Considerations for garden visitors by Anne Wareham

August 10, 2008

in Articles, General Interest

with responses from Tim Richardson, Mike Gerrard, Antony Woodward, Jenny Woods, Clive Nichols, Chris Young, Yue Zhuang and Rebecca Wells

Little Sparta - Image 1. for thinkingardens, copyright Charles Hawes

Points to consider when visiting a garden

Our whole aim is to encourage greater discrimination amongst garden visitors. But they have rather been left wandering in the dark by the garden media, who only ever praise gardens. So here is a piece which I hope may assist the novice garden visitor to see, and understand more of what they are seeing.

It is worth considering who the garden was designed for: it could be a contemporary garden, designed for the pleasure and needs of the owner; it may be historic and designed for the different needs and preoccupations of another time; or it may have been designed predominantly for plant mad visitors. You might like to think about how those considerations impinge on the design and then on your own interest and pleasure.

Every garden has constraints upon it, of location, size, available help, its surroundings, neighbours and topography. Good design will hopefully manage to make virtues of some of these, or at least minimise their effects. A gardener can choose to struggle against the climate, the prevailing wind and the nature of the soil. Such a struggle can feel self defeating if, for example, the plants just really don’t want to be there – or a struggle against the odds could perhaps become a triumph. And just because this garden can grow certain plants you may still wonder if those are the best plants for the situation and ambiance of the place.

You might wish a garden to have a sense of unity, some coherence. No garden is without influences but hopefully the garden designer will have digested these well and made them their own so that they don’t feel ‘stuck’ on. It may be a garden’s strength that it is wholeheartedly of its own time or despite its influences it may be the product of a unique imagination and creativity.

Gardens use sculpture, objects, words and buildings to add meaning, focus and sometimes to show off. You might like to consider their placing and style and how they add to or detract from the overall work.

Lady Farm - Stephen Anderton and Anne Wareham - Image 11 for thinkingardens

Sculpture at Lady Farm, Somerset © John Wright

If the garden is saying something, offering something to the mind and imagination as well as the senses, that can be easily accessible or you may need background information, especially if it is an historic garden or in a country which is foreign to you. It is worth thinking about whether that depth adds or detracts from your pleasure if you don’t understand the references. Does it still work aesthetically? Discover all you can and then find whether that improves the scene. Try some adjectives: – risk taking, banal, complacent, incomprehensible, exciting, disturbing?-  to help you focus on just what you feel about it.

Pattern is an under acknowledged human pleasure – gardens can and do offer this satisfaction, and sometimes seem to deliberately avoid it. The consequence either way, and your responses to pattern or its absence are worth becoming aware of. Is there symmetry, asymmetry, balance?

Gardens exist in and change in time. You might wonder if you are there at the best time – the right season, the right century? Is the weather and light helping or detracting form the agrden – was it made well for its climate?

Plants are the most important part of a garden for many people. They can work well, becoming the essential aspect of a design, they may enhance the design – or they may destroy the effectiveness of the design. They are also mostly seasonal, and lead us to think about whether we are seeing the garden at its best, or whether the garden could still work well without the flowers, colour or forms that they offer. Plants are often the most ephemeral part of a garden, both seasonally and through changes of owners, so they may work well and in sympathy with the original design, they may better it, or they may be sad relics of another fashion we wish had never been.

The Grondra, Monmouthshire - by Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

The Grondra, Monmouthshire © Charles Hawes

A garden is more than a series of set pieces; it is a journey. You might think you would ideally find your way easily, and find the paths comfortable to walk – though I’m not convinced gardens were always walked and you might wonder whether you would have enjoyed it more on horseback or in a carriage. And then – it may be intentional to use a path to slow you down, interrupt your conversation, distract your attention. Does this work well?

And finally, sometimes the acid test of the quality of a garden is the second visit. Worth it if you can do it.

Anne Wareham

Veddw House Garden website

Comment from Tim Richardson

The main thing I would add to your list is something to draw it away from the pseudo/ quasi/ rational approach you are promoting, ie. I would suggest people ask themselves:

How does the garden make you feel? What kind of place is it? What sort of atmosphere does it have?

This may sound touchy feely but in the phenomenological spirit [see my Psychotopia stuff] this is really what people take away from gardens and remember about them, and I strongly believe that these notions are as legitimate as more strictly evaluative criteria.

Comment from Antony Woodward

To your list of garden review guideline questions, I’d add:

  • Is the garden appropriate to its setting?  (touched on in paragraph 2, but I’d say too crucial not to be a point on its own)
  • Does it have a central idea?
  • Is it confident?
  • Does it make the most of natural features or existing trees, slopes, water, history, etc?
  • Does it bring new thinking to traditional ingredients?
  • Has the gardener had the confidence to know when to stop?

Comment from Mike Gerrard

  • What was the brief?
  • If the garden was designed for the visitor how was the brief arrived at and how appropriate was it?

Maintenance requirements

  • Who maintains the garden?
  • Does the designer approve of the maintenance?
  • To what extent is the garden fashionable?
  • If so is this a good or bad thing?

Design composition

  • What has the garden designer been constrained by?
  • Have they triumphed or been defeated by the constraints?

