Designing a Conceptual Garden by Jay Sifford

July 13, 2017

in Articles, From the USA, General Interest, Recommended Reading

I’ve never been quite sure what a conceptual garden is. Victoria Summerley made a brave attempt at defining it, as “a garden that seeks to portray an idea, rather than provide a landscape design solution.” 

And very recently, on the back of Hampton Court ‘Flower’ Show the idea became controversial.  Renamed strangely as a ‘statement garden’, it earned the show a place in the slightly facetious bit of the BBC Today programme and pieces in two major newspapers, The Guardian  and the Telegraph.

So that’s an interesting topic in its own right, and here is Jay Sifford’s take on designing conceptual gardens.

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham, portrait Copyright Charles Hawes






Designing a conceptual garden by Jay Sifford.

Copyright Jay Sifford

We humans, as a species, are really not as smart as we would prefer to think, and may in fact be smarter, or at least more observant, on a subconscious level than on a conscious one. Through principles such as rhythm, repetition and scale, good garden design helps the human brain process a space. I firmly believe that, unless we can mentally process a garden, we will never feel comfortable enough in it to experience its benefits. Juxtaposition, illusion and metaphor are in my proverbial design tool box to distill a garden down to understandable and inspirational levels.

In light of this, I’ve started thinking about ways to design around abstract concepts or naturally occurring phenomenon in order to tell the story of the genius loci. Every garden has a story to tell, and who doesn’t love a good story? Stories help us connect, think, dream and understand.

I live in a beech forest within the city limits of Charlotte, North Carolina, USA. My land is rich with story, and I have designed my garden accordingly. The most amazing thing about my forest is how the shafts of sunlight pierce the canopy at different times of day. Unless you are an artist or a gardener, you likely don’t notice the seasonal or hourly changes in the position or intensity of light. I took it upon myself to design a garden around the concept of light, to celebrate it and to draw attention to it, so that everyone who visits here can take away a new appreciation for light. But how to go about it?

Copyright Jay Sifford for thinkingardens

Observation was my first step. I noticed that certain areas of my new garden receive intense and delineated shafts of light, forcefully piercing the forest canopy, while others were bathed in mellow pools of it. I planted dozens of Everillo sedge (Carex oshimensis EverColor ‘Everillo’) in lines and puddles; its evergreen chartreuse color mimics the sunlight as it flirts with the forest floor. Dark green foliage is planted adjacent to the carex to accentuate the light/dark differential.

I felt as if the garden needed a lower vertical element, so I planted 6 podocarpus macrophyllus var. maki, a deer-resistant substitution for columnar yew in my zone. These conifers function metaphorically as sentries, guarding and overseeing the garden. I created “shadows” coming off of these shrubs with mondo (Ophiopogon japonicus), and these shadows play nicely with the shafts of sedge. Because this garden also functions as a sculpture garden, I chose art that would respond to the light in various ways at different times of day.

Copyright Jay Sifford for thinkingardens

Two installations of stone spheres appear to mimic a solar eclipse; a steel ballerina glows at midmorning and is majestically backlit near dusk;

Copyright Jay Sifford for thinkingardens

and glass art glows as it absorbs, refracts and reflects light.

Copyright Jay Sifford for thinkingardens

While my light garden may not be to everyone’s taste, those who visit here go away with both a new-found appreciation for the phenomenon of sunlight and shadows, and that is enough for me. Since the garden is on axis with a hallway window, I’m constantly amazed at the ever-changing patterns and impulsively grab my camera to run out and photograph on a regular basis.

I’ve always been accused of being a “thinker”, so I continue to mentally design gardens around other concepts and phenomenon. I want to design a garden around wind, using grasses that gracefully respond to both the gentle whisper and the full force of wind, and employing kinetic sculpture. Then there’s sound: pathways of mulch so soft that the silence is audible positioned against gravel paths with their unmistakable crunch underfoot. As I write this, sitting in my garden, I’m enveloped in the symphony of locusts playing bass and birds singing tenor in the trees overhead.

What about echo? It happens when sound, produced by vibration which is movement, hits an impenetrable obstacle. But echo can also be expressed visually, through repetition of form, color and texture. Why not create a garden that combines both? The possibilities are endless, and by thoughtfully employing them in your space, you will help the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the stoics to experience the magic that nature conjures. And that is a worthy calling.

Jay Sifford   website

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Jay Sifford August 3, 2017 at 9:59 pm

Since I apparently stirred up a nest of controversy, I decided to do some research into the definition of conceptual. One that I found most interesting is this: “The idea behind it is that everyday objects become art when looked at outside of their uses. In general, when something is conceptual, it takes a bit of thought to figure it out.” This is from
This definition lines up with my working definition. To me, a conceptual garden reframes something and initiates a new line of thinking about that which we are already familiar in order to enhance our understanding and appreciation of it.
I have a large piece of cast glass art in my living room. It is a 6 foot + lime green melon baller (scooper). By this definition, it is somewhat conceptual because it causes us to look at everyday kitchen utensils as artistic and beautiful. I’ve had it for years, and still, when I pass by it, I gain an appreciation for the things we use everyday and seldom stop to really see.

