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Use Architectural Elements to
Visually Enhance Your Garden

Centre of the City, Toronto, July/August 2004.

It's a time of lazy mid-summer afternoons spent lounging with a cool drink on the deck, in reflection of your domain. The garden is in full bloom, and everything is as it should be. It may be, however, that you now find your garden could use a little added spark, here and there. Perhaps you have a long, perfectly straight garden bed that just doesn't pop, despite your gardening efforts, or a bare spot where a shrub is growing too slowly. Whether it's an uninviting corner, an old shed past its prime or a patch of unattractive fencing, there are easy ways to add finesse and make the difference between a nice backyard and a welcoming garden space.

Adding architectural interest to a garden sounds vague, expensive, and somewhat overwhelming, but don't let the phrase intimidate you. True, it can mean a huge undertaking, much like redesigning a floor of your house. We'll look at more manageable changes that trick the eye into seeing what we want, and sliding past what we don't--a kind of trompe l'oeil effect for your garden. For example, we often think that we're stuck with a certain view, such as the merging angles of a neighbour's roof showing at the back of our garden. It is an undesirable focal point. In a way this is true - short of planting or building something enormous, that neighbour's roof will still be visible. Rather than have it as the focal point of the garden, however, we can fool the eye and take the focus to a more attractive part of the garden.

Adding a pathway can make a huge difference in the way you see your garden. Something as simple as laying irregular slate stepping stones will draw the eye towards a desirable destination and away from something less attractive. For a garden that does not have a physical need for a pathway, start the stones far apart and irregularly spaced, and gradually bring them closer together to form a path as they approach your new focal area. The eye will generally follow a visual path, and the focus will be off that neighbour's roof.

What should you use as a focal point? Almost anything will serve the purpose, from a pond, a wildflower garden, or a reading nook to just another section of the garden. By building a path to anything, you give it importance and the eye will follow along.

Old wooden sheds add lots of character and interest, but there usually comes a point where they stop being 'interesting'. Still, there's something comforting about old structures, and as long as they remain relatively sound, we'd rather not tear them down. As an alternative to demolition, consider covering your shed with a fast-growing vine. Silverlace vine is full, green, and flowers late in summer. The vine will die off above ground over the winter but remains feathery and full, and may be left to camouflage the shed through the winter. Less-invasive flowering vines such as trumpet vine, clematis and honeysuckle will cover nicely in summer, but will not provide as much winter interest. One silverlace plant will likely do the job, but you may need two or three of the other vines to accomplish the same task. To help the vine climb, attach a trellis to the shed, leaving a gap between the shed wall and the trellis, in order to weave the vine for optimum coverage. While you will not get the full effect this year, planting now will produce wonderful results next season, and there is still plenty of time for the plants to get settled in.

Trellis work can also be used to liven up a dreary expanse like the side of a garage protruding into your yard. There are many kinds of trellis, from the plain criss-crossed and inexpensive woody sheets through to formal structures with intricate patterns, often topped with an arbour, and constructed of man-made materials. For an inexpensive update, paint the wall of the garage a dark green, and paint framed sheet trellis material one or two shades lighter in the same colour palette. Cover all or part of the garage wall, keeping the trellis about six inches out from the surface. This softens the length of wall and creates varied shadows as the light shifts throughout the day. It also provides a backdrop for small trees or large plants to be placed in colourful containers. To give this installation a more formal feel, replace the sheet trellis with pre-built shaped panels usually used in an arbour. Paint the trellis white and consider a set of matching topiaries or standard shrubs in raised planters in front of the trellis to complete the formal look.

Instead of a square lawn surrounded by flowerbeds in straight, neat lines, the trend now is towards more organic shapes and the creation of visual rooms in your garden. You want your garden to be inviting, to encourage the eye to travel, come to rest, and then move on to the next focal point. To begin adding a more organic feeling, use the bed on the longest side edge of your garden as a starting point. Extend the centre of the bed on that edge out into the lawn to create a rounded garden peninsula. The extension should be four to six feet out for best effect, and at least three feet across. From the external edge or fence of the existing bed, install a trellis about six feet tall, on a gentle angle towards the garden entrance, extending across the existing bed and about one-third into the extension. This may take two or three panels of trellis material, framed and well anchored for stability, and painted or stained to match your decor. Plant the trellis with flowering vines on the side facing the entrance, and perhaps an upright evergreen to soften the angle of the join. Plant the peninsula area with taller plants in the centre and next to the trellis, graduating down in size towards the lawn area.

For a boring corner, create a rough arch made from newly cut branches, bent and woven into a shape you like, and set it across the corner to soften the angles. Paint is not necessary, and the shape does not have to be perfect. If this natural look doesn't fit your style, consider one of the many obelisks available. Anything will do, so long as plants can easily climb and attach to the structure. Heavily plant your arbour with clematis or morning glory.

Look again at that section of wooden fence you find unattractive. Perhaps a coat of paint or paint wash to the centre portion, plus the addition of a large plaque will turn your eyesore into a feature. Add extra interest by framing that panel with young rocket junipers on either side.

Containers can be useful to bring colour and interest to dull areas under trees. Consider using five large pots in varied primary colours and different sizes, or choose colours to complement your patio furnishings, with urns as a backdrop. Make sure you can lift the largest pot, even when full of earth, for maximum flexibility in your design. Plant with hostas, ferns, coral bells, or other shade-loving plants and position them together for maximum impact.

Pond kits are very popular and available in most garden centres, but they are often installed without appropriate surroundings. Before you install a pond feature in your garden, reflect on where a small pond might occur in nature and how plants would grow in and around it. Then select a spot in your garden where the pond could appear to happen naturally. If your pond is designed to draw focus away from a less desirable feature of your garden, consider how you will draw attention to this new feature from a distance. Will you need a pathway? Installing a bubbling fountain feature towards one end of your pond will keep the water moving, and provide soothing sound, but will you need an additional seating area in order to hear it?

It is possible to redefine the focus of your garden, without starting from scratch. So take that long, cool drink, choose a comfortable spot, and contemplate your garden once more. Even if you decide to do nothing, it's a great way to spend a summer afternoon.

Helen Kirkup
HMK Consultants

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Also by Helen Kirkup:
The Kirkups: Pioneers & Travellers
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