Is It Hip To Be Square?

There was an interesting article in the June issue (is it already time for the June issue?)  of Fine Gardening magazine with the vaguely Orwellian title of “Finding Freedom Through Structure.”

Giverny upper garden
Giverny’s upper garden: formal, but full of life.

The author, George Schoellkopf, argues that gardens built around straight lines and right angles provides a more “attainable aesthetic” because “the structure is woven into the aesthetic itself.” He believes that it is a greater challenge to succeed with a more “natural” style of curved beds, because such gardens use “the plants themselves to provide most of the structure”, a structure that exists without being apparent.

I have to admit I’m not sure exactly what this means. Borders and paths don’t need to be straight to provide a degree of structure, apparent or otherwise. Also, plants are certainly part of the structure  of many gardens built around a straight axis and rectangular beds.

Giverny grand allee.
Giverny’s upper garden: the grand allee.

Mr. Schoellkopf does not advocate gardens that are rigidly controlled. The owner of Hollister House Garden, a project of the Garden Conservancy,  his article is illustrated beautifully to show how his garden combines straight lines, exuberance, and abundance: “My garden’s formal plan enables me to be much freer and more natural in the way I grow my plants.”

And here I find myself nodding in agreement. A formal layout can combine beautifully with plantings that are full and unrestrained. This combination can work so well because it contains a pleasing contrast between, as the author puts it, “order and chaos.”

Garden path
My garden: no right angles, but falls short of chaos.

We saw this principle at work at the upper garden in Monet’s Giverny, which is built around a central axis and rectangular beds. Even when we were there in April,  the exuberance and abundance of the plantings was apparent. Walking through this garden was a truly joyful experience.

In my view, garden designs can work with either formality and straight lines, or informality and curved lines. What determines success or failure lies with other factors.

You can find both approaches used successfully at Giverny. While the upper garden has elements of formality, the lower garden, built around a pond, is entirely without straight lines or right angles.

Giverny: the lower garden.

My own garden uses mostly curved lines, except where the flower borders lie along the house, sidewalk, or driveway. I don’t think that the combination of curved lines with a full, informal planting style produces an effect of too much chaos. Structure is reinforced by trees, shrubs, paths, raised beds, an arbor, and sharply defined borders between lawn and garden.

I will admit I sometimes wish I had an entire second garden (maybe the neighbors would oblige me?) so that I could try planting a garden with more formality and straight lines. However, if I have to choose only one style, then give me curves.

For me, what really doesn’t work is excessive control, what I would call the “constipated style” of garden design. I found much of Versailles to be objectionable along these lines. Also, sometimes gardens are described as naturalistic but in reality are just sloppy. I don’t like that either.

Versailles gardens
Versailles: the constipated style of gardening

What do you prefer, curves or straight lines, formal or informal? Or, like me, do you find yourself loving both if they are combined with the right sort of plantings?

60 Comments on “Is It Hip To Be Square?”

  1. You hit the nail on the head with “pleasing contrast between order and chaos.” I like lines but agree balance can also be achieved with curves. Order is restful to my eye and makes me happy, but I know I’m in the minority. Rosemary Verey led the way for structure filled with billowing plants before she was overtaken by the next fad–prairie style–which is truly a mystery to me (and perhaps the flip of Versailles?). There is little question the French like to “master” their plants. Sometimes it hurts to look at the poor things, clipped to within an inch of their life!

  2. This was a very interesting post. I think my own garden has a formal structure with full and unrestrained plants in it. Its a mix of straight lines and curves, contained and wild. Just today I was thinking about how my garden has evolved and how my view of it has evolved. I had this area in particular where the baby tears ground cover jumped the fence, so to speak, and mingled with the bugle weed/ajuga which is under the grapefruit tree. For about a year now I’ve been trying to decide whether to keep the bugle weed under the tree and take out the baby tears ground cover that crept in or vice-versa. A few people I asked said to keep both. I thought it might look messy.. then today I looked at it and thought it looked so beautiful. And decided everything doesn’t have to be perfectly in its place. Sometimes things have to flow uninterrupted. in the direction they wish to flow.

  3. I mostly like curved lines, and my new flower beds will be organic forms. But I also have some rectangular beds, because they lie along the house. There is no problem in having both I think, it also depends on the plants. As we have an old house from 1907 in the country, it would somehow be wrong to have a formal garden with all straight lines.

