Since I started my blog, ‘I will teach you to design your garden’, I enjoy explaining the garden design rules by finding easy metaphors. And speaking about metaphors, for me the difference between designing a garden in the city and designing a garden in the country is like the difference between flirting and being in a relationship.
No, I am not drunk I swear. Let me explain what I mean:
Not that I am sexually attracted to city gardens, but when it comes to designing a garden in the city (and flirting) I just want to have fun. There are not many rules to follow because the city has no rules: it’s a human product, a mix of influences coming from different periods in history and different parts of the world. In city gardens (almost) anything is possible: tropical jungles, French parterres, vertical greeneries and anything else you can think of. When I am flirting I am cheerful, like when I am designing a city garden.
But when it comes to the country it’s totally different because I am interacting with something I need to tune in with: Nature. In this case, if you want to design a great garden, a garden that makes a statement, you can’t just have fun. Like in a relationship, you have to commit: you have to deeply understand, truly listen, and make compromises.
I was born and raised in the country, so I have been dealing with these things since when I was very young. And even if I have been living for a long time in big cities, I still feel a deep attachment to the country. It’s probably the longest successful relationship I’ve had so far!
During the years I had the chance to work on many country gardens and to be in a few relationships: every job was an occasion to sharpen my skills and my sensitivity, exactly like every relationship made me understand a bit more how to truly welcome someone else in my life.
Would you like to know what I’ve learned?
I know you’re curious!
But first, let me explain why I am using this analogy between country gardens and relationships: the philosopher Alain de Botton in his book ‘Architecture of Happiness’ tells us that we perceive places exactly in the same way as we perceive people: in terms of ourselves. We indeed give the adjective ‘happy’ to what make US happy.
We explore, interpret and come to understand things with the same sensory system, brain structures, experience, memories and reasoning that we use to detect qualities and inner thoughts of people.
Because we perceive places like people, the more you increase your ability to connect with them, your empathy, the more you can get the best out of them. Often we misunderstand people and places because instead of seeing them for what they are, we project on to them our expectations, needs, desires etc.
We totally miss the point and we end up building something that we think is great, but the truth is that it’s totally disconnected with reality.
For me a perfect example of the ability of understanding a place and connecting with it is the Ancient Theatre of Taormina, in Sicily, built by the Greeks in the 3rd century B.C. They carefully studied the territory, and without altering its layout they created a theatre that not only has perfect acoustics, but is also perfectly integrated in the landscape.
So, let’s see the three most important secrets that I’ve learned so far.
SECRET # 1 : CONNECTING.
If you want to design a country garden that is in harmony with the surrounding landscape you first need to connect with the sense of the place. The sense of the place is the atmosphere of a place: the sum of its physical and symbolic characteristics. Like we judge people for how they look and how they make us feel, we do the same with places. But how many times have you been told that judging is a bad thing?
It is bad because often judgement is not based on objectivity, but it’s influenced by previous experiences, prejudices, bias etc.
When it comes to design, I first have to understand. I have to turn off any kind of judgement, step back and observe the characteristics of the place I am working on.
I have two favorite strategies to let a place speak to me:
- Drawing: when I draw I take my time. Because the brain is not meant to see everything, while I am drawing I focus on the important characteristics of a place and filter out everything else. Drawing requires practice, and the more you draw the more you learn how to ignore what is not relevant. You learn how to focus on priorities.
- Breathing: like when I meditate, I focus on my breathing, turn off my thoughts and observe with no judgement. Now, this article is not meant to be a dissertation about the positive impact that meditation can have in your life, but it’s scientifically proven that it increases your awareness and empathy (read more here). If I were you, I would give it a try!
Capability Brown was a master in connecting with the landscape: his desire was to create an effortless coherence between the garden and the country, so that the eye would get confused into believing that they were one.
The gardens of Thomas Doxiadis echo the existing landscape using similar textures, structure and colours, so that, once again, the garden becomes part of the landscape and vice versa.
But my favourite example for sure is the garden of Derek Jarman on the shingle shore near Dungeness nuclear power station. The site wasn’t an idyllic landscape with hills and sheep, but a harsh and bare plain. However, he totally embraced the sense of this place, and created a garden that is beautifully connected with the surroundings.
So, if you want to connect with a place or with a person, you have to learn how to connect without judgement.
SECRET # 2 : TIMING
Relationships work only if the people involved are ‘on the same page’, if they walk the same walk. What I mean is that they have to grow together in the same direction. Just think of the movie ‘When Sally met Harry’: for more than 10 years Sally bumped into Harry until they finally started a relationship when they were ready, when they were in tune.
And what about a garden?
In my personal opinion, a country garden should follow exactly the same pace as the surrounding landscape: season after season it should show coherence with Nature. This may sound very predictable to you, but believe me that I cringe every time when I drive in the countryside in winter and I see those bright green lawns while everything else is pale and dull. Or those evergreen gardens that are like fortresses against decay and death.
Everything passes when it’s time and there’s nothing we can do about it. We only can embrace it and enjoy the beauty of fragility.
Many years ago I fell in love with a garden designed by Fernando Caruncho, where a large garden bed was used for growing wheat. The property sits in a rural area where wheat is largely cultivated, so he accomplished a visual and philosophical sense of continuity with the landscape by introducing the cultivation of wheat in the garden; wheat grows, matures and get harvested like in the surrounding fields.
Jacques Wirtz embraced the beauty of decay in many of his gardens, using grasses that die off when the cold comes, or deciduous hedges that are perfectly in harmony with the quiet atmosphere of winter, still providing structure to the garden.
Synchronicity is subtle and rare: think about when a friend calls you and you were thinking of him/her. You only have to stay tuned and read the signs.
SECRET # 3 : AUTHENTICITY
There is a beautiful song written by Eddie Vedder, ‘Guaranteed‘, that says:
‘Circles they grow and they swallow people whole
Half their lives they say goodnight to wives they’ll never know’
I think that relationships often don’t work because we are afraid to be truly authentic, to really show who we are. Because we are scared of being judged, or because we think that it will make us frail, or maybe we secretly think that we don’t deserve the love of our partner. I was there.
So, for hiding what we really are, we complicate things, we make a mess.
“To complicate is simple, to simplify is complicated. Everybody is able to complicate, only a few can simplify”
said Bruno Munari, an extraordinary and polyhedric Italian designer.
Often the place where we want to establish our garden is so beautiful that we wouldn’t need anything else: our garden is already made! At the opposite, because our brain needs to show how great it is, we add hedges and borders and lot of other stuff that is often unnecessary.
Pietro Porcinai was probably the best Landscape Designer Italy had in the last century. When he designed the garden of the Villa i Collazzi, he luckily had to work with a gorgeous view of the hills of Fiesole. He just created a large terrace with a pool sitting in the center of it, he planted a row of pencil pines on the back of the pool to create a background and let the view create the rest.
Villa Pucci, owned by the Pucci family (does Emilio Pucci ring a bell, fashionistas?) sits on top of a hill, and it’s surrounded by an old and beautiful woods. In the 70s the Architect Gae Aulenti was hired for creating a garden around the house. She just re-invented the theme of the terraces, typical of Italian gardens, creating large steps of lawn that connect the Villa with the lower parts of the property. And the woods became the garden itself.
You don’t need complications: things as they are, often are more beautiful than you think.
I follow these three rules religiously: in both gardens and relationships there was a time when I was particularly ‘dumb’ and I in a certain way I was blind: I could only see myself. I still enjoy being ‘dumb’, especially in the city, and always in a good way.
Now I am curious to know if you have some secrets to make your country garden and your relationship special!