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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