Gardening: Streamline, shape and scale

By Leigh Bramwell

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The Partner is tearing his hair out over a client's garden. A stand of massive macrocarpa in the centre of the entranceway has been cut down leaving, surprise surprise, a stand of massive stumps.

Somewhat less than sculptural, they're embedded in a no-man's land of tatty ringa ringa surrounded by rotting timber edging delineating the shape of an oyster shell. Charming.

The client's keen to try to camouflage the stumps while maintaining the existing bed; The Partner is keen to rip the stumps out with a digger; and I'm recommending demolishing the entire thing - stumps, ringa ringa, soil, edging and whatever lies beneath - all with a mind to destroying the ugly oyster shape and imprinting something more appropriate on the landscape.

The chances of reaching an agreement anytime soon are remote, and my solution is at the bottom of the list - mainly because nobody can understand what's actually wrong with the shape of an oyster shell.

Well, there'd be nothing wrong with it, if the other shapes in the view would hold hands with it. But they won't. A rectangular house, square sheds, free-form garden beds, a winding driveway, a triangular deck, a straight path and other random creations have created a visual nightmare that can probably only be improved with a bulldozer and a Lotto win.

The moral of the story is if you're planning a whole garden or new areas in an existing garden, delete the word "random" from your visual vocabulary and replace it with "restrained". Don't muddy the design with too many small shapes or too many kinds of shapes; make sure shapes relate to one another and the property itself. Rectangles alternating with koru or, heaven forbid, oyster shells, can get spooky.

If you're now too alarmed to sketch even the simplest shape on your landscape plan, relax. Most plots of land are rectangular, with a house in the middle somewhere. Even if you're living on a farm, the site is likely to be roughly rectangular. Chances are, so is the house. You'll need to add lawns, paths and garden beds in complementary shapes - probably a mix of geometric and gently curving.

Start with the lawn - it's usually the largest element of the garden, so its shape should set the tone for the shape of the beds. Design it with either straight or gradually curving lines and avoid sharp turns, wiggly edges, jagged corners and random extra bits. All of the above will produce dodgy aesthetics and a grumpy person on the lawnmower.

Generally, where there's a lawn there'll be a path somewhere nearby, and here's where you need to bring scale into the equation. Proportions of garden features are even trickier than shapes. If you lawn is massive, a skinny, wriggly little path is going to look as if you ran out of either money or enthusiasm or both before the job was complete. If your garden is big enough, make paths wide enough for two people to walk side by side. Nobody likes to play follow-the-leader when taking an evening stroll around the garden.

If the path is to have grass underfoot, measure the size of your mower before you design it. And since most paths are not totally straight, try to use turns and curves to reveal part of the garden as you walk. For example, planting three taller shrubs in the curve of a path will hide the view until you've rounded the corner. Then suddenly, you have mystery in your garden.

Scale is also important when designing garden beds and features. A useful rule of thumb is to make beds about half as wide as the distance from where you view them. So if your lawn is 20 metres long, you can pretty much guess than a one metre-wide garden bed at the end is going to look comical rather than imposing.

If your lawn is square or rectangular, bring your garden bed neatly up to its edge. Random little pieces of lawn leaching out into the shrubs will drive the lawnmower man mad. If you want to relax the geometric shapes, do so at the back end of the garden bed, where a curve might be more appropriate.

And last but not least, garden design is no place to be a fashion bunny. It's wise to eschew trends when designing anything as permanent as a landscape. Remember kidney-shaped swimming pools? I rest my case.

Seeds

Some people (me) have never grown things in seed trays. I've chucked the odd handful of carrot seeds directly into the garden, but seed trays have never been on my list. Now they are, because I'm desperate to get something started and I can't quite wait for spring.

If you can't wait either, sow seeds of cabbage, celery, spring onion, onions, silverbeet, spinach and lettuce in trays for planting later. Most vegetable seeds need a temperature of at least 15C to germinate, so cover seed trays with glass or plastic to raise the temperature. You need to use special seed raising mix because potting or other garden soils can be too heavy to let the little souls poke through.

If you plan to germinate your seeds inside and you have a cat, cover the trays to prevent them being mistaken for kitty litter boxes. Mine live under the television cabinet at night.

- Hamilton News

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