Most people who own their own garden do so at least in part, because they want a touch of nature in their backyard, as way of relief from the glass, concrete and asphalt of urban life. Is it possible though, within the confines of a town or suburb plot, to develop a “natural retreat” in a space that is inevitably artificial and manipulated? The short answer has to be negative. Yet if the question is approached from a certain angle, then the yearning for a home garden that does possess a natural feel can be satisfied to a considerable extent.
By way of approach, it’s important not to be led astray by the mistaken and misleading terms that are frequently bandied about today. The very idea of garden design for example, is often thought of as the antithesis of a “natural” garden. “Just plant whatever you like and let things grow naturally,” is a common refrain. The implication is that randomness equals nature, while design equals artificiality. Yet there is virtually nothing random about a natural eco-system. In fact the exact opposite is the case, as the presence and population levels of the mass of organisms, is governed by the strict and precise laws of nature.
As in nature, the rules of design, not to be confused with personal taste, follow laws that have universal application, not because certain groups of people like architects, artists and fashion designers have decreed what’s “in” and what’s “out”, but rather because of the known effect certain stimuli have on the human brain. A garden design that is unbalanced for instance will make people feel uncomfortable, as will one that is confused and unclear, due to the human craving to understand what’s going on. Plants that are not in scale with the objects and spaces surrounding them, will feel out of place, while a sense of disharmony is liable to ensue from flower bed that is a “riot” of color. Why call bad taste nature? Why not call it bad taste!
Satisfying results can only be achieved in the long run if the garden is created by adhering to the rules of design. In small spaces, the closer one stays to correct geometrical proportions, the greater the likelihood of achieving the sense of calm and ordered harmony craved for by most garden owners. The question then arises as to which kind of geometry should underline the basic setting out of the site.
The most formal and least natural effect is of course derived from strict symmetry, while asymmetrical balance can produce a clear, logical composition, which is also more stimulating and less contrived. Neither do geometrical shapes necessarily imply straight lines and right-angles. Curved lines are softer and more natural in feel than straight ones, but to maintain the underlying strength of the design, the radius of the curve should equal or be proportionate to other prominent lines in the garden.
Finally, it is the garden plants themselves and the way they are grown that determine whether the garden will feel natural or otherwise. Trees should be pruned in a way that goes along with the natural flow of the branches, whereas with shrubs, trimming and clipping should leave the plants with a rounded shape. It is instructive that in the Japanese horticultural tradition, where representing nature plays such a prominent part, shrubs and bushes are clipped to create a sense of order on the hand, but never topiaried into straight lines and right-angles on the other.