  4. I love your descriptions Jason, most amusing is the ‘constipated style’, which i don’t like too. I love organized chaos or chaotically organized, whichever. Our garden is mostly influenced by my mother who doesn’t follow any rule or order at all. When i was younger i hated it, but when nothing seems to alter it, i just changed my perspective and convinced myself that i love most the “biodiversity garden”, i coined it and it describes ours very well.

  5. I’m with you. I find appeal in both and incorporate both in my gardens at home. It’s the abundance I have trouble with. Some places are too abundant and others I can’t seem to fill up. I think whatever your garden style, it’s just right for you if it brings a smile to your face and peace to your soul. Happy Gardening!

  6. I have both and enjoy how they merge together. I like to ‘look’ at what you refer to as a constipated style of gardening but acknowledge that they have a landscaping crew to maintain that look. In my own garden, I enjoy a cottage garden style which suits my style of gardening because I hardly ever meet a perennial I don’t love. 🙂

  7. I usually like a little of both. The potager was laid out along formal lines but the flower beds by the house gently bulge out in a curve. Your picture of Versailles did look daunting, although I was at Chateau Villandry last year and fell in love with their intricately clipped love knot garden which the potager is very loosely based on.

  8. I really related to the article when I first read it in Fine Gardening, and you’ve elaborated on the idea nicely here. I struggled with curvy beds, an open field, and getting the plants to be the shapes and forms I wanted — then on a visit to Europe I realized how much they use walls and hard forms to garden against. It all made sense. The lines and structures allowed the plants to look natural against them.

    Like you, I don’t care for the clipped Versailles look though. That was a whole different style.

    Thanks for this thoughtful exploration of a key idea in garden design.

  9. In its previous iteration, I was inspired by a similar garden I’d seen at Bartram’s Garden, so I modeled my own after straight lines and rigid corners. But as much as I love order in my life, it didn’t work for me. Now in its second life, I’m going for curves in the garden. I think both can be pulled off successfully, but as someone pointed out above, it’s what makes you happy in your own garden that matters.

    Thanks for this post – it’s interesting food for thought.

  10. I think what he is trying to say is that with the straight lines etc there is structure and design even when the plants are in evidence.
    However, like you I prefer a mixture of order and chaos and find parterres and gardens such as Versailles really dull and boring but then its plants all the way for me!!

  11. Whether a design is formal or informal, employs curves or geometry has more to do with the character of structure in which they are a part. A design should be sympathetic, in that it should relate to or nod to the neighborhood in which it finds itself.

    As you said, much more is based on other factors for success. The opposite can occur but it must be done with direct intention, that means be purposeful. It is where a highly formal home is in a very loose and soft setting. Mid ground can occur to a point too. Oddly, this is the hardest type of design to work with, because it has to look like the designer did not suffer from not being able to make up their minds. This type of design is very much based on understanding of design principles and is usually found on large properties where one form of design can meld seamlessly into the next.

  12. I like anything that looks absolutely natural, straight, curve, bend does not matter. When I look at it, I should feel like I am in prairie,savanna, tropical, temperate forest, rain-forest, woodland, meadows, whatever the gardener is trying to tell me. However, if I have acres and acres of land and lots of money :-), then I will try all the design-style just for creativity and to feel how it looks and for achievement.

  13. My vegetable garden is all straight lines and right angles, while most of the rest is curvy. When I had my driveway and front walk replaced a few years ago, the contractor talked me into putting a “swoosh” into the walk and it really makes a surprisingly big difference in my house’s curb appeal.

  14. Better yet, the “gardens are described as naturalistic but in reality are just sloppy” are to be avoided! Garden using native plantings in which plants which would not be found in drifts of plant colonies and allow weeds particularly noxious weeds to creep in and are then called “natural” aren’t really gardens at all. A garden by definition shows the effect of the gardener’s hand, heart, and mind.

  15. I find myself inclined to have just enough structure to be able to disclaim the accusations that my garden is all chaos. I feel that if you have one or two hedgerows and and few neatly trimmed shrubs it buys enough goodwill that one can arguably state that their garden isn’t a total mass of plant anarchy. The neighbors might not buy it, but I feel that it gives me a leg to stand on.

  16. I admire straight and architectural lines but can’t seem to pull that sort of thing off in my own garden so I’ve got a mix. The parking strips/ sidewalks outside are straight lines but anything I’ve installed myself is curved. This is due in large part to my impatience and wanting to install hardscape quickly and around what’s already in place. I mean it’s because I live in an old house with curves and I’ve echoed those curves in the hardscape. (If you believe that last bit, I’ve got a bridge to sell you!)

