Landscapes such as Villa D’Este, grand in scale and of epic proportion, are a visual delight. I affectionately call them OPG’s-or “other people’s gardens”. The other person in this case-Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, a Catholic prelate whose work on his villa and garden took place on and off between 1550 and 1572. According to Judith Chatfield in her book “A Tour of Italian Gardens”, “… the garden was famed throughout Europe before its completion.” No surprise there. This grand garden is a symphony-an opera if you will- to the beauty of water in a landscape. The first of its kind in Italy, it is a national treasure, open to the public.
I have only visited this utterly romantic garden via these photographs of Rob’s. I can only imagine, for plenty of reasons, what it must be like to be there. My native topography is flat, and more flat. Only occasionally will a project come along with an unexpected change of grade as a central feature. With the possible exception of Tahquamanon Falls, water like this is not part of my experience. But that does not mean what I see here cannot be part of my vocabulary.
Other people’s gardens can instruct, provoke, and influence the way one thinks about a garden. The idea of fern and moss covered rock can be readily incorporated into any landscape, provided the conditions are right. Proper scale is a relative thing-but I try to err on the side of overscaled. As a friend and mentor once said, who wants to get to the end of their gardenmaking and think they were never bold enough. It’s a good thing in a landscape, to be driven by being bold enough.
Lots of people own homes several stories high. I have likewise seen more than a few homes with two-story entrances. Then what? A landscape needs to address these features, and views. The beauty of the composition above lies in how it describes and emphasizes great depth, and space. In the foreground is a strong sculpture whose scale I suspect is much over life size. When my eyes go to what the figure in the sculpture must be looking at-the mid-ground fountain pool-its jet seems much smaller than the figure. Smaller in the midground is another way of saying further away. The terrace whose wet surface catches the eye next narrows to a walk. The wide entrance to the walk is clearly marked by tall walls; when the walk disappears from view, it appears much narrower. The end of the walk thus seems very far away. Where the walk leads-a mystery, from this perspective. This photograph is a rectangular flat object-but what it pictures appears to have great depth.
Every gardener knows any move gains importance when it is repeated. Though probably not accurately, I count 42 pots in this photograph. They make much of those rectangles of water, as do the yews in repetition. The shapes of those yews and lawn echo the shapes of the water. Far in the distance at ground level, a glimpse of that shade of blue that best says “I am far away”. That blue dwarf spruce you are thinking of might be at its visual best as far from your view as possible-rather than close up.
The scale and the height of this fountain jet is right, given the height and scale of the villa. My fountain jets at home will go fifteen feet in the air, should I feel like some big waterworks are in order. Given the size of my house and garden, that fifteen feet reads on the same order as this fountain, just at a different scale.
Everything in the architecture, the surfaces and the plantings are in support of this cascading water. There is no visual confusion aboout what exactly is the star of the show. Though elaborate in execution, it is very simple in design. I am quite sure the natural land forms influenced the design as much as any other element. A semi-circular wall of espaliers might make a similar statement on a property with little elevation change.
Looking back at the villa and its fountains from ground level, the pools seem immense, as they are close to your eye. The trees and sky are bigger than the villa; they keep it company, naturally. This property is in fact very large. It might be difficult to mask that, but it is a tribute to the designer here, Pirro Ligorio, that every aspect of his composition reinforces the depth and breadth of the space. Villa d’Este aside, it is possible to design such that no matter the size, any property can be visually spatial.
It is no wonder to me that gardeners seem to greatly enjoy a garden tour. Other people’s gardens-who knows how or what they might inspire.
I am sure I own the most fabulous French antique fountain on American soil-take a look; do you not agree? I detailed some time ago the process by which this incredibly beautiful piece came to me-but it is not the subject of this post. As beautiful as it is, a fountain, any fountain, is a means by which to introduce and integrate water as a decorative element in the landscape. I do such injustice to use the word decorative; what water does for a landscape is give and sustain life. What water does for a gardener borders on the sublime.
In my early years designing, I never went near any suggestion of a fountain, pond, pool, or lotus pot. I did believe anything of any importance in a garden sprang from the earth, and grew. Arranging for delightful water for a client was just over my head, and beyond my capability. It is the sorry truth that a lot of things I thought early on about landscape design proved to be provincial, ill-informed, and shallow. Thank heavens the normal course of events is to grow up into something. My age and history is a good thing. At some point I figured out that fountains were not the sole province of public parks and libraries; any home garden is all the better for water in some form. This English iron fountain I placed a few years ago-I never tire of the look of this water in motion, the peaceful sound of it.