James Golden August 3, 2017 at 5:27 pm

I hesitated a long time in responding to Jay’s piece because I felt the term “conceptual,” as I understand it doesn’t apply. I understand and agree with his use of such phenomena as shafts of light through woodland cover as a kind of design principle, a concept that sparks an insight and drives the design of the garden. But my understanding of the term conceptual garden is “garden with a message,” and usually a message that is more important to the gardenmaker than is garden design. I find such conceptual gardens tiresome and boring, if not worse. Jay’s gardens are certainly not that, so I have to disagree with the use of the word “conceptual” here.

Cherie Southgate July 31, 2017 at 7:50 am

I’m very interested by the way in which everyone us trying to define or distinguish the difference between a conceptual garden and a concept. I believe that the words both refer to the idea – in this case to do with gardens – behind an idea. I’ve been a designer both of gardens and industrial products for many years. As a teacher of design students and I often talked about design concepts. It was just another way of saying design ideas and no design would ever exist without the ideas that drive it in a particular direction. Therefore all gardens that have been laid out in a design have some kind of concept or idea behind them. There are gardens that are seemingly random collections of plants and garden structures which maybe have never been developed with an overall concept to frame them and I would say that in that case they are not designed.
By using the word ‘conceptual’ in relation to a specific type of garden idea the designer is trying to get closer to the way in which conceptual artists work and seek to engage a viewer with a specific idea expressed in a particular medium. The garden makes a specific statement. Some that we’ve seen recently at the big garden shows are much closer to that art led approach than the landscape design approach. I have to say I don’t always like these and think some are nit really gardens.
Jay, I think having looked at your photos and the design that you’ve succeeded in blending the conceptual with the principles of garden design in a delightful way. I’d love to be able to walk through your space and gain the other sensory delights of sound and sense but you’re rather far away from me. You’ve provided us with much food for thought and some stunning ideas too – thank you.

Jay Sifford August 1, 2017 at 12:30 am

Thank you Cherie. As you hit upon, there are many “gardens” in my city that have no concept behind them; they are a collection of plants. I’m frequently hired by gardeners who have no design sensibilities. I take this as a privilege.
I do not make a big distinction between “conceptual” and “concept”. I believe that both are storytelling. Whether it’s “art for art’s sake” or “three dimensional art that is walked through and sat upon”, it’s all art and I applaud those who create art, and make us think and re-evaluate. Is all of it livable? No. And frequently, we learn more from that which we don’t like than from that which we do, because negative responses make us stop, listen and evaluate. I’m a big learner!
Sometimes splitting the hair isn’t important. What is important? Creating beauty, helping people think, and enriching as many lives as possible. How we accomplish these thing isn’t as important as that hope and reality that we practice them on a daily basis. This is why I live my life.
If you’re ever in my neighborhood, it would be my pleasure to have walk, sit and ponder my garden. Thanks again.

Diana Studer July 26, 2017 at 10:58 pm

The steel ballerina dancing in the spotlight works for me (but not in my tiny garden). You need some drama in such a large space, a reason to walk down that path.

Something in common with Federal Twist, a garden created in a forest clearing.

Jay Sifford August 1, 2017 at 12:34 am

Diana, giving people a reason to explore, process and spend time in nature is one of a garden’s highest callings. Whether it’s a steel ballerina or a waterfall or a field of ferns is all moot. Seducing those who wander about a garden…. priceless. A garden that cannot seduce is a garden without a soul.

Diana Studer August 2, 2017 at 7:48 pm

Thank you for those words – I could take that as inspiration and challenge as I work on my garden.

Jay Sifford August 3, 2017 at 12:03 am

My pleasure. Magic and seduction are everywhere in a garden. You just have to look for them. Your garden has a story that it wants to tell, and it’s looking to you as its opportunity to express itself.
Make your garden proud! Happy gardening.

Susan Cohan July 19, 2017 at 1:32 pm

If, using Jay’s idea of a ‘concept garden’, then every designed space is a concept garden. I think we need to define what is actually being discussed. Is it a temporary garden or a permanent space? Is it Jenks or Jekyll? Both had ideas, both had concepts, neither is/was temporary. Typically in my mind, temporary gardens can be conceptual or not. They can show what might be or what is. They do not always present new ideas yet sometimes they are very challenging. I was in a private garden two days ago that was built over 35 years and was permanent and remarkable in its exuberant experimentation. Conceptual or experimental? Also different. Responding to a detail on a site is responsible and responsive design. If Jay believes that the light is the most magical feature on the land he is honoring then that’s just great responsive design but is it conceptual or a concept?

