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Less Is More: Limiting Elements In Horticultural Design

Japanese garden design is well known for its focus on different shades and textures of foliage, with a minimal use of flowers.

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Photo: by Roel Wijnants

Japanese Garden in Clingendael Park, The Hague, The Netherlands

Garden designers sometimes intentionally limit themselves in terms of the critical features of a planting through the types of plants they select.

Vita Sackville West set a trend by limiting herself to only plants with white blooms when she created one of her most famous gardens at Sissinghurst in England. Japanese design is well known for its focus on different shades and textures of foliage, with a minimal use of flowers.

When designers decide to use a limited range of plants and/or palette of colors, they usually rely instead on the repetition of plant silhouettes and textures. For example, they may select a line of the same type of trees or shrubs, either alone or with a row of grasses or perennials in front to create layers of similar or contrasting shapes and textures.

Of course, one needs a large area to create a design on this scale. However, even in our own small plots, we can experiment with the concept of limiting our choice of shapes and colors and textures and then repeating that pared-down repertoire. This results in the viewer’s eye being intrigued by the evenness and flow of the plantings. The way grasses are grouped can especially accentuate the flow of a landscape and on windy days the movement in such a landscape can be dramatic.

The discipline of choosing only a few critical dimensions and highlighting them is a time honored technique in horticultural design. In winter, our eyes are drawn to the ways in which evergreens create patterns in the landscape. Be sure to notice any that you think are especially effective in your neighborhood this season.

Moya Andrews

, originally from Queensland, Australia, served as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculties at Indiana University until 2004. In the same year, Moya began hosting Focus on Flowers for WFIU. In addition, Moya does interviews for Profiles, is a member of the Bloomington Hospital Board, and authored Perennials Short and Tall from Indiana University Press.

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