Garden Design Rules: Necessary or Joy Killers? The Debate Continues…

I was reading Margaret Roach’s interview with Bill Noble about designing gardens that feel rooted to its particular geographical space. I always find this concept interesting and, frankly, appealing but its been an idea I struggle with recommending. How’s that for non-sensical?

Let me make it clearer- or at least try! You see about a year ago I picked up a book by Claire E. Sawyers called “The Authentic Garden” at our used book store. It was an easy and engaging read, but I came down somewhere in the middle once it was done. Half of the advice was practical and easily applied. The other half was impractical, frivilous, and unnecessary (recommending statues and large structures, neither of which are necessary or attainable for many, designing the space for visitors which, I mean, they don’t even live there, why would you do that???). I even wrote a big, rambling post about it but couldn’t crystalize what I wanted to stay so it’s been in the Drafts bin for ages. Reading it back, I’m glad I didn’t post it because it didn’t convey the real gist of the issue I had with it.

The general angle of both of these books is that you ought to be taking your garden designing clues from the nature around you. Sounds easy and sounds practical. Certainly the idea of using native plants that already like your growing conditions is both reasonable and advised. And I agree that on average, gardens that use the sorts of natural materials (think stone, mulch, etc) that echo what naturally occurs is both the most affordable option and generally has an inherent “right” look to it.


Even though Sawyers’ book helped me understand why my Mediterranean themed dry garden never felt quite right to me (all of my plants were chosen to be dupes of what would normally grow there, leaving the overall effect flat and not quite right) and helped me figure out what to do to make it feel more right (adding in those natives, leaning into a more cottage garden style which is closer in ‘tone’ to our natural setting than anything Mediterranean ever will), I still bristled at the advice.

Somehow the overall tone of this kind of rule can come off feeling like if you don’t do it this way, there’s no chance that your garden will feel beautiful or uniquely you, or just plain make you happy. That if you chose Japan or Tuscany or somewhere tropical as your garden inspiration, the only way that could ever be a “success” is if you lived in Japan, Italy, or somewhere south of the Equator.

Of course the term “success” is the real culprit here. I understand that a professional designer probably does have a different set of metrics when it comes to considering a garden and its design a success. Certainly shows like Chelsea and Hampton Court have spent decades refining their incredibly strict criteria for what is considered a successful garden. But ultimately, out here in the real world, isn’t the only real measure of a garden’s success if the owner loves it?

In Margaret’s interview with Bill Noble, he is quoted in the book as saying “Much of what gardening is about is the feeling of being connected to a place.” I wholeheartedly agree, but I think it is super important to recognize that that place doesn’t NEED to be the place you live. It can be absolutely any place that resonates with you! And because it inspires you and is meaningful to you, the end result will likely make YOU happy and you will thereby call the whole shebang a success. And you will be right!

I recall an episode of “Big Dreams, Small Spaces” with Monty Don and a young couple were re-doing their front yard and wanted it to be a homage to the wife’s childhood in the Philippines (Season 3, Episode 5). They lived in a suburb of London! The result was fantastic! Monty only ever encouraged them to make smart choices regarding the hardiness of their plant choices, and never once told them they shouldn’t be seeking out tropical looking plants because they were, geographically, in England. Everyone was chuffed to bits with the outcome- it was beautiful, it was thriving, and it brought joy to the owners even though it couldn’t possibly be less related to the geography around them.

Is that not the very definition of success?

I suppose all of this is just a (very) long-winded way of saying that while garden design advice is fundamentally good and can be both helpful and useful, it isn’t by any stretch the be-all-end-all in creating a successful garden. I’d counter that planning, researching, and really honing in on the vision you have are far more critical. And if you aren’t that type and like living on the edge, just buy what you like and bang it in the garden wherever it fits.

At the end of a day, what makes any garden a success to me is that it feels like an expression or extension of the person(s) who made it. I’m far less inclined to revel in and steal ideas from those professionally installed gardens or those who appear to have followed a formula. Let your creativity and what moves you be your guide and there’s no doubt your garden will be a success.

P.S. – If you are seeking out garden design advice that is more general and thoughtful in scope rather than prescriptive or full of rules, I recommend Elements of Garden Design by Joe Eck.

4 thoughts on “Garden Design Rules: Necessary or Joy Killers? The Debate Continues…”

  1. I agree. In theory I know you should ‘consult the genius of the place’ as Pope said. Taken to extremes this means keeping in tune with the surrounding countryside and also the period of the house. For me this would mean a formal Tudor garden with none of the exciting plants introduced since 1500. It would mean growing lots of cabbages, keeping pigs and having a midden. I am much too excited by the wealth of gorgeous plants available to the modern gardener to attempt any such thing. Knot gardens and topiary are so boring. As you say ‘let creativity and what moves you be your guide’

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