Strike a Balance: Stuff vs. Space in the Garden

I bet I know what you are doing at this time. You’re looking for ideas for your backyard, hoping to find that photo that starts your creative juices flowing. The one which ends in an “ah ha!” Moment and fractures a stubborn case of designer’s block.

I encourage my readers and students to analyze and deconstruct the design principles which underlie gardens that inspire them. Humans possess a powerful attraction to color (we do not have 6 million cones in each eye for nothing), so it may seem logical to focus your style energy on conjuring up amazing foliage and flower combos.

For me, that is the last step. Before you get carried away, zoom out and consider how that inspiring garden uses the overall space. Not to get too technical about you, but observe just how much space is left and how much stuff is in the backyard. “Stuff” is a not-so-sophisticated term for those plants, boulders, furnishings and assembled components which you’ll find in many gardens. “Space” refers to the unencumbered surfaces you are able to move through without bumping your shins or which you are able to look across: trails, lawns, paved areas or the surface of a pond. The principle of stuff versus space applies in several design areas; consider the way a graphic artist utilizes white space to bring visual balance to the text and images on a page.

Additionally, look at how both of these complementary factors are arranged and balanced. Are the people and objects officially aligned along an axis, or does the visual weight of the essay produce a less-deliberate atmosphere? This easy but frequently overlooked design principle impacts our basic spatial experience and needs to be considered whether you are designing a totally new garden or simply revamping a couple beds in your current lawn.

Let us see how this theory applies to a choice of gardens.

Schmechtig Landscapes

I find this space delightful. The grid instills sequence to this vignette but avoids the excessively static sense of bilateral symmetry, as there are just four grids to the right of this path and just one to the left. The fountain — that the dominant mass in this area — sits two grids away in the path but is centered between the seat and the loosely clipped boxwood hedge. The checkerboard arrangement of paving and plants is lively and enlivening, while serving as a repeating theme that binds the backyard together.

In the distance, the massive shrub at the gate is nicely balanced by an uninterrupted plane of lawn. Additionally, notice how your perception of this space is dictated by the arrangement of the components, not the color of the flowers or temperament of the plants.

Jobe Corral Architects

Whenever there isn’t a great deal of outdoor area to operate with, but the need for living room is a high priority, utility must come first. Consider the actions you need and the furnishings needed to encourage these activities. Be sure to include sufficient space enclosing the area for unimpeded circulation.

Since the tree here develops, it will form a mild canopy over the space, altering the proportions of space and mass, as will the leafy trees from the corner. Whether this arrangement of plants and open area feels too sparse for the liking, you could trade the gently cascading water feature for further planting beds. In terms of how the space is arranged, all the forms are parallel and perpendicular to the construction, making a somewhat formal sense.

Consider how the supply of space and stuff may look on a pie graph. I would call this about 80 percent space and 20 percent stuff, at least before the tree places on more expansion.

Jay Hargrave Architecture

This sparsely filled, narrow outdoor room gets the impression of a contemporary art gallery, with a small number of objects and plants breaking up the vacant corridor. The overall result is that of a still-life essay seen from inside the house, which is similarly supplied in a spare, uncluttered fashion.

The lesson here: If you are drawn to this type of garden, it’s likely a reflection of your own desire for an easy, Zen-like cosmetic. Continuing with the pie graph analogy, it’d likely look like 95 percent space and 5 percent stuff.

Debora carl landscape layout

Using my very unscientific analysis method, I would say this garden is 40 percent space and 60 percent stuff — hence the intimate appearance. The backyard has an obvious central axis, and the backyard components on all sides of the imaginary line mirror one another. With the exception of this creeping fig (Ficus pumila) on the walls, all of the plants will grow no taller than knee high, assuring that the beds will remain uncluttered. This strategy retains a sense of openness and focuses attention on the urn at the center of the “keyhole”.

Goodman Landscape Design

And now for something entirely different. My first impression of this garden is that it’s romantic and intimate. Why? It’s not the specific plants that the designer chose but the way that they overhang the path and encroach in the sides. There’s only enough room to pass, and the remainder is populated with a lavish, lush canopy and finely textured ground covers. Even though the massing of plants is more or less balanced on all sides of the path, the sinuous nature of the stepping stones creates a natural flow, in some instances obscuring the destination.

How do you carve this? I am comfortable calling it 10 percent space, 90 percent stuff.

I just looked up the definition of “cozy.” It did not have a picture of this exact backyard, but it could have. Cozy doesn’t occur by accident. How much space was allowed for the mattress behind the chairs. The back of this tree along with the shade pattern tell us that there’s a generous canopy sheltering this chill-out area, but it avoids seeming claustrophobic as the mass is balanced with a little, open lawn. Details thing: The positioning of colorful potted plants flanking the chairs raises the sensation of familiarity with compressing and embracing the space.

Maria Hickey & Associates Landscapes

This may be a good backyard to wrap up this layout lesson with. It may seem obvious, but supposing you have at least average gardening skills, your plants will grow larger than they had been the day you installed them. Unlike interior layout, in which your coffee table or less stays the size it was when you brought it home, your plants will continue changing. That means that your stuff and space percentages will evolve over time. That’s not a good thing or something, but it’s well worth thinking ahead once you determine just how many plants to buy and how to them.

This giddy garden appears to be devouring the path. Anywhere you look flowers are bumping up against their neighbors, such as a mosh pit of perennials. It’s charming and ideal for the style of house and, I presume, suits the owner’s sense of fashion. The point is, even if your objective is to maintain a certain balance of space and mass, look closely at the mature size of every plant you choose, allowing adequate space to attain the size character intended.

Lay of the Landscape: Find your garden style

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