From ‘Nice’ to ‘Wow’: Rules To Make A Garden Look Amazing | PITH + VIGOR by Rochelle Greayer

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From ‘Nice’ to ‘Wow’: Rules To Make A Garden Look Amazing

‘Pretty’ is the enemy of ‘Beautiful’
-Nonna Giuliana

There is a word that I loathe more than all others, and it’s ‘nice’. To be honest, I hate it. And I hate it more when somebody says it about to something I have designed.

In my mind, of the million or so English words in the dictionary, there could not be any word more boring and overused than ‘nice’. Nice means something like: ‘I don’t know what to say’, or ‘I am bored and I can’t even roll my eyes because it’s rude’. This is ‘Nice’:

Consider that I take my job seriously and every day I wake up thinking: ‘Today I’ll make a difference!’. I’ve always been afraid to be a mediocre designer. Subsequently, I’ve spent a lot of time during my 13-year career figuring out what makes a garden look amazing instead of nice.

Good news: I have the answer!

Curious? Glue your eyes to the screen because I am going to start!

Get Into The Mood

When I want to go out for dinner with my partner, usually we ask each other: ‘What do you feel like?’ – I am sure you do that too.

Sometimes we reply: ‘Italian!’ (ground breaking, I know…), sometimes ‘Vietnamese’…
and so on.

How amazing it is that just one word has the power to conjure a whole world of flavors and atmospheres. ‘Italian’ says immediately the beautiful smell of basil of a pasta al pomodoro, or a crunchy and delicious pizza coming out from a wood fired oven. Vietnamese conjures the wonderful combinations of star anise, ginger, cinnamon, and lime that make a delicious pho.

Let’s try with another example.

Hey fashionistas! Have a look at this:

I am sure that you only need to look at that bob haircut, the sunglasses and those chunky necklaces to recognize Anna Wintour in this drawing.

Why am I saying these things? I want to show you that it’s possible to describe a mood (or a person, a look, a style) only by bringing up the main characteristics that define it.

It should be the same for your garden. A glimpse of it should tell the world what it is about, which ‘language’ you are speaking and the mood you are evoking.

I am amazed how often gardens look confused, or worse – completely different from what they meant. Look, for example, at this picture:

The M&G Garden designed by James Basson, photo: Alessandro Martinelli

This garden, designed by James Basson, won the Gold Medal and Best Show Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. It was quite controversial: some liked it and some didn’t. Fair enough. But for me it was terrible to read the comments on Facebook of some of my friends who went to the exhibition: somebody called it a ‘pet cemetery’…

Well, it looks like a pet cemetery because stone blocks emerging from a scruffy lawn is what a pet cemetery looks like in anybody’s imagination. Sorry James.

So, here we have a few things to solve:

How to create a mood and choose the elements to express it?

How to avoid our garden reminding anyone of a pet cemetery?

To create a mood we have to find the main features that define it. How many?

For many things in life, including this one, I usually apply the Pareto Principle, also called the 80/20 rule:

20% of the input creates 80% of the result

(Heavenly choir)

This means that I just have to find the 2 or 3 things that express clearly what I am talking about. Like the bob haircut, the sunglasses and the necklaces in the Anna Wintour example.

The best way to figure out these qualities, especially if we are in doubt, is to examine pictures that show that mood and figure out what they have in common.

Let’s say for example that I want to design a country garden. If I google ‘country garden’ and then click on ‘Images’. This is what I see:

country garden screen shot from google

What do these pics have in common?

  • Informal atmosphere
  • Masses of plants
  • Hard surfaces are uneven and limited in size

Look at this beautiful garden in Umbria, Italy by Niccolo’ Grassi, Italian Landscape and Garden Designer:

La Vignaccia, designed by Niccolo’ Grassi. Photo: Niccolo’ Grassi
La Vignaccia, designed by Niccolo’ Grassi. Photo: Niccolo’ Grassi
La Vignaccia, designed by Niccolo’ Grassi. Photo: Niccolo’ Grassi
La Vignaccia, designed by Niccolo’ Grassi. Photo: Niccolo’ Grassi

What do you notice?

An informal atmosphere? Masses of plants? Uneven and limited hard surfaces?

Here we are: the perfect country garden served!

Now we have to solve the problem of choosing the right references so that our garden doesn’t look wrong. If someone as talented as James Basson, who has many years of experience, can make this mistake, the solution to this problem is not easy.

I only see two possibilities:

  • Increase your knowledge: the more you know, the less likely you will be to pick up the wrong references.
  • Once you define your mood, discuss it with somebody you trust. Often we fall in love with our own ideas and we lose objectivity. Listening to other peoples’ impressions helps us to understand if the message we are sending out there is heard loud and clear.

Perfect Proportions

Proportion and scale are the most important aspects in design. If they are not correct, whatever you design will look unbalanced, unfinished and uncomfortable.

In a well-proportioned composition all the parts have the right dimension and scale compared to the others. If the proportions are well conceived, walking through a room, or sitting on a chair or chilling in a garden is comfortable and harmonious. It’s like wearing a bespoke suit: it fits perfectly.

