The gardener's eye

The Gardener's Eye

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Intention and Restraint

Lisa Brooks' drawing for the Gardening on Slopes chapter of Joe Eck's book, Elements of Garden Design

My garden is terraced on a hill and has three distinct sections, each on a different level. I am working on the design of the lowest third of the garden, a woodland garden under development, which I call the Wild Garden in honor of Irish writer William Robinson's legendary garden Gravetye Manor in West Sussex, England. The two upper levels are designed formally with hedges and axes but this lower garden, I want to feel much more naturalistic. There is a newly installed 5-foot-tall granite post that is as a focal point calling the visitor to the next room, but once entered, I want it to feel very different from the other parts of the garden.

As I am planning my Wild Garden, the garden's intention is at the forefront of my thought process. I first heard of a garden having an intention in Joe Eck's book, Elements of Garden Design. In the first chapter, he calls intention "the clearest idea of what one wishes to create." I think of intention as a sort of mission statement for the garden.

The intention of my Wild Garden is based on a compilation of gardens I have visited and read about over the years. Robinson's classic book, The Wild Garden inspires me as does the more contemporary writings of European designers Dan Pearson, Noel Kingsbury and the late Henk Gerritsen. The American, author, Rick Darke's book The American Woodland Garden is another influence. My garden is also inspired by the hikes I have taken here in the Monadnock Region of New Hampshire and the great White Mountains of my home state.

Eck writes that a garden's "success will lie in its concrete realization, in the arrangement of treasured plants within a framework of less transitory elements of trees, shrubs, hedges, pavement, architecture." That success is dependent on restraint. For every decision made about the garden needs to be consistent with the plan. Anything that strays from the plan will weaken the final overall effect and therefore the success of the garden.


  1. I find it fascinating that what appear to be the most simple and nastural gardens are always the most difficult to design. I am always guilty of "just one more, just a little trimming, etc., etc." Can't wait to see photos when it all comes together!

  2. When I think about it, "intention" can be hard to define precisely. It's easy to know the direction, but the goal isn't so obvious. So what does one do? Go slowly, and be ready to back track and correct mistakes?

  3. Hmm - restraint in a wild garden? I'll be interested to see what you do - that book by Rick Darke was a huge influence on how I think about gardening and helped me with a somewhat wild back garden, though I would describe it currently as domesticated wild!

  4. Tim,
    I think this will be a challenge. Fortunately, the hedges on the middle level garden will hide the work in progress until it is ready for visitors.

    I think there will be quite a lot of backtracking and correcting. Hopefully, a few happy mistakes will also occur. I have been going quite slowly so far. The first 10 years were removal of existing brush, unwanted trees and invasive vines. Then I began to add trees and shrubs which are finally creating the necessary shade to add the herbaceous layer.

    I will need to restrain from being too tidy I'm afraid! I still haven't determined how much variegated or colored foliage I am going to allow in the garden. It may difficult to say no to some very beautiful plants. I have a Cornus controversa 'Variegata' in the garden now- I am not 100% sure it will stay as it develops.

  5. What an interesting challenge you have set yourself!
    I think for me rigour as to plant choices and context are the key and the Cornus is feeling a tad outre!
    Of course there will be pitfalls and discoveries, compromises and so forth. But that is the nature of being a real gardener/garden designer as opposed to just one of those two!
    Well done!
    Keep us posted.
    Best Wishes

  6. Robert,
    Thanks for your comment. You've got me all pumped up to work on this garden once the snow melts....could be in June the way things are going. They are calling for up to 2 feet of snow this week.

  7. I'd love to see posts of all this work in progress and completed. I had the great pleasure of staying at Gravetye several years ago, one of the most wonderful garden exploring weeks I've ever spent. The food was divine and after dinner, this in June, we'd walk in the garden, which was still bright until nearly eleven at night.

  8. I can't wait to see this come to fruition...and I think restraint is key to all types of gardening...although it's just as important to let loose on occasion ;-)

  9. Paul,
    I would love to visit Gravetye Manor. Hopefully one day I will be able to see it. IU have been thoroughly enjoying the gardens you have posted. Looking forward to more!

    Good to hear from you. I'll keep you posted as to what I do next. I have a long winter to think it over.

  10. I like that word, intention. To me it really captures the notion that gardens should follow a clear purpose. Like a piece of art, you should know what you want to say with it (and it can be anything). It also reminds me of Russell Page, who really advocated one strong, central theme in the design of the garden (something I seem to recall you've mentioned yourself in an old post). Anyway, good luck with the garden and hope to see how it develops soon.

  11. GW,
    Thanks for the good wishes. I think Joe Eck may have picked up on this intention theme in part from Russell Page.



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