Your garden is not a parade ground. More balance please!

Why square shapes aren’t always the right choice.

EEvery design has its place in this world. Seriously. I believe in this allegation. Example: I personally don’t really like designs that are based on skulls and bones, say the typical black and silver motorcyclist’s t-shirt featuring some kind of screaming meatless human head.

Ok, but what about the ‘Easy Rider’ version? Good or bad? Well, to be honest – seriously cool! Or some kind of baroque church decoration version of Mr. Meatless, say from Italy, Austria or Germany, 17th and 18th century? Bad or good? Well, seriously? Very often, very funny, artful, intriguing – and once you grasp the whole decoration program it can be mindblowingly complicated and just interesting to think about. You see it differently, once you know more about it.

The difficult thing about good or bad design – or to be more precise and less fundamental – ‘fitted’ and ‘un-fitted’ design, is to know why and when something fits its time and place, when and where it has reached its specific grade of originality, where it hits a rather ‘high’ or ‘low’ level of design, where it makes the ‘right’ borrowings from the ‘right’ sources.

Is it e.g. borrowing from the right source, when we see topiary along the street? On a small village’s square? Why does anyone spend time and money on shaping oleanders, euonymus, elaeagnus and what not into squares and balls between one street and another – along an industrial zone? Is that good or bad design? I’d opt for very bad design, even no-design.

As much as I believe in “fitted” or “un-fitted” I believe in “timely” or “un-timely”, as in “inappropriate”.

I adore topiary and cloud pruning  – whereever it is appropriate. I adore it in Versailles and in any Italian Renaissance or Baroque garden. Topiary is perfect for two little square planters, painted in black in front of a jeweller’s shop on Madison Avenue, for Sotheby’s on Old Bond Street – ok then maybe in dark green, for Hampton Court (again in green, but lighter) – but on a small village’s square in the South of France? Right beside asphalt? In front of an old house made from rough stones? It is like salt and vinegar aren’t in the right balance. It’s like like adding sugar to honey.

We all know the latin “de gustibus non est disputandum” and we’re never sure if it shouldn’t be “de gustibus est disputandum”. We all think we’re tolerant when it comes to taste and we all have moments where we do think, “well this crosses a line of good taste, doesn’t it?”. So how do we know? And is it ok to say “good taste” or “bad taste” after all?

Sometimes it’s a contrast that makes a silly combination work. In other cases it is the perfect amalgam of two things never combined before. And then again, it sometimes is just time gone by that helps us to acclimatise to something whimsical.

In these times, that are astonishing us with the one fact and that is that nothing is certain and everything changes and will be constantly changing from now on, there is at least one certainty when it comes to good or bad taste. We can try to introduce change ourselves.

Our definitions for either side will change with our age, with our culture, they will depend where we live and how much we have learned, what we have seen, and where we have travelled.

But, we can inspire, get inspired and add to the concert of inappropriatnesses, maybe add a little balance.

Don’t get me wrong. I like pruned shrubs, just as I like topiary. I like it when public squares and private gardens are neat and tidy.

But cutting everything that has the name shrub with a hedgecutter, forming dense outer levels, forcing the plants to develop smaller and smaller leaves and cutting them only to squares or balls is just boring and it reminds me of the haircuts in Westpoint or Sandhurst. It tries to make different species all the same.

It looks like somebody did the right thing and tidied up. But it’s superficial and wrong. The plant’s inside never gets any treatment, no dead wood is ever eliminated and no wildlife ever enters the shrubs, because their outside is trained to be a stiff and impermeable layer. Your garden is not a parade ground!

Ok. Let’s start with NOT treating every shrub that is under our control as a hedge. There is no sense in treating oleanders like hedges and no sense in cutting them into squares. It just doesn’t work.

Let’s start applying the right pruning techniques, so pollinators, birds and other natural friends have a chance to visit the shrubs. Let’s start pruning according to the plan’t natural growth habit.

We CAN shape, give our shrubs the forms that we desire, but why do we need to train them into stiff balls and sharp squares and hedges? Why train them to have impenetrable outside layers? Why not shape them a little softer, with a little more understanding of how the individual grows?

Gardeners, home owners, mayors – pruners – of southern French villages have mercy. Neatly pruned shrubs and hedges need their habitat to be appropriate – a stately home, a classic or contemporary villa, a manor even. So, if you love ultimate perfection with pruned shrubs, if you love hedges, Versailles please!

In all other cases, more balance please.