How to create a balanced garden
Why do we sometimes feel comfortable in one garden and not in another? How can one space leave us curiously unsettled and another, set us at ease?
The answer lies in our innate perception of proportion and scale.
We inherently seek balance, and beautiful garden design satisfies this yearning. A landscape architect understands how to create this natural harmony, by marrying artistic instincts with a clear set of principles.
Start by evaluating the site
Every site is different and a multitude of elements come together to create the overall picture.
An urban based property for example, sits within a context of surrounding buildings and overhanging plants from neighbouring gardens. Everything needs to relax comfortably together.
“It is essential to ‘see the whole space’ and dominant forms and colours needs to be balanced,” says Nicola Cameron. “Strong, clean architecture for example needs an equally strong element, such as a substantial tree with simple under-planting, to stretch the visual context. The scene should not feel overpowered by one element.”
Designing the Bondi garden
The narrow nature of this block in Bondi, (pictured below), created a ‘linear’ challenge, magnified by the heighted lines of the home and surrounding trees.
“We are in the process of redesigning the garden to address the vertical dimensions of the site,” says Nicola. “Emphasising the horizontal plane will help to re-establish the balance. Our landscape architect, Josh Arkey, has introduced a number of design elements to coax the eye downwards. This includes stepping-stones with curved edges, instead of sharp corners, to create a subtle focal point, at ground level.”
Apply the golden ratio and rule of thirds
Refined design is based on certain rules, which marry with our subconscious yearning for specific visual proportions. Remarkable creations have been designed using these precepts for thousands of years. This includes marvels such as the Pyramids in Giza and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
A mathematical ratio of 1:1.618 sits at the heart of creating a sense of beauty, through harmony and scale. This is known as the golden ratio and is closely related to the ‘rule of thirds’ which is commonly found in nature.
When applied to garden design, the result is a natural looking composition that is pleasing to the eye.
Designing the Kensington garden
This Sydney garden in Kensington, designed by Pepo Botanic Design and pictured below, illustrates the principle.
“The existing pool appeared to cut the garden in half and visually, it didn’t feel right,” explains Pepo Director, Nicola Cameron. “We set about creating a design that widened the pool area horizontally, to cover two thirds of the existing ground space. A ‘piano key’ path was installed to creatively integrate the grassed area with the hard pathway and reinforce the dimensions.”
A garden bed was planted in front of the pool, replacing chunky timber which had previously weighed the space down visually. The whole garden now blends effortlessly with its surrounds.
In time, pear tress adjacent to the pool will grow taller. This will help to offset the scale of a large tree which vertically dominates, to the left of the garden. “We have specifically chosen a pear variety that will grow to around one third of the height of the tall tree,” adds Nicola.
The same principle of thirds was applied to the front area of this property, where a small garden bed originally ran along the front of the house.
“The thin garden bed felt like an apologetic inclusion and was too narrow,” says Nicola. “We introduced a generous planting scheme adjacent to the house to cover a third of the lawn.” Three different types of plants were chosen to fill the garden and the considered design now evokes a sense of magnanimity and ease.
Sketch the design and balance shapes
Well-developed technical drawings help to reveal the relationship between the elements, within a space. “If it’s not right on paper, it won’t work,” says Nicola. “Everything needs to be connected and nothing should stand in isolation.”
The placement and size of paths and garden beds for example, must be considered in relation to one other. They help to establish harmony by directing the eye towards focal points, like a sculpture or a splendid tree.
Hard materials and textures also need to be considered. Rough stone pavers for example can be counterbalanced by a smooth concrete wall – helping to set people at ease, as they move through the space.
“Create a plateau and punctuate it with domes, planes and vases,” is the advice given by high profile designer Michael McCoy.
Shapes like domes and vases work together to provide visual symmetry. These forms can be achieved through plant choices or solid structures. The complementary silhouettes, provide balance and order. They also provide variation, to inspire and generate interest.
Let the garden breathe
“Unless something has a visual or physical purpose, it should not be there!” says Nicola Cameron. “Good balance depends on allowing for open spaces, and less is often more, even if a garden is small.”
A sense of ‘openness’ can be achieved horizontally – through paving or grass – or vertically, by using less-dense planting and shrubbery.
“We stripped the bottom two thirds of a heavy hedge on the border of this garden in Mosman, (picture below), to open up the space and establish balance,” says Nicola.
“Thinning out the camelia hedge created much-needed depth. The eye is now drawn to the interesting rock face that sits behind the trunks and upper branches. We also widened the back-garden bed to offset the pond. The overall space now feels more comfortable.”
A well-proportioned garden will always depend on the skillful union of aesthetics and mathematics.
“Good design seems obvious once it’s finished, but it involves thoughtful consideration and a clear process to get there,” says Nicola. “Once achieved, you feel naturally inclined to linger within the space and enjoy its inspiration and restorative qualities. It just feels right.”