  17. Hardscapes, or lack thereof can make or break a garden. Although I’ve been to gardens where a fortune has been invested into hardscapes but the plant variety is ho-hum. As a plant geek, collector’s gardens appeal to me the most as long as the gardener has put some thought into creating interesting vignettes using companion plants. Informal would probably best describe this type of garden but not chaotic.

    In my own garden I have both but prefer curved beds and I take my curves seriously :). All of my gardens that border lawns are edged in brick. Originally when I installed them I spent alot of time running up and down the stairs so I could get a bird’s eye view of the curves from my second story windows. Last year I changed the front bedlines without obtaining the the second floor perspective and I’ve got one line that is really bothering me. I’ve been trying to let it go but my brick laying fingers are itching…

    • I definitely agree about the passion of the gardener being central. As to the genius of the place, I think that is also to some extent subject to the gardener’s vision. For instance, who would place a highly naturalistic garden in the middle of downtown Chicago? But the Lurie Garden is just that and succeeds brilliantly.

  18. Excellent post. I totally support your view that great gardens can be based on curves or straight lines. My preference is for curves that gradually unfurl a garden with plant selections that showcase three seasons. A tall order that is never complete. Thanks for stirring my mind.

  19. I love your post Jason! I would also love to visit Monet’s garden at Giverny. I like both styles, I like mashups, I like colour and texture. Interestingly I visited an amazing garden over Easter, just going through my photos for a post now, which combined formal with experimental. It’s naturalistic without being a flop. It really was the most amazing garden I’ve ever visited and I think it’s simply because they don’t overly follow the rules of one particular style. Your garden borders really do look amazing. You’ve inspired me to make more of my border this year!

    • Which garden was it? We are planning our first visit to England in September, and are pulling our hair out trying to figure out which gardens to see. We have only a week, and will be in southern England – want to have at least a couple of days to see London. So much that we won’t get to see!

  20. I agree with everything you said in this post. I abhor extremely formal gardens. Sorry to be so strong, but they’re just not my style. They seem like a slap to nature, and they require so much upkeep. Every photo of your garden that I’ve seen is lovely. You obviously know what you’re doing.

  21. I love formal structure with abundant planting. And I think you can do that straight lines or curved lines. Like you, I don’t care for either extreme – too formal or just plain messy. If you took that picture of Versailles and put some tall, hot colored flowers in the middle of the beds, then that would be my ideal.

  22. I think there are uses for both. In my own garden, the “structure” is imposed on me by the sidewalk, house and street…so it’s straight lines whether I want them or not! I will say that a nice, curving path will always feel more inviting to me. As a rule, I really don’t care for formal gardens…or even overly-designed gardens. I do like gardens that have a natural feel to them…rather than ones that look as if they are terribly contrived.

  23. Both work but it really depends on the style of the house, and the surrounding area. I don’t care for the Versailles style but the gardens are appropriately stiff given the palatial building. Stone lions and formal plantings in a suburban McMansions are pretty ridiculous, but they can be ok in historic homes of a certain style.

  24. I very much like curves and would normally never follow a straight line (that might require measuring, string and bits – sounds like work) but I actually quite like the look of that first photo of Giverny. It really does look casual despite the straight lines.

  25. I like curves with purpose. It is interesting that fine line- I don’t like sloppy or stuffy so that means trying to find the in between. ( so long as its neat and tidy). I would like to see more examples of constipated gardening. This sounds so funny to me!!! Haha

  26. Whatever is appropriate to the setting is best, but I am naturally drawn to informal curves. I completely agree about the constipated garden style! My favorite pictures of Giverny center around the pond area. My own wooded garden is very natural in appearance, but I learned early that a garden does need structure. It is easier with formal arrangements because the design and the hard structures come first, then you add the plants as required. It is a bigger challenge to successfully impose structure on a natural type garden, because often you are working with preexisting plant material; but I think it is important to do so. Otherwise, you can end up with unordered mess.

  27. I much prefer curves and winding paths over straight lines. I used to have straight edged borders when I first started out, but I gradually changed them all to curves. You get much more border frontage with curves and I find they’re more interesting. Of course the garden style you’re going for will have a big say on the shape of the borders.

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