Anatomy of the Garden

Many gardens begin as level rectangles, with a residence more or less in the middle. It doesn’t have to be that way.

If your garden has natural changes of elevation or an irregularly shaped boundary, or both, you could have an interesting context for your garden design.

Dramatic departures from the level of course could be more challenging than inspiring. Workers on steeply sloped vineyards in Germany’s Rhine Valley hold on long ropes to keep from tumbling into the water.

Likewise, an oddly shaped plot could be more trouble than help. Municipal regulations generally prohibit building on small parcels of very unusual form, but such a parcel could accommodate a community garden.

If your garden amounts to a level rectangle, and consequently lacks interest, consider your options for creating elevation changes.

Below-grade elevation change possibilities include a swimming pool, a naturalistic pond, a bog garden (more shallow than a pond) and a rain garden (which collects rainwater and lets it seep into the ground). A swimming pool is mostly a recreational resource, but the other three offer interesting gardening possibilities.

For very large parcels, another below-grade option is the ha-ha. This is a ditch between a garden and a natural area, intended to keep domestic or wild livestock from straying into the garden. The ha-ha typically runs across the line from the residence to the natural area in the distance.

Above-grade elevation changes include raised beds, berms, terraces and sculpted landscapes.

Raised beds are usually rectangular, rising only a few inches above grade, primarily to improve drainage. They could be simple low mounds or might have low walls of wood or other materials. A raised bed also could be about table height, to raise the planting surface for the gardener’s convenience. Such beds are sometimes made for accessible gardening by gardeners with physical limitations.

Raised Beds - Corten

Berms are like large raised beds. They generally are eighteen to twenty-four inches high, curved for a natural look, four or five times as long as wide, and with sloping sides. They could provide higher quality soil (imported), superior drainage, or just visual interest.

For a short article on creating and using berms in the landscape, click here.

Terraces are similar to steps, and, like steps, provide one or more level areas to ease the transition from one elevation to another. They also have aesthetic value when well designed, and can improve the visibility of ornamental plants.

To view an unusual example of a terraced landscape (a rice field in China), click here.

Sculpted landscapes, above- or below-grade, are typically large-scale imaginative earthen constructions intended primarily for visual interest.

A fine example of a sculpted landscape can be seen at the WiIlliam J. Clinton Presidential Center (click here).

These possible elements of the landscape are not difficult or very expensive to accomplish, and could transform a flat rectangular garden into an interesting landscape. They also offer a fine opportunity for creativity in garden design, complementing the core activities of plant selection and placement.

Enjoy your garden!

Click to Enlarge

These clustered raised beds are made of Corten steel for long-term use.


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