Perfect balance - is it achievable?

For several totally disconnected reasons I’m back in the zone of thinking about plant-driven gardens vs design-driven gardens.  If you were here, I wouldn’t be able to resist telling you each of the reasons why I’m back on this, as I have a very firmly entrenched and irritating habit of wanting to explain all the thinking that led up to the current mind-set.  The fact that you’re spared reading it all is not so much an act of mercy as an act of laziness. I just can’t be bothered writing it all.  Just trying to be honest…

I’m no personal fan of gardens that are simply collections of plants.  I’m very glad they exist, as there’s no better place to find new plants, or to find or compare the best forms of plants you already know, but I don’t want such a garden myself.

Even as something of a plant nut, my pleasure in the plants I want to grow/feel I should grow/am trialling/can’t live without is very heavily swayed by the design context in which they appear.  So whether I’m looking at my own garden, or one I’ve designed for others, there’s often only a fine line between the design-driven and the plant-driven. Both are absolutely designed.  And both – I can’t stress this enough – use the best and most carefully chosen plants for whatever task is set for them.  Botanically minimal gardens require as much plant knowledge to execute effectively as do botanically diverse gardens.  If you’re only going to use four different plant species (for instance) in the whole garden, there’s a real imperative to make sure that they’re the very best four plants for the job.

Though the line dividing these two garden types may be fine, it’s usually pretty clear whether any garden is ‘about’ plants, as such, or about a bigger design idea – whether the design is serving the plants or the plants are serving the design.

Some pics below, illustrating what I’d consider a plant-driven design, in this case for a plant-loving client.  Still very designed, but the design serves the plants.  It’s also pretty entry-level from a diversity point of view.  The idea was to give a relatively simple (though planty) matrix which could then carry off the inclusion of all sorts of other plants, which this client has no-doubt since seen to…

Some pics illustrating a distinctly design-driven garden, for a client who views plants as a means to an end.. 

My position taking the above pic makes it hard to understand the scale.  The hedge in and those dark flat-topped shapes in the centre (which are palm-tree bases used as sculpture) are about 20m away from me, and are approx 2.4m (8 feet) tall.

And hence, partly, the dilemma I’m constantly facing in developing my own garden (as first discussed nearly a year ago here, and will probably still be discussing a few hours before I cark it).  I love the idea of plants very carefully selected to outwork a big – and quickly interpreted – visual notion.  But I also love the idea of celebrating the plants themselves, and an outlay that allows for diversity.

I can’t shake the conviction that it’s theoretically possible to do both, possibly with layers of scale ie an apparently simple and high impact large-scale structure which wows in its own right, opening up on closer inspection to reveal a large range of interesting plants.  But the possibility remains largely theoretical.  There are precious few gardens worldwide that demonstrate the principle.

Actually, on that point – what are the gardens worldwide (if any) that tick both boxes for you – that are satisfying/stimulating both in their design and their planting?


  1. I’m seeing this as more about a balance between simplicity and complexity, regardless of from which source those are derived, and the rhythm that develops between the two. Each of those photos of the diverse and less diverse planting choices shows that balance – the simplicity of the stone and clipped buxus balls is balanced by the complexity of the groundplane tracery, or the singularity of the buxus parterre is balanced by the intricacy of its pattern. I think in the more plant-diverse photos, the eye reads them that way too, looking for repetition of colour and form (simplicity) and contrast (complexity) and enjoying the balance and tension between them. So yes, I think you can definitely have your cake and eat it too. However that doesn’t solve the paralysis of choice confronting the designer/plantsman in his own garden!

    1. Yes, now that you mention that, I can see that also. Perhaps they’re not the best pics, therefore, to make my point. But a pleasing garden seems to be about a whole lot of different balances, doesn’t it?. Before the book world died, I wanted to do a book on balances: flowers vs foliage, evergreen vs deciduous, seasonal vs static, design vs plants etc etc including, as you say, simplicity vs complexity. Maybe there’s a blog series in there.

