Notes for a gardener

Magnolia Plaza and the Beaux Arts Administration Building at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Magnolia Plaza and the Beaux Arts Administration Building at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

In his talk at Plant-o-Rama, an annual event held at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on January 29 of this year, Darrel Morrison credited environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan with defining the four attributes that make a preferred landscape:  mystery, complexity, coherence, and legibility.

Morrison was saying nothing new in using these terms, but in the context of his talk, “Designing for Place:  Merging Art and Ecology in Regional Landscapes,”  these four qualities seemed to strike home as a useful mantra for anyone making a garden.

My interpretation:

Mystery – what lies just around that corner, is there more to see, what is it, does the garden have an atmosphere of mystery, something hidden (lurking) beneath the surface?

Complexity – is there enough happening in the garden to keep my interest, is there more to be seen if I go back?

Coherence – are structure and form easily visible in the garden, do plantings echo and contrast with each other, does it all “hang together”?

Legibility – is it easy to find your way around the garden, are the plant groups as well as individual plants, easily seen in meaningful relationships or aesthetically meaningful shapes and distributions, are their forms and structures clearly discernable?

In my garden, complexity and legibility are in precarious balance. My challenge is to keep them that way.

Autumn Grass Colors at Federal Twist mid morning FT 193

Mystery? Plenty.

Coherence? Yes. Repetition of shapes, narrative paths, garden unified by a distinctive site–a clearing in the woods–and by a design aligned with natural drainage patterns.

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21 thoughts on “Notes for a gardener

  1. Well that is food for thought and I think my garden fails completely and maybe that is why I am dissatisfied with it. There is certainly no mystery and I struggle with this due to the smallness and not wanting to put up hedges, fences etc. I will ponder on this.

    1. My Brooklyn garden is quite small, only 20 by 30 feet. I was considering where I could find mystery, and it appeared in the dark water of the central pool, in the dark slate color of the fence wall, in the dark box woods against the lighter gravel, in not seeing what is on the other side of the fence, and in the trees and plants that hang over from adjoining gardens. I imagine you can do an exercise like this to identify similar features or potential features of your garden.

      1. I need to see garden mystery thru those eyes for the Little Garden. As it is the walls are painted a Nasty dark green. Municipal park bench colour. I would prefer the less enclosed look of lighter walls, so the eye can blur the indoor/outdoor boundary and next door’s trees. I won’t have your option to rethink the space and add a formal pond. I’m waiting for spring so you’ll show us the plant progress in Brooklyn?

  2. As I contemplate my garden I think that the road to improvement (if that is the term) lies in mass plantings of certain key perennials. “Mass plantings” certainly subsumes “coherence” and “legibility” (even as it challenges “complexity”).

    1. Perhaps “road to enjoyment:?

      I think you’re right, Ross. Your have large open spaces (or so it seems from reading your descriptions and seeing a few photos) and masses of plants seem very appropriate, possibly with eruptions of verticals or other contrasts, where appropriate. I’d guess your landscape contributes complexity.

  3. Interesting. And challenging. I think, if I understand the concepts correctly, that I am looking for a greater coherence in the planting for my new front garden, through more repetition of shapes and plants. I am struggling with adding mystery in this same space, since I have three different points from which I want access to a view, which keeps bringing me up short. I get an idea for something that will work really well from one viewpoint, but which won’t work at all from another. I wonder whether there are issues in applying these ideas, at least all at once, successfully in a small space? Do you need a large plot to balance them all in a pleasing manner? And my own personal bugbear, when does complexity just become bitty and unrestful? There is loads going on in your garden, yet always my overwhelming feeling when looking at one of your photos of it is of peace. Not something I have managed yet, in any garden… Very thought provoking…

    1. And your comment is thought provoking for me, Janet. I don’t know your situation well enough to comment on the specifics, but perhaps you could close off the view except at certain dramatic points. As to complexity vs. bitty and unrestful, I think the key is in repetition of large numbers of plants of like or similar kind. Not ones or twos, or threes or fours, but 20s and 30s.

  4. Darrel was one of my professors in graduate school and a profound influence in my love of native plants. He has been designing with a purely native palette since the late 60s, so he is an original.

  5. How fortunate to have had him in your life. I thoroughly enjoyed his talk and his part in the panel discussion that followed. I was a bit surprised that he advocates use of native plants exclusively, but I certainly don’t know the full story there. I’m curious as to his consulting role in the new native plant gardens at both the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the New York Botanical Garden. The panel discussion made it clear that they will be quite different. The BBG garden is designed as a pedagogical tool, illustrating various area ecologies in the garden, while the one at NYBG will be more of an aesthetically designed garden. Again, I’m only partially familiar with the details, but I think I’ll prefer the NYBG one even though I live only about 10 minutes from BBG (when in town). Aesthetics always wins over pedagogy in my book.

  6. I think your garden accomplishes all those things above…and I think it’s always a balancing act…it’s that very tension that makes things interesting 😉

    How fortunate to hear him speak…truly an inspiration. It’s so refreshing to have people like him still espousing such ideals when it seems as if so much of the gardening community seems to be constantly clamoring for more and more extreme gardens…and only wanting to have the newest and most unusual plants, mostly for the sake of their novelty. Sigh…I think I’m just feeling a little jaded from attending a Home & Garden show last weekend 😉

    1. I know what you mean, Scott. I’m near the Philadelphia Flower Show, but it just doesn’t interest me. And I could care less about what new plants will be introduced this year. I still remember my horror years ago when I first saw Echinacea ‘Razamatazz’. I often am looking for the species, not some hyped-up hybrid. The species Hydrangea arborescens would be good in my garden, but no one seems to sell it–only ‘Incredi-Ball’, or the new pink version of that.

  7. I find the concepts oft repeated (enough to be sort of hackneyed at this point) but the method of interpretation and balance of these elements to be the exercise/evidence of the art of the gardener. My particular challenge is size–my garden is so small and I feel like this necessitates more control and a tighter design. But my garden (front garden) is boring–too much similarity of shapes and tight drifts and, honestly, just not enough plant species. I really struggle to find ways to add variety and interest. So, legibility and coherence (check, because there is a lot of control and fairly definitive hardscaping)…mystery (check–I added some garden walls that really helped with this)…but complexity…no…total fail. I’m working to address this problem during the coming year by adding some spindly and weaving plants to complement/contrast with all the domes and tight umbels that I’ve got now.

    1. And aren’t you in a suburban area, as I recall from photos, an older suburban area, though your house you’ve changed a lot? The kind of gardening I do wouldn’t fit in your place, so I see your difficulty. The visual influence of neighboring houses and yards/gardens must be quite a constraint. I wish you had a blog so we could see what you’re doing. I’ve seen your photos, but they’re lost in my ten thousand emails.

      1. You recall correctly. So I must try to interpret these elements appropriately for my situation as you have in your Brooklyn garden. I struggle with developing a sense of place (because place is a modest in-town neighborhood) and with being unable to either borrow desirable views or to screen unwanted views. However, I’m looking forward to implementing some new ideas (not full scale redesign–more like accessorizing) this Spring and hope to get some new photos to share.

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