It’s tempting, in a field as subjective as garden design, to feel that rules do not apply. However, many of the best designers have made me come to believe in certain rules and guidelines that are neither fussy nor constraining. All have proven invaluable to me over my years of garden-making. Applied by any gardener, amateur or professional, they will result in a more successful, satisfying design.
#1. OBEY THE “LAW” OF SIGNIFICANT ENCLOSURE
Yes, this one’s a “law,” not just a rule! It addresses the root meaning of garden, which is “enclosure.” This, to me, is absolutely critical in creating a sense of refuge and of feeling oneself within nature’s embrace. The law of significant enclosure says that we feel enclosed when the vertical edge of a space is at least one-third the length of the horizontal space we’re inhabiting. Probably derived from behavioral psychology studies, this rule came to me from a professor in graduate school, and it was one of the best things I learned.
#2. FOLLOW THE REGULATING LINE
My formal architectural education also introduced me to the concept of the “regulating line.” The idea is that an element of architecture (for example, a doorway, or a building edge, even a window mullion) or a distinctive landscape feature (prominent tree, existing pool, property boundary) can “generate” an imaginary line that helps connect and organize the design. For example, in laying out one backyard, I projected the lines of its building addition into the garden space and then aligned the swimming pool and wooden walkway with those lines. The result is orderly and cohesive, even after being softened with planting. “A regulating line,” wrote the great architect (and theoretician) Le Corbusier, “is an assurance against capriciousness…It confers on the work the quality of rhythm…The choice of a regulating line fixes the fundamental geometry of the work….”
#3. USE THE GOLDEN RECTANGLE TO GET PROPORTIONS RIGHT
Certain rules help us refine design. One is the Golden Ratio which is a ratio of proportion that’s been observed in everything from the Great Pyramids at Giza to the Greek Parthenon and has been used throughout history as a guide to a pleasing sense of balance and order. The practical application that I make of the Golden Ratio involves its sibling, the Golden Rectangle, in which the ratio of the short side to the long side is equal to the ratio of the long side to the sum of both sides (a/b = b/a+b)—you probably didn’t know that landscape architects had to learn math. Numerically, the Golden Rectangle ratio is close to 1: 1.6, a proportion I regularly use to lay out terraces, patios, arbors, and lawns. The raised beds in my vegetable garden are 5 by 8 feet. It’s a rectangular proportion that always looks good—they don’t call it golden for nothing!
#4. TURN TO THOMAS D. CHURCH WHEN DESIGNING STEPS
Another ratio may even be platinum: That’s what I’ve always called the rule for step design advocated by landscape architect Thomas D. Church, often credited with creating the California style. Laid out in his seminal work Gardens Are for People, it says simply that twice the height of the riser plus the tread should equal 26 inches. That means that if the riser is 5 inches, the tread (what you walk on) should be 16 inches. All I can say is that the rule is true, and I’ve used it from steep canyon faces to gentle changes of patio levels. A useful corollary states that 5 feet is the minimum width for two people climbing steps side by side.
#5. SIZE MATTERS
A final rule related to scale and the sculpting of space is this: Go big. Faced with a decision to make a staircase wider or narrower, a pool longer or shorter, a pergola higher or lower, the answer is almost always the former. In my own garden, I remember laying out an arbor, with its posts 10 feet high, and listening to trusted friends wondering whether it wasn’t “a little too tall.” Thankfully I stuck to my guns, and some 18 years later, wreathed in wisteria and anchored at the ground by clusters of pots, the arbor seems just right.
#6. PLANT BIG TO SMALL
It’s with plants, probably more than any other element of gardens, that the infinite variation and fickleness of nature is most evident—and so perhaps, they are the trickiest to prescribe rules for. And yet, successful planting is the crowning touch of a garden. Three rules have always served me well.
#7. PLANT IN MASSES
While there is much to be said for the cottage garden, with a rich array of varied planting (indeed, it’s the real master gardener who can pull this off), there is a power to seeing a quantity of one plant that is genuinely affecting. Russell Page, one of the great twentieth-century landscape designers said it well: “the most striking and satisfying visual pleasure comes from the repetition or the massing of one simple element. Imagine the Parthenon with each column a different kind of marble!”
#8. REMEMBER THIS ABOVE ALL
Maybe my favorite rule of all time, all the more charming for its need to be adjusted for inflation: It’s better to plant a 50-cent plant in a $5 hole, than a $5 plant in a 50-cent hole. Imparted by Ralph Snodsmith, my first official gardening teacher at the New York Botanical Garden and talk radio host (a character whose working uniform was always a forest green three-piece suit), there is no greater planting wisdom. No matter how brilliant a plan one conceives, if the plants are not well planted—at the right height, in a sufficiently sized, and properly amended pit—the results will likely be poor. Some rules just can’t be broken.