Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Guest Blogger -Gordon Hayward

Gordon Hayward, an acclaimed garden designer and lecturer, is the author of over ten books and countless articles on gardening and garden design.  He has been a contributing editor for Fine Gardening magazine and is now a contributing editor for Organic Gardening magazine.  Gordon and his wife Mary also maintain a one-and one-half-acre garden at their home in rural Vermont that's recognized as one of the finest private gardens in the country.

With the upcoming gardening season right around the corner, Gordon urges us to take the time to visit other gardens in order to gain a fresh perspective on our own endeavors.  In this post, Visiting a Garden, he points out that we can get so much more out of visiting a garden if we are willing to set aside preconceived notions and simply open our eyes.

Visiting A Garden

Visiting a garden, whether public or private, is a rare treat. We gardeners are usually so busy in our own gardens that we rarely make time for such a luxury, but when we do make the effort, we return to our garden with a new eye with which to reevaluate our own garden.

What we get out of visiting a garden, however, is not up to the garden we visited; it’s up to us. Too often we don’t get all we could out of a garden visit because we walk into it with our critical faculties primed. We look to see what we like, but we are equally prepared, if not moreso, to see what we don’t like. It’s often our own judgmental attitudes that get in the way of learning new things from visiting gardens.

Of course we need to have standards against which to measure gardens we visit. We certainly won’t grow as gardeners if we say everything is wonderful or terrible in our own garden and ones we visit, but at the same time, if we explore a new garden on its terms rather than ours’, a whole world of new design and plant ideas opens up to us.

image courtesy National Trust
Mary and I have been leading garden tours to England, and now to Ireland, for the past ten years as well as leading visitors through our own garden and those of clients for nearly twice as long. What we hear time and again is one question: “What’s that plant?” Now that is certainly a valid question, but it’s very limited indeed. There is so much more that we can learn from visiting a garden but we need to ask the right questions.

Relationship of House to Garden:

Many houses are set within a garden while others might be at the very edge of it or not even visible from the garden at all. If the house is right there at the outset of your tour, or if you have been invited to walk through the house to get to the garden, pay attention.

 Was it clear which was the appropriate front door to approach?

 What signals did the designer provide to ensure that you were on the path to the front door?

 Do doors give rise to important paths? Do certain windows focus attention on specific views?

 What do you notice about the relationship of materials used on the exterior of the house and those materials used in the garden? Do you see similarly painted surfaces in both, or do you see the repetition of brick, stone or wooden surfaces in both?

 Notice the proportion of beds or paved sitting areas near the house relative to the proportions of the house itself.

Get a Map if One is Available:

Once you know a bit about the relationship between house and garden, you need to get a read on the layout of the entire property. The owners of many public gardens offer maps. First find north and orient yourself to the four points of the compass. This understanding will help you understand plant choice and a vast range of other decisions as they relate to the sun and shade. If a map is available, find where you are on it and then take a moment to orient yourself in relation to the garden areas you can see from the entrance. Do individual garden areas have names, and how do those names help you understand the meaning or style of each area? What zone is the garden in?

If it is not possible to get a map, and it seems appropriate, take a fast-paced walk through the entire garden. Clarify as you go how its parts fit (or don’t fit) together. Are all parts linked together by paths flowing from one enclosed area to the next? Or is the whole garden open, with one area virtually indistinguishable from the next? Do separate garden areas appear as isolated islands in a sea of lawn? Once you have seen the whole garden, go back to the beginning and take a more measured, deeper look following your same initial path with an eye to all the questions that follow.

Clarify The Role of Each Area:

Once you get a grasp of the whole garden, you can then begin to ask questions about how each part relates to the whole. The analogy of the novel helps, or you can imagine the whole garden as being designed by one person, with each garden area representing a separate aspect of his or her personality that goes into making a whole person.

 How are different garden areas used? Are some for sitting while others are for strolling through? Are some for outdoor entertainment and others for appreciating color and texture contrasts?

 How do light and shade change from area to area?

 Notice when straight bed edges are used and when curves are employed. Do curved bed edges curve for a reason? That is, do they go around a tree, boulder or large shrub or do they just curve for the sake of curving?

 What fragrances are you aware of as you walk through each area of the garden?

 What is the relationship of lawn shapes to bed shapes? Are the two in proportion or are the beds too small for the much larger lawn?

 Do some garden areas feel too big to the point at which they demand too much attention, or are there some garden areas that feel pinched and confining?

 Water can be used to excite or calm emotion. It can produce sound or remain silent. Pay attention to the use to which water is put in each area.

