One of the first things I think about when I'm designing a new garden is what I call the "space-to-stuff" ratio. Will the garden look like a scene from a Tarzan movie, stuffed with plants and needing a machete to clear the way? Or will it have a Zen-like feel, using a few well-chosen elements, subtly arranged to create a feeling of calmness and uncluttered elegance? Maybe it will fall somewhere in between.

Space refers to anywhere you can move around without banging your shins on the patio furniture or snagging your sweater on a rose bush. I'm talking about paths, patios, lawns, low swaths of ground cover, etc. Everything else is stuff: tables and chairs, trees and shrubs, fountains and sculptures.

How these spaces and elements are arranged depends on the style of garden you seek. Formal gardens are often arranged on a grid and have a real or implied axis running down the center (sometimes perpendicular cross-axes, if you really want to get schmancy). Informal, or naturalistic gardens emulate a more organic flow of space, with curving lines and irregular balancing of the visual mass.

Look at the gardens you covet and figure out how this principle applies to them. Getting this fundamental concept right is crucial to meeting your aesthetic and practical goals.

Bloedel Reserve vista of Puget Sound


This serene vista, taken at the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, Washington, captures the concept of space, punctuated with a subtle inclusion of a cluster of trees and framed by screening plants tapering toward the horizon. Unfortunately, not all of us have the Puget Sound as a focal point, but it's helpful to understand how the ratio of mass and space can be used to guide the eye. Additionally, gentle contouring of the ground plane at the edges focuses the viewer toward the long horizon. How would you rescale this idea in a smaller garden?

small alternative lawn

When you look at a garden you like, try to determine the stuff-to-space ratio. Susan Harris, one of those wild and crazy ladies at GardenRant.com, created this simple back yard lawn alternative a few years ago at her home outside D.C. She removed a traditional turf lawn and replaced it with sedum, clover, and a few other low-care ground covers. The edge is amorphous, sometimes creeping into the shrub beds. Medium shrubs and stout perennials form the musculature, eventually giving way to large shrubs and forest. There's a feeling of openness leading to a simple path wandering into the trees. To me, the ratio of this vignette looks like 20% stuff, 80% open space. Does this work for you?

Japanese garden in the woods

Back at the Bloedel Reserve, the Japanese garden offers an example of how line and space interact. The path appears to be deflected off the groupings of boulders and the occasional lone plant keeps the space from being completely revealed in one view. Also, notice how the low branches of the tree form a frame and contain the space.

Descanso Gardens path and plants

When I spoke at Descanso Gardens in the Los Angeles area last year, I had a few hours to walk the grounds. This very residential composition takes the idea of a curving path and plants a few steps further. The bends in the flagstone walkway are more emphatic. Plants force a game of hide and seek. Low ground covers are minimized and the core plantings roll right up to the walkway, creating a feeling of compression, very unlike the example above. Is one better than the other? It's all a matter of taste and your intention.

Filoli formal path and tulips

At Filoli, a historic estate about 30 miles south of San Francisco, the same idea is expressed using a formal, geometric layout. Clipped boxwood defines the separation of mass and space. A big show of potted tulips and the stone column tease visitors, obscuring the gate and the view beyond. Massive cylindrical shrubs anchor and balance the garden. Again, all these elements are scalable once you understand how they are being used to manipulate the proportions of the space.

Bloedel forest path

Now let's flip the equation and explore another part of the Bloedel Reserve. We find ourselves with a heaping helping of plants and a modest path sliding through the forest. The feeling is intimate and secretive, forcing visitors to slow down and appreciate the cool, misty woods.

So what have we learned? If you ask me, it's a lesson about developing a grand scheme for the overall garden and organizing the space before jumping into creating beautiful foliage and floral compositions.

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