There are three essential factors for successful garden design:tension, mystery and surprise. A garden that can be seen at a glance is far less attractive than one that is broken down into individual ‘rooms’, with ‘tension points’ that trap the attention on the way. A long narrow garden is in itself uncompromisingly dull; if you have to pass from one area to another through narrow gaps in high walls of hedging, stone or trellis smothered in plants, an air of mystery is added, tension is generated and released as you pass through, and surprise is achieved at the other side. Here we immediately have a composition that raises expectations of things to come, and the narrower the gap through which you pass, and the higher and more dominant the ‘walls’, the greater the amount of tension that will be generated.
Another way to use these factors for successful garden and to achieve this would be to follow a path through a tunnel or pergola that had a focal point in the form of an ornament or seat at the end. Your eye would be attracted by the focal point, and not until you reached the end, and turned to take in the garden on either side, would you experience surprise and a release of the tension that had been generated by the uncertainly of what you might find at the end.
These factors for successful garden can be combined. A path winding tantalizingly out of sight adds an air of mystery to any successful garden. If it also leads to a solid gate in a high ‘wall’ it adds to the tension and ultimate surprise. A partial view down a garden, with the vista interrupted by a circular ‘moongate’ or an opening in a wall or hedge, providing a glimpse of what is to come, will give a feeling of mystery and anticipation.
If your garden is large and has rising ground that hides the view beyond, the possibilities are obvious. A path that climbs the slope, either directly or by a tortuous route, will allow the view to burst out once the crest is reached. If you have the advantage of a woodland setting, you can often create openings to allow a glimpse of distant landscape, of an ‘eyecatcher’, or of the garden proper, as a taste of things to come. This will effectively whet the appetite, increase tension, and result in surprise.
Even the smallest garden can use an essential factors for successful garden and achieve the same effects. A narrow space can provide tension on a far smaller scale: a town yard with raised beds on either side or the placing of a protruding border in a modest garden will add to the sense of mystery and surprise.
Conversely, a bland garden lacks these essential factors. We have all seen the ‘dead’ square garden with its rectangular lawn and flanking borders; the dog-leg plot that fails to attract you into the hidden area; the large country garden with nothing to break the sight line and no secrets to hide.
It could be argued that the aim of all successful garden design is to fulfil these three criteria; that design factors are simply the means that allow us to form a composition that has inherent interest just because it places tension points effectively, creates a feeling of mystery, and provides in consequence an element of surprise.