The idea that the landscape around our homes is a static, never-changing adornment seems to be giving way as more and more people embrace the notion of garden building. Some treat the terms landscape and garden synonymously, but they are quite different. You can have a perfectly fine landscape and never step foot outside or do a bit of the work yourself. But to have a garden is a different thing. Building a garden requires a personal commitment of time and effort, and it becomes your own living work of art, reflecting your interests, tastes and personality.
Traditional landscape training uses the concept of “public,” “private” and “service” areas within the overall landscape as a way of defining the use of the space. The public area is intended for street-side viewing while the private area is usually treated as an extension of the indoor living space – a sort of outdoor living room. The service area is for separating the untidy things we do from the rest of our activities – a kind of utility room of the landscape. The concept of building garden rooms is but an extension of this basic idea. It asks the question, instead of having a three-room landscape, why not add more rooms?
Subdividing Your Space
Before we explore this concept further, let me share the results of informal polling I have done over the years as I speak to Master Gardeners and other groups about landscaping topics. I ask, “How many live on a traditional city lot?” The answer always surprises me – it is usually only about one quarter of the group. The rest live on one of the acreages at the edge of town or out in the country with five to 20 acres. Garden rooms can be fitted into large or small parcels with the benefits of subdividing your overall space to be enjoyed by all.
First, let’s examine why we might want additional rooms in a landscape. If you buy the idea that the garden is your own personal work of art, it is not much of a stretch to think of the garden as your own private art gallery. Art galleries display a lot of art, but they don’t show it off in one large space. They organize their displays into separate rooms that reflect some common theme.
Garden rooms give you the opportunity to create special spaces with a specific thematic signature, such as springtime wildflowers, a fernery, flowering bulbs or plantings with white or blue flowers. Or they can be developed around specific activities such as outdoor eating, swimming or growing vegetables. Play areas can be developed for youngsters who create hideout spaces among the shrubs and trees. These areas are easy to incorporate and are enjoyed by children from 3 to 12 years old. Because they are different spaces that are visually separated from each other, one space can have a completely different style than the next. The possibilities for creating special spaces as a subset of your overall garden are endless.
Garden rooms can also be spaces that match your mood. Just as not every family member finds the same room inside the home most comfortable, garden rooms reflect their own personality, and different people will find one or another space more to their liking. Some days you may feel most comfortable in a wide open area with sweeping views, while at other times you might feel like being enfolded in the embrace of a smaller space.
Planning for garden room additions is much like adding a room onto your house – it has to fit with what is already there. The circulation patterns of the space need to be considered carefully. Paths and walkways can be changed, but people are still like a herd of cows headed to the barn at night – they prefer the shortest possible route. So don’t alter the circulation patterns too extremely or the space will always feel contrived and unnatural.
Garden Room Features
Garden rooms will share a number of features including:
1) A reason to exist, something that sets them apart from other areas of the garden
2) A well-defined space that is at least partially enclosed and defined by some kind of entryway
3) Visual sight lines that provide the most effective display of the area
4) Features that address the creature comforts of the gardener
The terrain and dimensions of the available space help define the layout for specific garden rooms. Homeowners with acres of land to potentially develop definitely need to use the idea of garden rooms to define their space. Because they have more area to work with, their rooms can be more spacious, but it is still easiest to break their large parcel into specific rooms with their own uses and maintenance needs. The close-in areas next to the home will be the most intimate spaces with the highest level of maintenance. The outlying areas can be developed to receive less maintenance as they recede into the distance. Openings in the “walls” of the rooms close to the house can be left to view the extent of your kingdom, but the close-in plantings are needed to help define your space and give the sense of enclosure that makes most of us feel more comfortable.
The “Golden Mean” and Gardening
The dimensions of garden rooms vary widely, but most often they are rectangular in outline. In his best seller The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown goes into a general discussion of the “Golden Mean,” a mathematical number representing the proportion of the length of two lines where the reciprocal of the shorter can produce the longer and vice versa. (For a clear explanation of the concept of Phi and the Golden Mean see the website www.goldennumber.net.) The golden mean or golden proportion is found approximated throughout nature, so fans ascribe great significance to the number. The number is Phi = 1.618 (shown with an upper case “P”) or phi = 0.618 (shown with a lower case “p;” the reciprocal of Phi). It turns out that rectangles based on this proportion have a comfortable feel about them, and the golden mean has been used by architects to proportion everything from the Parthenon to the United Nations building.
It can also be used to determine how large to make a specific garden room. For example, if the end of your house is 40 feet wide, and you have lots of room available, you can use Phi to determine how deep to make the space. In this case it would be 40 x 1.618 = 65 feet. If you know the length and want to know the width, multiply by phi. For example, a 30-foot length would be 30 x 0.618 = 18.5 feet. My backyard, formed when the builder selected the spot for the house 40 plus years ago, is a rectangular space that has always felt comfortable to me. It measures 105 feet wide and 65 feet deep. Using phi to calculate the depth in relation to the width that was set by the property lines, the ideal depth would be 64.89 feet! Quite a coincidence.
