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Elements that make a classical garden

  • Published Saturday, May 12, 2012, at 7:31 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, May 12, 2012, at 7:37 a.m.

Ornaments alone cannot make a classical garden. But such landscapes are inherently architectural and rely on structure to help give them form. Scale and placement are key, and the character of certain pieces can set a whole mood. Ancient Romans similarly mixed it up: placing the busts of philosophers in certain areas to spark serious conversation, and those of playful demigods to set the mood for pleasure and relaxation. They even had a name for their love of outdoor living: otium.

1. Arbors and pergolas. Arbors and other structures fulfill both practical and aesthetic needs. They create focal points, establish vertical planes above patios and walks, allow a support for climbers and vines, and offer a place to sit and to find shade.

2. Fountains and ponds. Water features became highly popular for the neoclassical gardens of the Italian Renaissance. They achieve many aims: defining a ground plane, reflecting the garden, and providing the joy of their sight and sound. Tip: Small pools look better as ovals, squares and other geometric shapes rather than forced, naturalistic forms.

3. Statuary. Statues, urns and planters establish focal points and help enliven spaces. Because their footprints are small, they are particularly useful in small gardens. They can be figurative or abstract, bought as valuable antiques or fashioned cheaply from architectural salvage, found objects and even driftwood. A common mistake is to clutter the garden with them. Less can be more, and think about scale, placement and surroundings.

4. Knot gardens. Popular in late medieval and Renaissance gardens, knot gardens feature low, clipped hedges that frame and form interlocking ribbons of vegetation. They became an essential feature of the Colonial Revival garden, suggesting the Colonial gardener’s playfulness and skill. They look simple, but the challenge is to find plant material that is uniform in size and texture, takes clipping and has similar light and soil needs. Popular plants include dwarf boxwood hybrids, lavender, germander, santolina and rosemary.

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