When Less is More

My garden is doing well. Perhaps too well.

Several plants in established planting beds have grown to merge with adjacent plants to create a lush effect that I have often admired. Garden magazines often feature residential landscapes with masses of plants in close proximity, so that their colors and textures blend visually to provide an impressionist picture.

When we follow the parallel with fine art, the impressionist approach to garden design contrasts with the realist approach. The impressionist focuses on the overall elements of light, color and movement (all important in a garden) while the realist features the botanical characteristics of individual plants (also important in a garden).

The difference between these approaches could be just a function of time. Plants in a new bed are widely spaced, to provide room to grow, and plants in an older bed will have reached their mature size and occupied the spaces from their neighbors.

Let us agree that both approaches are valid and can be aesthetically pleasing.

Still, we can ask, “What circumstances make the impressionist approach successful?”

First, the choice should be intentional rather than an uncontrolled result of plant growth. This relates to the basic rule, “right plant, right place.” If a plant has grown to overshadow its neighbors or intrude on the walkway or simply become too large for its place in the garden, it no longer contributes to an impressionist ideal. It’s just a garden thug.

Second, the plants should be compatible with each other. They should flourish under similar conditions of light exposure, moisture levels, soil texture, site elevation, wind force and any other contributors to growth and health.

Third, the plants should be complementary in appearance. This could be an elusive criterion because of differing opinions on plants that look good together. The important variables for most gardeners are blossom color, leaf texture and overall size.

Whether any given pair of plants “look good together” is a personal preference, and, any two plants could be regarded as a good combination. I have rarely if ever read that any two plants look really bad together. Instead, their combination will be described as “dramatic” or “surprising” or “bold” or even “shocking” (but in an approving manner).

We might ask this question of the realist approach, but plants are farther apart from each other, by definition, so they it is less important that they look good together. Gardeners who prefer this approach are those who appreciate the natural forms of plants and have interest in their unique qualities.

Successful impressionist designs can be challenging.  I admit that areas of my garden are undeniably overgrown, and have already begun a long-term process of removing or relocating the thugs and featuring the prizes.

Enjoy your garden.


The most famous impressionist gardener was Claude Monet, whose garden at Giverny, France is well known and greatly appreciated. The New York Botanical Garden has a current exhibit in a conservatory environment, continuing to October 21, 2012. The exhibit includes photographs by Carmel artist and gardener, Elizabeth Murray, whose best-selling book, Monet’s Passion: Ideas, Inspiration and Insights from the Painter’s Garden, has been republished in a 20th anniversary edition (Pomegrate, 2010).

Information about the Monet exhibit is available on the NYBG website.

Contemporary garden designer Piet Oudoulf has created many lush “gardenscapes.” Several of his designs are available for study here. Look, in particular, at the Pensthorpe garden for a good example.

Finally, for examples of bold plant combinations, see Thomas Hobbs book, Shocking Beauty (Periplus Editions, 1999).

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