Taking an Artistic Approach
Those mathematically inclined can continue to use this approach for locating paths, proportioning seating areas, deciding how high a fence should be and even deciding how tall the shrubs should be. But most gardeners seem to be right brain thinkers with an artistic flair so complex arithmetic problems are usually not high on their list of favorite topics. Instead they rely on their well-developed, innate sense of proportion for these tasks.
Long, narrow spaces might be analogous to a hallway inside the home. They would be ideal locations for showing off petite plants that are best viewed close-up. Hallways are intended as pass-through spaces, but occasionally there will be room for a bench or some other special feature that will add interest to the space. The entries to these narrow spaces can be defined with decorative arches or gates that set the space off as a special area and allow the use of vining plants that are always beautiful but sometimes difficult to find just the right place for in the garden.
On her narrow city lot, one creative Fayetteville, Ark., gardener had a woodsy path that lead back to a small seating area outside her bedroom window – a kind of secret garden. The presence of the seating area soon prompted taking the window out and replacing it with a door, helping extend the tiny bedroom into the outdoor living space.
Swimming pools and the deck space surrounding them are usually separated from the rest of the landscape, so that access to the pool is controlled. A direct sightline is usually maintained from within the house, but the rest of the garden can be treated as separate spaces with their own personalities.
Patios and dining areas can also be partially enclosed, creating a room-like dining experience that gives a sense of scale as you eat your evening meal on the veranda. This sense of personal scale is important. We’ve all had the experience of being in an overly crowded space and know the stress this causes, but the reverse also happens when the space is too large and we feel small and insignificant by the space. I get this feeling when I go to the movie theater and only about six of the 500 seats are in use. The space is too big and out of proportion with the users.
The walls you build for your garden rooms can be of a physical or metaphysical nature. The physical structures take the form of fences, hedges or arbors that provide a secure sense of enclosure. Openings, entryways and “windows” can be strategically placed to show off the best views from within the space, or if the intent is for a cloistered retreat, they can be eliminated. The height of the enclosure is important, especially in a small space. Unless privacy concerns require it, fences over 6 feet in spaces of only a couple 100 square feet of area seem uncomfortably claustrophobic. Using the overhead branches of a tree to provide a “roof” for the space reduces some of this hemmed-in feeling.
The metaphysical walls are the hints of enclosure that can be provided by strategically placing trees, shrubs and border plants to partially enclose the space without actually giving away the fact that you are reigning in the view. Tree and shrub enclosures can be arranged formally with straight rows and one kind of plant, but more artistry is achieved by using a variety of plants in an informal mixed border kind of effect. The plants chosen may be evergreen or deciduous, with the latter group often creating the most comfortable feel in smaller spaces. Mixing evergreens and deciduous plants in the 80:20 proportion (80 percent evergreen, 20 percent deciduous) if you want an evergreen border, or vice versa if you want a deciduous border, can be effectively used to create rhythm on a year-round basis.
Make It Comfortable
Within these garden rooms, the creature comforts of the gardener and guests must be addressed. Seating is the most critical. Any space special enough to be singled out for its own treatment should have its own furniture. Comfortable chairs seem a minimum requirement, even though garden suppliers still insist on cranking out tons of “garden furniture” that is extremely uncomfortable.
That reminds me of a small project I was involved in here at the university – designing an interior landscape for the atrium of one of the buildings. The student I turned the project over to came back with a fine plan that included a couch and two end chairs, all surrounding a large coffee table. This area was itself partially encircled by an open border of large houseplants. The plan was passed on to the committee that actually had the money to spend to make the plan a reality. They liked the plan they said, but the couch and chairs just would not work. If you made it too comfortable, why students might actually use it and hang out there! The type of seating they finally selected were wooden benches without backs, and of course, the space is never used.
In addition to comfortable seating, there needs to be something of note to see in the room. The principle sightline for a display is usually from the seating area. The object being viewed might be a well-maintained border of hostas, a piece of garden statuary, or a distant view from one of the window spaces left in the aforementioned ephemeral wall. Just as you wouldn’t expect anyone to use an empty room with no adornments, a garden room without a special feature becomes like a closed-off bedroom – there, but not much to see.
Garden rooms are but one more approach gardeners can use to squeeze the maximum enjoyment out of their garden. The small garden can be made to feel more interesting and larger by partitioning the space off into rooms. In larger landscape spaces, rooms help define the space and divide the acreage into logical use areas. Breaking the space into smaller, discrete parcels makes these bite-size pieces easier to work with to design a beautiful and functional space. Whatever forms your masterpiece takes, adding rooms in the framework of your garden is an effective way of improving upon the space.
(Photography by Gerald Klingaman. From State-by-State Gardening June 2004)