My landscape is mighty white right now. We have already had better than twice the snow we had all season last year, and this is just mid January. I was so surprised that we got another 3 inches of snow yesterday. Have we not had enough? Who thought we needed more than the 16 inches we have already had? OK, I wasn’t so much surprised as weary. The snow has piled up everywhere. The landscape is blurred. The glare from the snow makes everything else some variation of black.. Lots of white, with some black bits. What gardener in my zone isn’t bleary eyed?
These reproduction cast stone pots made from a well known design by Frank Lloyd Wright are all but buried in snow. The snow silhouette features the rim of the pot. The shape of a mature plant, a garden bed, a tree canopy, a garden path, a terrace, a container – shape is one of many elements of design. A shape is a 2-dimensional visual description of an object. An outline, if you will. Heavy snow makes it easy to see and decide if you like the shapes.
We have mountains of snow and uniformly gray skies. There are only so many ways to tell this story. The better story is about what is missing visually, and how a landscape can be better. As I have watched the snow pile up higher and higher, I realize how much I appreciate the skillful use of color, line, texture, mass, edges, and proportion in a landscape design. This garden table and bench has been reduced to its simplest shape, in black and white.
Deep snow has all but obliterated any complex relationships in the landscape. What the snow has not buried are the basic and simple shapes. The very strong and simple relationships. A good design should be evident in every season. In all kinds of weather. There are those gardeners who aim for one season at the expense of all the others, and I respect their choice. It just wouldn’t be my choice. I do believe that good design is all about what is there when there is nothing there to see. The stone pot filled with cut evergreens pictured above has a distinct form and proportion that is described and enhanced by snow.
The heavy snow had reduced this landscape to its most elemental gestures. What I still see, given the lack of color and texture, is the form. I would venture to say that a design that does not work in its most austere winter state will work no better flushed out with plants, and clothed in green.
Good form is a quintessentially important element of good design. A weeping Japanese maple has an overall shape, both a leafy shape, and a twiggy shape. That maple also has a three dimensional structure-that is its form. The successful placement of that maple in the landscape is dependent upon an understanding of its form. Planting small or young trees require an understanding of a form that is yet to be. Forms come with baggage, too. A weeping Japanese maple is so common in suburban front yard landscapes that it asks for an unusual treatment or placement for its form to be truly appreciated. Asparagus means vegetable, which means it gets planted in the vegetable garden. But its form may be perfect for a rose garden, or a container.
The relationship of one form to another can be incredibly exciting, or sleepy beyond all belief. Some forms are so striking they stay with me for a long time. Years even. The fluid and informally curving form of this magnolia garland is all the more striking visually against the formal and rigid form of this steel bench. The snow is that relationship graphic and clear. Personally unforgettable moments in a landscape usually involve a form which is under some sort of visual discussion via the weather, or the season. Landscape elements that are not up to a year round discussion should be placed accordingly.
Some forms I do not give a moments notice. Why wouldn’t my clients feel the same way? Whenever I am designing for a client, I always ask what was an unforgettable experience of the landscape. This will tell me a lot about what forms will have meaning for them.