The Curious 'Alice in Wonderland' Effect

My most recent car has sensors in every direction, so if I get too close to anything, on any side, I’m given stern warning.  It’ll even slam the brakes on, if the detected item is in my current trajectory.  Every now and again it over-reacts, and the instantaneous wondering about whether I’ve just done something dangerous myself leaves my heart pounding, quickly moving to confusion and indignation about the temporary over-riding of my sovereignty.

I’m convinced that in a very similar way, we have sensors – mostly visual, some audible, and perhaps some beyond explanation – whereby we’re constantly reading how we feel in a garden space, and particularly how we compare in relative size to the plants and buildings around us.  The result of all these subconscious calculations and algorithms is that we instantly know whether we feel dwarfed, or uncomfortably exposed and over-sized in our surroundings, or just right.  It’s a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland effect.

Stipa gigantea in autumn – past its best but still doing its work of keeping me in proportion

It’s now thirty years since I first visited the then internationally famous garden created by Rosemary Verey at Barnsley House, in Gloucester. I’d thoroughly marinated in images of this magical garden for several years, and was looking forward to taking my own pics to match those burnt deep into my mental hard-drive (why do we do this? I can’t figure it out, but nearly everyone does).  I vividly remember looking back at the house, along the much-photographed irish-yew-lined, cobbled path into which was scattered random plantings of helianthemums.  It was a huge anticlimax.  I felt like I was in a 2/3 scale model of the real thing.  The Irish yews, which I’d always assumed were thoroughly over my head, were in reality only just at my eye height.  Instead of being comfortably framed by them – being right inside the space they defined – I felt like I overlooked them. I dwarfed them.  Clearly the pics I’d seen had been taken holding the camera at about waist height, so as to make them appear larger than they were.

My pic, taken thirty years ago (nearly to the day), in a rough scan of a print. I couldn’t help myself but take the same ‘lie’, by holding the camera at a level that made the yews look taller than they actually were

This all comes to mind just now, as I’m cutting down last summer’s seed heads of the many plants of Stipa gigantea in my Steppe garden.  All that’s left to cut is their sparse, bare, skeletal stems that radiate gently outwards, to about six foot in height, from each grassy clump.  In doing so, the whole feeling of the garden is altered.  

This defies easy explanation.  The plants are, by now, very nearly transparent, but in removing them it’s clear that those weightless, diaphanous forms were shaping and moulding the space around me in ways I hadn’t fully understood.  In their removal, I feel a bit exposed, and distinctly out of proportion – too tall, by far – for the planting that now sits entirely down at around knee-height.  

The Steppe Garden in spring, sans Stipa. Knowing that I had to have some other scale-giving planting, there’s a double row of Italian cypress forever lurking in the background, but the removal of the old grasses still causes a rude shock, every year

I’d by lying if I tried to sound surprised by this.  I planted the Stipa precisely to provide a sense of human proportion to a planting that otherwise was going to concentrate wholly on low plants, but I’m always baffled by just how effective they are at the job, even when they’re long dead and wind-stripped, and how much I miss their whispered hint of spatial definition when they’re cut down.

Whether we feel entirely in, or just on, or on the edge of, or totally engulfed by, a garden is one of the strongest perceptions we can receive from it.  I can’t for the life of me understand why it’s so rarely spoken or written of.  This all-important sense is nearly always read from, or ‘received from’ surrounding trees or, in the city or the ‘burbs, from buildings.  But I don’t know that I’ll ever quite overcome the confoundedness I feel that that same feeling can be created, or managed, by something as transient and transparent as a clump of tall grass flowers.  

Those kind of mysteries are what keep this whole game eternally engaging.


  1. Hi Michael, look this is kind of off topic, but as I read your discussion about how we feel in a space, it made me think about the “feeling” that I am constantly pondering, which is why is it that we drawn, and what is it that draws us, to a particular garden over all the other glorious ones out there? What is it about a certain garden space that captures us? For me, when I see images of your Stone Hill and Dan Pearson’s Folly Farm, I feel something very deeply, but it is hard for me to actually explain why that is. But images of those two gardens provide me with so much joy. For others, they may respond in a similar way to a particular Japanese garden, or a forest garden, or something else. This very personal response to a space is one of the true joys of gardening and garden following (and perhaps it is sometimes better to actually not visit these gardens in real life so that we can maintain the ludicrous belief that these gardens look like a Claire Takacs picture, all year) but I don’t really understand why I, and others, have that instant response to one space over all others. Why am I drawn to this, and why are you drawn to that? What I do know is that as gardeners we are blessed in that, when we do discover our dream garden, we have the unique ability to attempt to emulate it at home. So my backyard is a modest 2000-strong perennial planting that aims to live out my Folly Farm/Stone Hill fantasies. It is a unique thing for gardeners to have an opportunity to attempt this and to strive to obtain that feeling of awe and joy in our own personal, highly subjective spaces. We may not ever get there, but it is bloody fun trying.

