10 Landscape Lessons Learned From Garden Designing
Faced with a blank slate, designer Gordon Hayward methodically laid out a garden that would last a lifetime. In the process, he learned volumes.
They started with a straight line. When garden designers Gordon and Mary Hayward bought an abandoned farmhouse on 1 1/2 acres near Putney, Vermont, in 1984, they began imagining their future garden. Taking the first step toward a garden plan, Gordon walked out the front door and began unraveling a ball of string heading toward an old apple tree 220 feet due south of the house. He felt he couldn’t go wrong with one strong axis, and he never regretted that move.
The decision to kick off the garden with a central axis was heavily influenced by a year in southern England, Mary’s native stomping ground. While there, the Haywards hobnobbed with Britain’s most astute gardeners as they paid call to all the great estates. That English-garden immersion informed the Haywards’ first garden along the central path that followed the taut string. Over the years, the garden gained 14 rooms from 18 acres of gradually acquired meadow, now framed by shrubs, trees, and potted plants. Loose, lush plantings are held in a firm structure, with a result that is neither too relaxed nor strict. The couple’s initial instincts have served well through the decades and led to an acclaimed garden that exemplifies the elements of savvy design expressed in Gordon’s 11 books.
The fact that Gordon first headed toward an apple tree was more than just happenstance. He grew up on an orchard in Connecticut surrounded by a grid of fruit trees, so he combined his New England affinity for fruit trees with a love for structure and straight lines from Mary’s old-English roots.
The garden’s initial straight lines were ultimately softened by beds filled with billowing plants. “The tension of formal and more relaxed moments is always being played out in the garden,” Gordon says. Throughout the decades, the couple has added many layers, but strong design touchstones keep the garden true to course. Forever juggling focal points, balance, contrast, transition, mystery, repetition, and a handful of other design precepts, the Haywards keep the garden’s continuity strong. Nowadays, Gordon designs gardens all along the East Coast. But wherever he works, he utilizes lessons learned at home in a landscape that started with a taut length of string.
Gordon and Mary Hayward converted an 1860 tobacco-drying barn into their tool shed and installed a grape arbor behind it to form a shaded seating area. By training Viburnum prunifolium into hedges, an intimate space for a formal garden room was created. The Haywards often host prearranged group tours of their garden in southeastern Vermont.
A Lure in the Distance
When Gordon and Mary Hayward chose their first focal point, a 100-year-old apple tree (seen at the far end of the path in this photo), it spoke of Gordon’s orchard roots and also proved that a dramatic plant can serve as a scene-stealing focal point to ground an entire garden. Choosing a venerable tree also serves to anchor a garden with its past. The Haywards’ garden features benches, containers, and sculpture as secondary focal points to direct the eye.
As Gordon often says, a focal point’s role is practical as well as ornamental. “A garden should show people where to go next,” he says. “It draws the eye and then your feet.” How is that accomplished? “A strong focal point has to stand out and stand alone,” Gordon says.
Selecting a colored focal point easily read from a distance, such as a marble or concrete statue or urn, can turn heads. Even a cluster of containers can speak volumes. Sleek forms will stand out against surrounding greenery, while a comfortable bench can beckon visitors to come toward it.
Gordon emphasizes the importance of balance but points out that balance does not necessarily mean matching forms. “You need to become aware of the visual weight of plants,” he says. Even a curved walkway can be balanced by visually comparative plantings on either side of the path.
Although the Hayward garden has many rooms, visitors always know they’re in the same garden thanks to unifying links. “They can be visual or physical,” Gordon says. For example, sprinkle a favorite plant throughout to tie a garden together, or simply echo color combinations—such as red and white. Repeated path materials also unify the space.
“Offer a varied emotional experience,” Gordon suggests. Contrast can be provided by textural and color variety in plantings but contrast can also be as subtle as changes in shade and sun while moving around a garden. Variations in flower shapes or between the sleekness of a path and the density of nearby plantings also provide contrast.
Repeated objects indicate a garden is a cohesive whole. In the Hayward garden, multiple series of terra-cotta pots serve as touchstones to lead the eye. Native black locust posts set in groupings echo trees growing wild nearby. Punctuation from sentinel plants and granite fence posts provide the same sense of continuity.
From Rosemary Verey, an internationally known English garden designer, Gordon learned that “no distant view is part of a garden until framed.” Taking advantage of borrowed views is particularly critical in small gardens. While arbors and hedges traditionally frame views, “any two high-pruned trees or matching shrubs can serve as a portal,” Gordon says.
Gordon Hayward is emphatic that every garden needs a defined point of entry. “You need to indicate the way in,” Gordon says. “When a garden has no beginning and no end, it leads to visual confusion.” An entry point can be signaled with a cluster of pots on either side of the path; a break in a hedge; a gate, steps, or sentinel stones; or a change in path materials. Most importantly, its role is to start the journey.
Separating a landscape into several rooms gives a sense of surprise. A curved path lined by tall shrubs or trees can also heighten mystery. Any time you create bends or crossroads in a garden and then provide an attraction around the corner, the pleasure of exploration deepens. “You always want people to wonder what’s next,” Gordon says.
After originally training their eyes in England, the Haywards took a shine to straight lines when laying out their own garden. As a designer, Gordon likes to “show the way” and lead eyes directly where he wants them to look, while also suggesting where visitors might explore as they move through a garden. But sight lines need not be straight. A curved or winding path can also lead the way if a destination is visible.
“You want to be embraced by a garden; you want to establish a sense that you’re within,” Gordon says. He often quotes fellow garden designer Patrick Chassé, who said, “People like to see big views from little spaces.” A garden structure is a common safe haven, but trees surrounding a seating area can provide that sense of enclosure. In this example, it also offers guests a “big view.”