards its suitability or the reverse for garden operations, but because it is a matter directly affecting the health and comfort of the owner and his family. Heavy clays are of all things to be avoided; they spell unceasing labour, and endless discomfort to all whose misfortune it is to work them.

Flowers and trees raised on them are always backward, and if disease is not actually present, growth is nearly always weak and stunted. In winter, the land is cold and wet, extremely tenacious and demanding added strength and perseverance to dig; in summer, it is parched and baked, whilst tender plants have no possible chance of making headway. The greasy condition of the garden walks is another prominent feature of soils of this description. All things considered, a light, free-working loam, resting on a substratum of a gravelly nature, is probably best adapted to secure greatest comfort to the occupier, and health and prolificacy to all forms of vegetable life. Drainage cannot be entirely depended upon to remedy soils of a cold, heavy nature, and to all whose intention it is to devote their energies largely to the delights of garden-making, my advice is to shun clay lands by every means in their power.

The careful garden designer will devote much attention to the question of aspect, endeavouring to secure warmth and sunlight for the most frequented portions of house and garden. It is generally conceded that land having a gentle slope towards the south-east more nearly approaches the ideal than any other. Especially if the public road skirts the northern side of the property, allowing the entrance drive to be made from that direction, and thus leaving the whole of the southern slope free for lawns and garden, will this aspect prove pleasing. Nothing can be more disappointing to the garden lover than the constant trouble experienced in rearing tender plants and trees in the damp and cheerless positions assigned to them by certain unthinking designers. In such gardens the sun is only felt for a fraction of the day, and as a consequence those beautiful effects of light and shade, without which the finest scenes are flat and uninteresting, are conspicuous by their absence.

Altitude, as has been mentioned, is generally more a matter for individual preference and opinion than for the expression of any decided rules on the subject. Unless, however, any real objection is felt against land situated at a fair elevation, I should unhesitatingly prefer it, in the majority of instances, to that found in flat, low-lying positions. There is all the difference between the garden perched high on the bleak hillside, where cutting winds play havoc with its contents, and that situated midway down an easy slope, above the line of mist and fog.

Providing that the aspect is sunny, and the soil well drained, such a situation is far warmer and healthier than the apparently more sheltered site lower down. The designer, too, will find his work easier in the former case than in the latter. Privacy is seldom attainable in low-lying gardens; they are generally overlooked, either by neighbours or by pedestrians on the public highway. It is next to impossible to screen off unsightly objects from view, and it is inevitable that the prospect obtained of the surrounding country is cramped and confined, if not altogether excluded. On the other hand, an elevated site safeguards all these objections: it is seldom overlooked, or if it is, artificial planting and arrangement may be depended upon to quickly remedy matters; whilst if fine views exist in the vicinity, the designer is afforded an opportunity of increasing the scope and charm of his own handiwork by including them. Altitude is undoubtedly an important consideration which must be duly weighed before a satisfactory decision can be given.

Shelter, or rather lack of it, is one of the troubles which is almost inseparable from newly laid-out gardens; and as even the most quick-growing trees and shrubs take some time before they can prove efficient barriers, natural or existing wind breaks should in all cases be sought. Natural features will consist of ranges of hills on the sides of the property most exposed to cold winds the north, north-west and north-east. Where these exist, nothing could possibly be better, but of course probably not one site in fifty will be enhanced by such advantages. Plantations, protective belts, and stretches of woodland are valuable features, which, if existing at a convenient distance from the proposed site, and facing the required quarter, will secure it from the ill effects of high winds.

Should the property already contain a well­grown hedge, it may be advisable to retain it as a feature of the new design, thus providing shelter, and doing away with the entire appearance of newness which will otherwise be manifest. Should mature plantations already exist on the property, great caution must be exercised by the designer as to his treatment of them. It often happens that a belt of trees hides a good view, or does not lend itself to the proposed plan. In the first case the owner may be tempted to open out vistas by the removal of timber; and in the second, the entire demolition of the plantation may be contemplated.

Before doing either, he should be quite certain that, in addition to obtaining his view or carrying out his scheme in its entirety, he will not also be destroying a form of shelter which would take years to replace. Naturally, the surroundings will exercise considerable influence on the choice of a site, and here again the tastes of the individual have to be considered, rather than the opinions of the idealist. The presence of water, either a lake or stream, in the adjacent landscape is an unfailing attraction to some; others would rather face a prospect of meadow and woodland; whilst there are many who ask no better than that their garden shall be within sight and sound of the restless sea. In each respect the individual must please himself, having in mind, however, that a style of design applicable in one instance will probably be totally unfitted in another.

The outlines of the property must also be regarded as relevant to the question of site, more especially having regard to the impossibility which exists of making a satisfactory design for gardens of certain shapes. All who have attempted to achieve artistic results with the orthodox villa strip, know the extreme unsuitability of the narrow parallelogram. It is no easy matter, again, to secure a well balanced plan, in which the separate features are not unduly scattered, within boundaries which are square or nearly so, though this form is infinitely preferable to the foregoing. Perhaps the best, certainly the easiest, results are attained when the outline is triangular, though it is highly important that the positions of base and apex be considered. No one desires to curtail the impression of size in their grounds, and it is generally acknowledged that the more open and less contracted are the distant views, the better will be the effect. For this reason the apex of the triangle should concur with the least interesting prospect, the base with that to which it is desired to give prominence.

Taking the case of the house and gardens on the southern slope, the residence should be at the upper or northern extremity, with the best views, the gardens and landscape beyond, stretching south­wards. The chief windows will face south, and on the extent of the vista, its variety and absence of signs of foreshortening and curtailment, the skill of the designer will be appraised. That the garden boundaries should end in a point does away with all illusion of space; we mark the sudden transition from the cultivated to the wild, and our grounds appear as a modest wedge which is in momentary danger of being demolished by the encroachments of the neighbouring property.

Irregularity of outline is another feature to which objection may be raised on account of the extra expense incurred in fencing. The number of angles, too, renders the making of boundary paths a troublesome matter, and for various reasons a free, flowing outline is far preferable.

If a site can be secured on which a number of fine trees already stand, it should, other things considered, receive preference over one which is bare and barren. A well grown tree, grateful on account of its shade, and beautiful for its stately outline, is one of the most valued objects in the garden. Should there be too many trees, it is easy to cut down any that are not required; it is another matter to plant fresh ones. However, nothing will be gained by endeavouring to retain existing features of an unsuitable nature, or by altering a well balanced plan so as to include some object foreign to the scheme. In such cases it were better to start operations in a field destitute of tree, shrub or living plant, thereby enabling the projected design to be carried out unhampered by restrictions.

Much responsibility attaches to the designer who undertakes the laying out of a garden on an entirely new site; he starts absolutely afresh, and cannot lay the blame for any possible blunders on the shoulders of his predecessor. Before deciding finally on any one position, most careful observations should be made, and the opinion of those in the locality sought as to climate, presence of fogs, and other details which only extended residence in the neighbourhood can determine. A good site, favourable alike as regards soil, aspect and elevation, is certainly the surest foundation which can be laid for the future designing of a beautiful garden.