A garden space is the open void in which you sit or stand, so it describes the shape of things like lawn or paving on the ground plane, as well as the vertical space enclosed by pergolas, awnings and overhanging trees. Voids, especially ground plane shapes, are probably the most noticeable thing about a garden, as our eye registers their layout and limits more than that of the masses around them.
Clean, crisp shapes feel definite and strong, and what better way to produce that than by using the shapes we grew up with in our school geometry lessons, of squares and rectangles, circles, ovals, octagons and ellipses?
Geometric shapes give a garden a strong sense of structure. They can be used to make a garden feel bold and
modern or strictly formal, but at the other end of the scale, they also save cottage and wilder gardens from feeling too unkempt. Well-defined boundaries give a good sense of enclosure, making us feel comfortable and secure. Use garden edging around lawns, or carefully cut paving to create clean lines on the ground plane so that the full shape is immediately recognisable. It can be softened a little by allowing a few plants to spill in from the sides, but needs to be easily seen.
Using geometric shapes allows you to make strong connections between your house and your garden. Most houses use squares, rectangles, triangles or arcs of circles (such as rounded archways) in their construction. By reflecting these shapes back onto the ground plane, especially using similar proportions, you make a garden that has a strong sense of unity and scale. This discipline is a great benefit in garden design, as it stops you adding in elements that don’t follow the plan, much like a good colour scheme which could be spoiled by the addition of the wrong tone. Large, dominating shapes like swimming pools integrate better if their shape is co-ordinated with the house and garden.
Circles combine formality and informality by marrying the clean lines of geometry with more sinuous and relaxed curves, which suggest flow and movement. A powerful shape, circles almost compel us to walk to their centre, so are useful for drawing people out into a garden. Even slopes or oddly shaped blocks can take a circular shape, as it does not meet any point at a strange angle, and still looks like a circle even when viewed at an angle.
Positioning focal points is easy, as a circle as infinite axes of symmetry. A circle can be used in the foreground with its geometrical cousin, the ellipse, beyond. This creates an illusion of distance, as we read both shapes as circular, making the ellipse appear larger than it really is. New flexible edging available in timber, metal or recycled plastics or a formed concrete edging allows a smooth, continuous curve.
Rectangles are the most commonly used geometric garden shape, as they are the easiest to set out, and seem to make sense in our usually rectilinear backyards. Although they’re practical, from a design point of view they are often boring and predictable and tend to
encourage people into using narrow garden beds and perimeter planting. Using overlapping rectangles, perhaps in differing heights, sizes or at an angle, gives more interest.
Squares are the choice of many formal gardens as they lend themselves to very obvious bisecting lines either straight across or on the diagonal, creating axes for symmetrical and balanced gardens. From a practical point of view, they are easy to set out and pave, as most pavers are rectilinear.
Although a single square might seem too static, by using intersecting squares, perhaps at different heights such as a series of decks, you keep the discipline of the shape while relaxing its presentation, and enable square designs to be used on a sloping block. Setting a square on an angle to the house to create a diamond is a useful tool for breaking up the boxy shape of a backyard.
Hexagons and octagons are more difficult to set out than a simple circle but have the advantage of being able to use straight edging. In a non-rectilinear garden with boundary lines at odd angles to each other, (like many newer subdivisions), an octagon picks up the straight lines of structures while not using right angles.
Ovals marry the gentle arcs of circles with the straight lines of the rectangle, and so are useful when there are dominant features in both shapes, such as round pond and a rectangular pool.
Geometric shapes can also be used on the vertical plane, in screens and archways. A Chinese ‘moongate’ uses a circle to frame a vista beyond. Garden arches and pergolas can echo the straight lines or arches of house windows, or have a triangular, pitched top to match house roofs or diamond-shaped patterns. Use trellis patterns or laser-cut screen designs that match your chosen ground plane shapes.