Jay Sifford August 1, 2017 at 12:44 am

Some of this is the proverbial splitting of hairs, I believe. I would say that “responsive” is retroactive while “conceptual” is proactive and design-driven, but that’s just me. In either case, though, a great garden can result, and isn’t that the point of doing what we do?
I’m curious about the garden that was “remarkable in its exuberant experimentation”. Can you share some of its details? This is the kind of thing I enjoy immensely.
There are plenty of “designed spaces” in my city that are not conceptual. I believe that conceptual gardens tell a story, and a worthy one at that. One of the main affluent areas in my city (in which I rarely work because it’s way too traditional for me), boxwood and laurels line the facades of the brick Georgian mansions. I’m not sure if such a garden tells a conceptual story. It may just mirror the ostentatious story of the home, but I’m not sure. If I use boxwood, I’m likely going to sheer them into balls and have them “rolling down a hill” interspersed with stone spheres, or some such thing. To me, this tells more of a story: a story of movement, of urgency, a metaphor of how life is not static, of gravity, and about how we all come to an end of our existence. Conceptual, perhaps. Sublime? At least I think so, and that is enough for me.
Keep designing your beautiful gardens, Susan. It’s a high calling, and you wear it well!

Rebecca Thompson July 19, 2017 at 6:55 am

I’ve been thinking about what makes a conceptual garden since Hampton Court too and what other type of conceptual gardens you could design. Having helped planted up the ‘Journey of Life’ garden at the show this year, which was supposed to have been in the conceptual garden area instead of being down by the show gardens; the designer did raise an interesting idea of poetic garden basing the garden on a poem of life he wrote. Is there a gray area between designing a landscape design solution and a conceptual garden? Brownfield Metamorphosis as a conceptual garden was pleasing to look at and at the same time thought provoking-though I wouldn’t plant Pilosella aurantiaca-that maybe the designer has touched upon something…On a side note a garden planted solely with grasses sounds absolutely tactile!

Norma July 17, 2017 at 12:47 pm

I have no problem with the word “conceptual” as applied here. I find this one of the very rare garden designs that inspires me and helps me to rethink what I want to do with my own tiny space. This garden is so much more than a collection of plants. I love it!!

Jay Sifford July 19, 2017 at 2:26 pm

Thanks Norma. I’m glad you gain a “take-away” from my garden. I believe that a garden is truly much more than a collection of plants, that it is a living, breathing organism with a story to tell. It’s up to us to tell that story.
Happy gardening!

Katherine Crouch July 15, 2017 at 12:03 pm

beautiful ways you have explored the senses in your woodland. If only we had more regular sunshine perhaps we would exploit these shafts of sunlight and make the most of them, perhaps the rarity of sunlight shafts in Somerset makes them all the more worth celebrating in our gardens.

Jay Sifford July 19, 2017 at 2:25 pm

Thank you Katherine! You may not have the sunshine, but I bet there’s a part of your garden that subtly defines it that you could amplify to give that unique experience to those who visit there.
Happy gardening!

Dan Bristow July 14, 2017 at 4:08 pm

I agree with Hazel. I baulk at the term ‘conceptual garden’, it grosses me out.
I like what you’ve done there Jay, it is subtle and though having ‘concepts’ behind the design they are more like the germ of an idea rather than the cheesy visual metaphors that so often pass for ‘concepts’. Your garden, it seems, will affect different viewers differently and they don’t need a guidebook to understand it, it speaks for itself. I’m not a fan of the sculptures, mind, but each to their own.
I think the ‘statement garden’ idea seems much more positive, I’m happy they’ve dropped the ‘conceptual’ moniker.

Jay Sifford July 19, 2017 at 2:24 pm

I’m not a fan of “cheesy visual metaphors” either. Subtle is usually good. With regard to the sculptures, I find that one of the most difficult things for me is to suggest art to clients, as everyone’s tastes are different. Personally, I love juxtaposition, so I frequently use contemporary or industrial sculptures in my designs, whether the garden is rustic woodland, Asian or contemporary.
Happy gardening!

Charles Hawes July 14, 2017 at 2:16 pm

Jay, I thought this was a rare example of someone looking at the potential for a space in which to garden (a wood) and then finding interesting and creative ways of realising that potential. And you have done so using both plants and objects which make the most of your light. I’m not sure if this is conceptual gardening or just good garden making!

Jay Sifford July 19, 2017 at 2:22 pm

Thanks Charles. It’s likely both!

Helen Gazeley July 14, 2017 at 1:04 pm

What a gorgeous design, Jay. It looks like a garden that would seep slowly into you – as you say, working on your subconscious. I wouldn’t call it conceptual, though, as it’s really about designing for the place you are. But perhaps that’s because I’ve been beaten over the head by the Chelsea/Hampton Court representations that generally shout out their message with all the subtlety of a mallet hitting an egg. “Statement garden” does seem all the more accurate. I think we should drop the idea of “conceptual” altogether.

Jay Sifford July 19, 2017 at 2:21 pm

Hi Helen. Thank you. I think you are picking up on the theme and purpose of this garden. I think that “conceptual” is perhaps viewed differently here than in Britain. To me, a garden is a living, breathing organism, composed of many different parts. As a living organism, I believe that a garden has a story to tell. When one part of the story is amplified so that visitors/viewers can understand it and have a “take-away”, that is concept to me. Statement would surely be another way to phrase it. At any rate, thanks for your comment.

Lyn Eglinton July 14, 2017 at 11:15 am

conceptual garden is too clever by half.

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