Transitions From One Garden Area To The Next:

A good garden design takes advantage of transition areas between one garden area and the next. Gates, doorways, arbors, pergolas, a pair of standing stones or a break in a wall or hedge are just a few of the ways to mark transitions. Designers also use stepping stones, gravel, brick, stone or any number of other materials onto which planted pots or ornaments are placed. Pay attention to how transition zones are handled for you may want to build them into your own garden.

 Are there in fact marked transition areas or do areas blend imperceptibly one into the next?

 Are there steps or ramps at the point of transition, and if so, what materials did the designer use?

 The top of a set of stone stairs is an important transition point in that it directs the garden visitor’s view. Notice what you see as you stand on that top step. The grander the steps, the grander the view you should see from the top and subsequent steps.

 Do straight paths visually link one area to another by allowing a view from one area into the next or are those site lines down those long straight paths closed by doors or hedges?

Structures and Architecture:

Built structures such as pergolas, gazebos or grape arbors act as magnets to draw you along an itinerary. They also provide intimate spaces from which to look out at gardens, vistas or views. Upright supports, doorways or windows also frame views on out into the garden and beyond. Finally, the best structures in a garden need to be built of materials and in a style that is appropriate for the garden space in which it is located. We have a rustic grape arbor, for example, adjacent to a 100 year old rustic garden shed. On the other hand, at the end of 90’ long, 8’ wide straight lawn path between two mixed borders we have built a refined gazebo. The furniture under the arbor is simple; the chairs and bench we chose for the gazebo is considerably more refined.

 What architectural elements exist in the garden?

 How does the material of which the pergola is constructed support the mood of the garden through which it runs?

 What vines, if any, grow on the structure?

Plant Choice in Each Garden Area:

Once you have an understanding of the design and layout of a garden, you can then begin to zero in on the crux of the matter: plants. But again, try to avoid looking just at individual plants but at how they have been used to create a distinctive garden. For example, do you see how plant choice and layout support or even establish the mood of the area in which they are found?  For example, our outdoor dining area is in shade, and the plants around it should be subordinate to the conversation across the table. Consequently, we planted hostas, ferns, groundcovers to create a subdued garden. On the other hand, when sitting in the gazebo with a view down the length of our pair of mixed borders, we wanted to choose exciting, dramatic bold plants for full sun.

 When looking at a bed, what are the structure plants, that is, those dominant trees, shrubs or large perennials such as ornamental grasses that are repeated within a garden area?

 What plants fill in the spaces between those structure plants?

 Did the designer focus on a certain bloom period or color theme?

 Do certain colors, foliage shape or types of plants for certain soils or light conditions predominate?

 What colors predominate? Do you see areas where a dominant color and echoes of it are apparent?

 How are trees used in the garden? As individual specimens? As repeated structural elements? As architectural forms or as natural elements? Is there a wide variety of trees in the garden, or do certain ones predominate?

 What is the level of maintenance and the feeling that it creates in each area? Does the whole garden stand erect or is there an ease about the way it is maintained? Or is the garden so poorly maintained that deadheading has not been done, weeds abound and edges are sloppy? Before reaching a personal judgment about the level of maintenance, try to understand the designer’s purpose and style.

 And, finally, “What’s that plant?"

photo by Gordon Hayward
One other very important element of a garden is its relation to the larger
landscape. As you walk through the garden, ask yourself questions about the relationship of the garden proper to the natural world beyond. Is the garden enclosed and separate from that natural world, or do views, vistas and paths link the garden to the larger landscape? If so, are there plants, benches, paths or other garden elements that draw you from the garden on into the surrounding woods, meadows, prairie or fields?

Once you have visited a several gardens and you want to make use of all that experience, look back and compare apples to apples. First make a list of problems you’re trying to solve in your garden: where to put a grape arbor; how to make transitions from one area to the next; how to use a specific perennial or shrub in a border; how to site outdoor built structures or garden ornaments. Then think back to each garden to compare how each designer solved the same design problems you’re wrestling with. Through that process of comparison, you’ll begin to see how designers think and you’ll be able to put all that garden visiting experience to good use.

You can apply Gordon's methods when you visit his own garden in Vermont which will be open to the public for the Garden Conservancy's Open Days event on August 6th.

To learn more about Gordon and Mary Hayward and their garden in Vermont, click here.


  1. Joe,
    Perfect timing as I am leaving for a tour English gardens next week. Thanks.

  2. Have a wonderful trip, Michael! And, I look forward to the photos and stories when you return!--Joe


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