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Cultivating Life: Fences add structure to your garden

October 07, 2011|By Sean Conway

Visitors to my garden frequently comment that it must take a lot of time to care for such a large piece of property. Yet the garden seems much larger than it actually is, owing to the fact that you can't view the entire property all at once.

Passing from one area of the garden to another, guests traverse varied surfaces consisting of gravel walks, grass paths, bluestone patios, the sisal carpeted floor of a walk-through garden room, a patio paved with 200-year-old bricks, and patches of lawn.

They walk through a vegetable garden, down the length of a shrub border, past a pond and bog, up steps made from large, flat rocks retaining the rock garden, through fern-lined paths in a woodland and down a gravel drive alongside a stream — all as separate experiences.

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As the garden evolved, I used various techniques to prevent it from being viewed all at once. The goal was to create different spaces for enjoying different times of the day and even different times of year, as well as to make my property seem more visually interesting than the relatively flat piece of ground it actually is.

Garden designers and landscape architects often refer to this as creating structure in the garden. Sometimes you'll hear people say that a garden has "good bones." What they're referring to is the structure a garden has accumulated over time.

Structure in the garden can be achieved in many ways, and it is most successful when it serves a function and conveys vital information about a space.

For example, when a walkway is added from the street to the front door of a house, it adds structure to the landscape by providing a surface to walk on — an obvious utilitarian function. But it also tells visitors the best way to approach the house. Without a visible walkway, visitors might be momentarily confused about how to proceed.

Fences are another good example of structure. Fences delineate spaces. They tell us where one space begins and another ends. They are most often used on property lines, and depending on our need for visual privacy they can be anything from solid and tall to open and short.

Fences also act as visual guides; a solid 6-foot tall fence can hide the neighbor's beat-up old car and prevent your guests from viewing your compost pile, but they can also direct your eye to the garden instead of beyond it.

When I am considering adding structure to the garden, I group my options into four categories:

•Solid structures such as fences, walls, arbors, trellises and gates

•Living structure such as hedges, groves of trees, bold-leaved plants, potted plants and so forth

•Walkways and walking surfaces

•Garden art

When adding structure to the garden from any of the categories, consider the purpose for adding the structure and what information it provides about how the space should be used.

For instance, the purpose for adding a hedge may be to block a view. It also lets anyone viewing the space know where a designated space begins and ends, providing a clear message that the space in front of the hedge is important.

You can add structure to your garden at any point, whether you are creating a new garden or have had one for years. Structure is the foundation of a good garden, making the space you have more usable. In my garden, providing structure not only created interest, but it also helped make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

SEAN CONWAY is a nationally-renowned garden designer and consultant for Target Corp.

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