    1. These are big questions Oliver. And questions that I ponder deep into the night. I love trying to tease out what ‘buttons’ are being pressed when I enter a garden, or look at pictures of one – how much of it is purely visual, how much of it is spatial etc, and then, most of all (as a designer), how might I replicate these feelings in gardens I design. So I’m with you all the way on this one. It’s really why The Gardenist exists.

  2. I’m with you on your preoccupation with space and the vibes it engenders. A planting goes some of the way, but for mine it really needs mass to hold me tight. Hedges, walls, sheds and buildings are the main players that frame our first response, better to give context to the planting. One of my first strong emotions was when I cobbled together a cubby house and how I was utterly entranced by how good it felt with that wall just there framing just that corner of the sky. Building became my first love and without a built structure to hold it, a garden has no context. It’s just bush.
    Do love my stipa though. They silently rattle like no other.

    1. True. The Stipa would totally fail to contain me on it’s own, but I’m astonished by the sub-space that it defines – seasonally – within the larger framework. And I totally get your reference to the Serpentine Pavillion. Emphatic ‘walls’ with softer ‘veiling’ within

  3. Frinstance – Piet Oudolf at the Serpentine Pavilion in London. Frames and articulates the planting such as the building completely disappears and those perennials have now assumed greater contemplative power than the Mona Lisa. I’ll go now before the coffee really kicks in.

  4. What a great enquiry and discussion Michael. Thank you.
    It really puts context around what I have been realising is a terrible mistake I have just made in my garden.
    My garden is generally a bit wild and overwhelming and as I start the process of making it appear less of a millstone for a prospective buyer of our house, I have, perhaps foolishly listened to others – all of whom I think are not gardeners (estate agents; house stylists…….).
    One of the things I now realise has helped my overfull garden still be a comfortable space, is some of the plants and physical structures that act as a foil and ‘ground’ the mess and for me make the spaces comfortable – in particualr with some height and enclosure and also solid colour.
    What I have done is remove a portuguese laurel hedge that blocked the view to the pool to some extent – but also gave such a comfortable sense of enclosure and a ‘safe’ place to sit in that section of the patio. The advice was – “people will want to see the pool and the view beyond” and also that some people felt a bit over-enclosed. It is all in the eye of the beholder, I now strongly realise, but I am so sad that I feel my back garden has been exposed for all its hotch-potchness – how will I fix that? I had been thinking Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ (I think Stipa too wide for the space) – so I feel quite encouraged that this will provide some of what I need. Still a bit fluffy, and not a plain green solid foil.

    1. Yikes. Why are we even tempted to listen to Estate Agents about that kind of thing? We were told that our garden was a liability when we were selling our old place, and it initially looked like it was, then after months of waiting for any interest at all, three parties all descended on it at the same time and started a price war. The winner wanted the garden more than anything else. I’m glad we made precisely none of the changes the agent suggested. But that doesn’t help you. It’s amazing how a big, deep green chunk of living architecture can hold a whole scheme together – ground it and unify it. If it’s the unity that’s gone, then the only real way ahead is to re-unify by repetition of a single element around the garden (like the Calamagrostis, or maybe some large-ish pots dotted about), or by the dominance of one weighty item or eye-dominating item (which is probably what your hedge provided).

  5. Your referencing Barnsley House tickled me, Michael. It is 26 years since I was there, and I remember the yews as dumpy, so somehow the pics I’d been exposed to where NOT taken from low down… (although I guess the photographers did that more to capture the texture of the stone path than to make the yews look higher.) However what I also remember is an overwhelming disappointment with the overall scale of the garden, so your “2/3 scale” really resonates, There was just too much tucked in to what was essentially a suburban space. (Horror of horrors calling it that. Verey and a dozen others must be turning in their graves…. But I’m certain like me there were times when the scale of England was just too twee for you, being spoilt by the open spaces of Africa and Australia.) Her potager enchanted me, but there too I felt that it was all just too tightly packed and I recall actually getting impatient with the planting crowding in on me. Later I made a similar mistake in my own Old Rose garden, the boundaries of which were dictated by circumstance, the layout by design and the planting by greed. It never quite worked. Its saving grace was that from a vantage point at the top one looked over and through it to a much much larger setting. I’m not certain how it is now planted, but I eventually moved most of the remaining 30% of Old Roses that survived various disasters and was thinking to plant it with solid knee-high perennials (like penstemons) or even annual mixes at the time I sold the farm.

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