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The artful garden

How to 'punctuate' your garden with art.

By April AustinCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 2006

SHELL DETAIL: Linda Hoffman's 'Stone Turtle' is part of the 'Rock On! Celebrating Stone in the Garden' exhibit at Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Mass.

Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff



Once gardeners get a taste of working in the soil, they often find it impossible to have too many plants. Before long, their yard is dotted with a hodgepodge of interesting but often unrelated vegetation. What's missing? Art that ties the garden together.

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Gardening is an art itself, and looking at well-designed gardens helps us understand what works, just as visiting galleries helps us appreciate paintings.

"To do a garden artistically, you have to think like an artist," says garden author and columnist Tovah Martin. "[Some] gardens can be like run-on sentences. You need a punctuation point."

Punctuation can come in many forms, such as a stone wall, terrace, pathway, tree, bench, or sculpture. These visual guides can help to define the garden's borders and emphasize certain characteristics of the garden. Ornamental objects such as a wrought-iron fence, sundials, birdhouses, Victorian gazing balls, or obelisks can also help anchor a garden in a specific architectural style or time period.

Sculptural forms serve as foils amid the greenery, and their tangible shapes help to draw the eye. "When something looks like a blob, our eyes are more likely to rest on a shape," says Ms. Martin.

The most basic sculptural shape is the triangle, appearing as conical-shaped trees and shrubs or pyramidlike plant supports, sometimes known as tuteurs. People tend to find horizontal compositions restful (think sunsets on the beach), while vertical shapes convey an edgy, raw energy (think mountain peaks). Because many backyards (especially those in newer subdivisions) are flat and often featureless, almost any tall object that breaks up the horizontal plane adds a sense of excitement and vigor.

Even woodland-style gardens that mimic natural forests benefit from the clever placement of art. A perfect example can be found at Garden in the Woods, home to the New England Wildflower Society in Framingham, Mass. This 45-acre "living museum" was started in the 1930s and has since expanded to include nationally recognized native-plant conservation and education programs. As part of its outreach, the garden hosts events that cast a fresh light on its existing plant collections. Currently, the work of eight sculptors is featured through October in an installation called "Rock On!: Celebrating Stone in the Garden."

Even periodic visitors who thought Garden in the Woods needed no embellishment will be impressed by the synergy between plants and sculpture. Debra Strick, a garden spokeswoman, says that she and other staff members have found the art "wakes up your vision." They are already lamenting having to pack up the sculptures at the end of the exhibit because each piece seems inseparable from its site. (Three sculptures will remain.)

That wasn't an accident. Tom Smarr, horticultural director, along with Gregory Lowenberg, director of education, worked closely with the sculptors to choose locations that brought out key features in both landscape and sculpture. They envisioned areas of the garden as galleries, from the lily pond, to the pine barrens, to the rare-plant garden.

As a result, on a ridge overlooking the pond, a massive Christopher Curtis sculpture carved from a glacial boulder, called "The Part That Is Not There," reaches for the sky, giving definition and drama to the garden's natural topography. In the rock garden, Linda Hoffman's small bronze figures match the scale of a gentle hill covered with tiny plants, drawing a visitor's gaze carefully downward to make sure nothing is missed. And towering like an ancient sentinel over the lily pond, Jerry Kuyper's stacked-rock "Sentient" amazes with both its sturdiness and fragility.

When asked for advice to gardeners on choosing art, Mr. Smarr says it helps to look at a garden as you would your home. "You don't pick out a rug without seeing how it complements the rest of your décor. Looking at parts of the garden as 'rooms' [with] 'furnishings' makes it simpler."

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