Gardens that cast a spell
The structure and composition of gardens have evolved over the years. Tastes have changed with increased global exposure and new-age requirements.
Old school gardening bears a heavy influence of English and cottage style. It bestows an appeal on flowers, hedges and helps in creating a colourful garden with flowers as the primary attraction.
Since flowers are transient and maintenance of hedges is quite expensive, it takes a lot to maintain such a garden. An alternate but undervalued approach is to focus on planning a scheme of permanence that not only stays neat and appealing throughout the year but can easily work as a backdrop or enhance the beauty of flowers. A wider appreciation of branching patterns, foliage variations, bark details, growing habit can also add a charm to your garden.
To create a garden that requires little maintenance and lasts for a longer period, focus on the planting scheme and pay attention to the natural shape of plants-skeleton and habit.
The skeleton determines the natural pattern of growth which ultimately determines dimensions and the shape of the plant.
Though these can be modified with human interference, its better to develop a wider appreciation of a plant’s natural beauty if you are looking for simpler gardening solutions.
A good example of shape is travellers palm or ravenala madagascariensis. It has fan shaped leafing and retains it. In small tree category, frangipani has a special place because of its architectural branching pattern. Leaves are fewer and uniformity of branch bifurcation makes it fit to become an accent. Natural shapes are aplenty like the drooping habit of willows and bottle brush or conical conifers, layered cornus or round humble mango. The branching habit of a tree guides the eye and therefore appropriate treatment of view can enhance the whole setting.
Many tree barks are unusual and fail to evoke a sensory experience. Birch trees are the first ones that come to mind when talking of intriguing barks. Most well known is the peeling paper like bark. Many trees and bushes have coloured barks which are either white or red in colour. Many change colour with season. Some have patterns that are eye catching. Desert palms have strong demarcations that give a sense of ruggedness.
A zen appeal lies in simplicity and one cannot skip bamboos if such a look is required. The sheer variety in stem pattern and colour makes it attractive. A great thing about tapping these subtle potentials of plants is that treating these with appropriate night time lighting creates an unbeatable magic which enlivens the garden. For smaller gardens, researching the market for interesting trees is worth the effort.
Foliage plays a more obvious role in contributing to the beauty of the garden. Foliage attributes are not limited to simply including different shapes and colours and sizes but helps in creating tantalising combinations through the technique of juxtaposition. Right positioning and proportion can result in a high appeal and refined gardening. Playing with colours and habits is a combination of art and science. Light and water requirements are basics to be matched before putting two types together. Root habit is important to consider for long-term reduced maintenance.
Combinations can be made to complement or create contrasts or develop background or upgrade groundcover. Once you learn to recognise and appreciate the beauty of plants besides flowers, a fresh range opens up. It is easy to go overboard. But keep in mind creating wonderful few is always better than a chaos of too many.
Keeping aside the conventional garden plants, a category that fulfills new-age ideal garden plant requirement is grass. Grasses are of two types, true grasses and look-alikes.
Look-alikes consist of sedges, rushes, cat-tails or the familiar bamboos. Unfortunately this group is a victim of constricted approach to planting choices. Given an unbiased observation, these are the most dynamic and artistic plant forms. Dynamic, because they dance and rustle to the slightest movement of wind, and artistic, because throughout the day an interplay of changing sunlight and the dynamism keeps creating sensory magic. Many are bestowed with plumes that are equally tantalising.
Also remember that “grass is not always green”. Japanese blood grass is brilliant red. Ophiopogon is almost black. Miscanthus is a huge group that includes variegated type too. Stipa is a golden variety. Pennisetum sp. is deep burgundy.
Grasses offer the longest period of interest under perennials. Grow these by themselves or combine them with other plants and you will never regret the effort. It will not be incorrect to say that this group can be the signature of a modern and eco-conscious garden.
(The writer is a landscape consultant.)