    2. ha! or an e-book I can sell through GardenDrum…..

  2. sounds like a great book if it was penned and photographed – I would buy it!

  3. This is one of those hoary old chestnuts that will be forever tossed out there. Can one exist purely without a bit of the other? Its a hard one. For personal reasons I would like to think a perfect balance could be achieved but there are so many variables to have to control and we are stepping over into gardening as an art form. In reality as you suggest it’s a compromise where climate, choice of garden style and plant groups will determine the level of success. As Cathy says speed down simplicity might help but as you state maybe the choice of plant(s) become more difficult – there’s nowhere to hide.
    Have you looked at David L Culp’s The Layered Garden? He definitely wants the plants to serve as the focus but to create a whole.

    Cheers, M

    1. Glad that such a hoary old chestnut didn’t prevent from from participating, Marcus! Haven’t seen The Layered Garden. I’ll see to that oversight immediately

  4. There are so many variables; climate, soil., lifestyle, children, dogs, time, bank account, fitness, ad infinitum. I suspect that achieving the prefect balance of plants and design, each plant carefully selected to support the design, the design orchestrated to both both fulfil aesthetic requirements and utilise a satisfying range of plants, has to remain subjective. What seems prefect to one person will be too plant driven to the next, and vice versa. I’m plant driven, the need to surround myself with a range of plants, all delightful, drives me to create a garden, but at the same time I’m dissatisfied with the result because the sum of the parts, the design element, is lacking. More discipline required! (plus muscle, vision and money) I’ve been interested in the discussions on garden design (and whence the English garden) on the ThinkinGardens website and the thought behind the creation of Veddw garden in Wales where plants are used purely to support the design, yet serendipity is allowed. In the public arena I believe that thoughtful design of public spaces using a rich array of plants has a beneficial impact on everyone who uses those spaces. I realise there are practical constraints but so often public landscapes are so ordinary

    1. This raises some very interesting questions around why we garden. With the exception of commissioned designs I suspect most people begin with wanting to plant something. At some point a need, better still, a desire, for order and, hopefully, aesthetics steps in. Of course there will always be those who just want to ground cover an ugly bank or shut out the neighbours but these could hardly be described as design-drven decisions or are they?
      At that point of need or desire most probably the skills and knowledge set of a professional are most probably required and a good deal of effort on behalf of the gardener and, as Susan says, a
      hefty bank balance. All those mistakes to be undone and all those insights that took a lifetime of gardening to obtain put into action!

    2. It’s how it happened for me, Marcus. I was first fascinated by the mysteries of plant propagation. That led to wanting to grow the plants I’d propagated. Then that led to wanting to grow them in a great context, and to use them together for greatest overall effect. And all without anything that even looked like a bank balance, let alone a hefty one (more’s the pity for those like you that grow irresistible plants…)

    3. Yeah, more discipline, but that makes it sound so dry. Maybe a bigger vision! One that can take a huge range of plants and make them into something more than the sum of the parts..
      I’ve also been following some of the ThinkinGardens stuff. Was particularly interested in the discussion of plants in dots or sweeps (may have those terms wrong – it was a little while back). There’s just not enough good thinking going on in gardens, so it’s a thrill to read of some!

Leave a Comment

More Blog Posts

A Brief History of Stone Hill - Woodend North Garden

Primarily for the benefit of those on the ALC pre-conference tour today…. Before work began on the perennial garden. Initial excavation. September 2011 Laying out the plants… After four months of ...

The life and times of Sedum ruprechtii

I’ve never had any problem remembering the name of this fabulous sedum.  I can’t, even if I wanted to, shake the lingering images of Steve Martin playing Prince Ruprecht in Dirty Rotten Scoundrel ...

To look at or to live in?

The wall is coming along nicely – thanks for asking. But as is almost invariably the case for me, simple steps lead to big questions. For all sorts of reasons (septic tank placement/visual and physi ...