Getting the right proportions is not a super power, it’s more a matter of practice. Once you learn how to put things in the right correlation, it becomes more and more natural.

How come?

Have you ever heard about the Golden Ratio?

It’s a special number found by dividing a line into two parts. The longer part, divided by the smaller part, is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part:

the golden ratio

This number, approximately 1.618, has been known since Euclid. It has been used to design many masterpieces from the Parthenon to the Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa; the Taj Mahal to Mies van der Rohe houses. Scientific tests have shown how our brains are particularly attracted to this proportion. It is considered the most satisfying.

How to use this magic number?

Let’s say that you want to design the perfect rectangle that has a 1 meter side – the other side should be 1.6 metres. This kind of geometric shape where side lengths are in the golden ratio is called a golden rectangle.

You can apply this rule to every element of your project. The height of a pergola compared to its length, the width of a pathway compared to the width of the lawn next to it, etc.

I used the golden rectangle in this garden to define all the prominent lines of the project:

If you are in doubt about the proportion and the scale of your design, check if they are close to the Golden Ratio. Easy

If you are in doubt about the proportion and the scale of your design, check if they are close to the Golden Ratio. Easy

Quantity Matters

Before I started my blog I was very curious to understand which topics my potential readers were interested in. Which garden design problems were they were struggling with? And what made them frustrated about their gardens? I wanted (and still want) to offer solutions to these pains.

I’ve interviewed a lot of people. I targeted friends, acquaintances, relatives and strangers that I found visiting gardening forums, blogs, and Facebook groups.

Many of my interviewees told me about a common frustration. After looking at magazines for inspiration, their own creations seemed far away from what they were trying to get. And they felt hopeless.

Having a look at the pictures and the results, I found that the problem was often the same. They aimed to be lush and luxuriant but they all lacked of enough plants.

If you are willing to make a garden full of plants, the only thing that you can’t avoid using is…PLANTS!

Maurizio Usai, is a Landscape Architect based in Sardinia and he knows this rule well. A profusion of well combined plants is his signature. If you look at these pictures I am sure that you agree with me when I say that every inch of the garden is filled with plants.

I Fontanili garden, design by Maurizio Usai. Photo: Maurizio Usai
I Fontanili garden, design by Maurizio Usai. Photo: Maurizio Usai
I Fontanili garden, design by Maurizio Usai. Photo: Maurizio Usai

This kind of garden can be very expensive to make, but if you want to have the same result there is no plan B.

Give Me Details

We all are similar because we have a pair of eyes, ears, legs, one nose etc.

But what really makes us different from each other is that bunch of unique details: a big nose or a sweet voice, or that soft and young skin that I wish I had. Lol.

It’s the same for gardens: the more they are rich in details, the more their character and personality is defined.

‘God is in details’, Mies van der Rohe said. He was right: details take every design to another level, they step it up. Not all the designers are able to master details wisely – it takes time and practice. So, what are you waiting for? Why don’t you start to play with your garden by adding details and see how it goes?

Flowers, leaves, textured foliage and unusual finishes will help your design to become more interesting.

In this project, for example, I had to deal with a small space. To avoid a sense of confusion I used a limited material palette and I chose plants with tiny and extremely textured foliage.

As you can see, because of the light play, it’s like having a million pixels of different shades of green.

Details are never enough for me: the more details, the richer the garden

Have a look at this other project. Here I designed a paving using small black and white pebbles and I used graphic plants:

The contrast between the large foliage and the textured mosaic perfectly suits this project!

If you look at both pictures you notice how your eyes can’t stop jumping around from one detail to the next like bees in a meadow.

This is what details are for. A plain and simple composition gets boring quickly because there’s not so much to see. At the opposite details keep interest high.

Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone

Always remember: the only reason why you should master the rules is to break them all. When you get out of your comfort zone, the magic happens. Don’t be afraid, once you’ve learned all the rules that make a design look great, just try. Take the battle and create something new!

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this article; let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below!



Images: The M&G Garden designed by James Basson, photo: Alessandro Martinelli, courtesy of Carlo Gabriele, I Fontanili garden, design by Maurizio Usai. Photo: Maurizio Usai

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From Nice to Wow - Rules to make your garden look amazing
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  1. Brigitte says:

    Love love love. Thank you!

  2. “How to avoid our garden reminding anyone of a pet cemetery?” a good question, I will ask myself before each my new garden design 🙂

  3. Ashley says:

    Great post. I love this article. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Alex says:

    Great article! And great job with a pebbles. 🙂 Thanks for pointing out how important is attention to details.
    This post is very helpful indeed. Check out this landscaping resource that was also helpful for me:

  5. Andrea Hryhorenko says:

    For 25 years I have be dreaming of making over my back yard in the city starting with what I want it to look like in the winter. I haven’t gotten to it yet but I have accumulated bits & pieces to help me when I retire next year. Your information has been beyond helpful. Thank you for sharing so that novices like me can learn and do things right from the start–myself. You are a gift to all of us. ~ Andrea

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