Existing and finished levels

  • How well has the designer dealt with scale?
  • Space?
  • Levels?
  • Light and shadow?

Boundary treatment and placement in the landscape

  • How well does the garden relate to its context?
  • Should it align with its context or challenge it?

Vehicular/pedestrian traffic provisions and directional change

  • How well does movement through the garden work?
  • Are the paths good?
  • Is the journey demanding?
  • Obvious?
  • Full of excitements?
  • Does the mood change?
  • Too much?

Integration of existing features

  • What do the buildings, sculptures, objects contribute?
  • Do they enhance or detract?
  • Does the garden enhance or detract from the architecture?
  • Relationship with existing architecture?


  • Aesthetic qualities of materials chosen?
  • Appropriate use of hard and soft landscaping safety and structural integrity?
  • Evidence of creativity and original thinking references to past or current thinking/modes in garden design?
  • What raw materials and what kind of plot did the garden-maker start with?
  • Has an atmosphere been created or enhanced?
  • What emotions does the garden evince from the visitor? – score 8/10 for happiness (there are lots of those), 11/10 for anger, sorrow, fear etc
  • Has the garden been designed and subsequently maintained in stasis or has it been made and is it being remade all the time by the maker? Which is more appropriate?
  • Has the garden been crafted or bought?

Comment from Jenny Woods

Context is interesting – how about:

  • Does the garden relate to its context?
  • Does it need to? – if so how well?

I’m sure there are many that best relate to context by blocking it out!

To also throw into the pot:

Unity through strength of purpose (which is equivalent, I think, to your coherence), harmony, balance, texture, tone and (dare I voice it?) colour, also ye olde RHS favourite ‘mass and void’. Simplicity – from Dan Pearson – ‘garden design is all about having lots of good ideas then throwing all but one away.’

Comment from Clive Nichols

One thing that I always look for when photographing a garden is:

  • Has the garden got personality?
  • Is it different, unusual?
  • Or is it just a copy of every other garden?

This to me is where things like bespoke furniture, sculpture and great hardscaping play an important role in differentiating one garden from the mass of mediocrity that we normally come up against.

Comment from Chris Young

I would have thought the more gardens people have seen the better they are at understanding some.

Therefore, some questions they may want to consider are:

  • Have they experienced a similar garden before?
  • What spatial arrangements are they familiar with or never experienced before?
  • Are there material combinations they have seen before that has made them happy, sad, angry, inspired etc.?
  • Have some design elements worked better in other gardens?

I guess the point is, that the more a garden visitor builds up his/her knowledge – and thence articulation/understanding – they more they can get out of a garden.

Comment from Yue Zhuang

Generally the traditional Chinese see a duality of ‘/xing/’ and ‘/chi / sheng’/ in works of art.

/xing/ refers to physical attributes of objects, like shapes, or forms; whereas /chi/ sheng / refers to life-spirit, and it is the latter that is preferred.

In accord with this preference of life-spirit to shape, the Chinese don’t see works of art as an imitation of the physical world and they consider mere imitation, no matter how alike it is, as something lacking creativity, and childish.

But what exactly is this life-spirit? It is so vital to understand Chinese arts, but it is very hard to explain. Its simplest meaning is vapour, or stream, and may be extended to ‘breath’, ‘exhalation’, ‘life-spirit’. It permeates in the universe, and flows from body to body, or from the body into material things. And like breath, it is not visible as the ‘Form’ is, but must be embodied through ‘things’.

It is not mere imitation of the real things, but kind of abstracted, or it may be put as ‘imitating Nature and then transcending Nature’. It is such a principle that the Chinese garden follows. I understand this is not a good enough account of how the life-spirit expressed in gardens? But, believe me, it is something that still bewilders all the contemporary Chinese garden designers.

Comment from Rebecca Wells

I read this through before I read any of the comments, but I agree very much with Tim Richardson.

For me what is SO EXCITING about garden design and making is that it a holistic activity. You touch on some of these factors in your piece but I would add questions such as:

Are there any aspects of the garden design which lift the garden above the ordinary and which intellectually satisfy you? These may be eg. clever use of materials or ways of guiding you around the garden, the clever placing of artifacts, the framing of views, etc.

What do you find beautiful about this garden? Here I would include light/ shadow/ shade, ephemeral aspects, fine details and the Big Idea. Not all of these will have been designed in and may be as slight and as lovely as a drop of water in a lupin leaf.

  • How does this garden delight your other senses?
  • Are these senses used to move you around the space?
  • Does the sound of hidden water draw you on?
  • How many of your senses does this garden engage and how fully?
  • What does this space make you feel?
  • Does the design reach to your emotions and, dare I say, soul?
  • How has the garden moved through time?
  • How powerful is the historical context or reference?
  • Is there a sense of it being stuck in aspic?
  • Is it a museum piece which helps us appreciate the way people used to live and their concerns at the time?
  • How has the garden developed from its initial building?
  • How has it been maintained? After all, we plantsmen deal in time.

And, yes. Do you want to come back?

Not all these questions could be applied to a garden that has not been designed but all gardens need some thought put into their layout or they become an unsatisfactory mess.

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