This very regal cast iron fountain is of American manufacture, mid 19th century. This part alone enchants me. Placing an American garden ornament of historical significance in an American garden was a good moment. It looks even better when the water is moving over its surface. Note the planting of creeping jenny around-water splash comes with the territory when water drops a long way. Plan for plants that like this regular shower when water is being pumped to great height.
No matter any history, or construction issues, water beautifully representing in the air is available to any gardener. This small English iron version of a classical tiered fountain has a lead basin just 5 feet in diameter. This fountain is installation friendly; take it home, set it up, and plug it in. Three things are at issue in putting together a fountain. You need a means by which the water gets airborn. This could be a decorative piece like this one, any pot or sculpture which can be modified to convey water. A copper spout works fine. You need a pump of sufficient power, and the electricity to run that pump.
These gorgeous glazed ceramic jars have been outfitted by the manufacturer brilliantly-meaning, thoughtfully. The jar, a water reservoir , and a pump make it possible to take this complete water feature home, place it in a great spot, plug it in, and learn firsthand about what water in the air can do for a garden. The water moves so slowly that it cannot break the surface tension of the jar surface. No splash means you might consider bringing it indoors for the winter.
My 26 foot long by 4 foot wide fountain-a gift from my Mom. It so irritated her that I never took any time off work-she made an issue of this, when she was alive. What she left me enabled me to build this fountain. I hear the sound of it when I get out of my car at the end of the day. I get in it, to cool off, and scale back. I go and sit in its company every day. I am on vacation-at home. Some days I just look at all that watery motion from the deck. I can hear it when I get in bed. The action of the water in my garden-better than very good.
Water once meant no more than a good drink for my plants. From the looks of this, it should be easy to see how fountain water can make a garden a better place to be.
No matter the size, shape, scale or material, a fountain has great appeal. It can organize a garden space that invites visitors. It also recalls those hot summer days when standing under the hose meant really living.
Black can be described by the absence of color, and the absence of light. Black objects absorb every spectrum of light, diametrically opposed to the reflective action of white. Black and white-simple, spare, and elegant. Black and light? Though our summer light lasts long into the evening, the night landscape is well worth some thought. A dark and rainy landscape can be visually challenging, and beautifully moody.
Black Baccara roses, Queen of the Night Tulips, and chocolate cosmos are not really black-they are dark versions of red or purple. Salix melanostachys, or black pussy willow, has branches that approach black. But true black in the landscape is about shadow-light and dark. The relationship of light and shadow in the landscape is a visual story that gets play every day, regardless of the season, or the time of day.
I took this picture last night after it got dark. Focusing the lens was not so easy; I was guessing. I fully expected to take a picture of the black. My camera actually recorded the landscape with what little light was available via a very long exposure. Living in the city where I do, it is never completely dark. But what interested me more was how the landscape read almost colorless-but for the cream fountain stone, whose vertical surface was lit by the warm light from the street. My yews had indeed gone black, partly by way of contrast to the snow.
Low light reduces contrast, but none the less the white painted urn in this picture reads white, and the shadows cast by the stone cistern read black. Where am I going with this? Depending on the degree of shade, certain spots in a garden may also be described as voids. Contrasting something with nothing-this is part of composing. Like the silence after a thunderclap, black in a garden is a place for your eye to rest, and regroup.
The only reason I am able to see anything of my side garden on a winter night is courtesy of the lights on this tree. Landscape lighting is easy to dislike. Rarely do I see it done in a subtle way; lots of times I see theatrical versions that might be fun on first glance, but tiresome over time. I like my theatre on stage, or my glitz and glam at a hotel where my visit is entertainingly brief. Thus I like strings of lights in the garden-lots in some places and a little in others-even after the holidays.
Any part of a landscape that is strongly backlit will throw the unlit side of every shape black. Both natural and man made forms in silhouette are striking. Composing and layering a space effectively can read in a very powerful way on a dark day. Though it sounds odd to say so, the sky is an important part of any landscape composition.
Iron in a garden shines in a backlit space. My side garden is enclosed by arborvitae, but it is fenced on the inside of the arbs with ordinary black chain link fencing. I did not want any fencing visible from the street side. Though the arbs are beginning to grow through the fence, that black is not so noticeable even now. Dark colors do not attract attention in a garden; black demands even less from your eye. I reserved the ironwork for places where I wanted to see it, and see through it.
This black garden furniture is formally elegant. The lower shapes of the chairs read well against the light grey blue of the stone terrace. The tops of the chairs appear much more subtle against their dark green background. The interior leaves and needles of the trees actually appear much more black than the chairs to my eye. The texture of the embroidered white tablecloth is highlighted by the black table underneath.
The yews in this photograph look black, and the lawn nearly black-even on a sunny July day. The relationship of light and dark in a garden is always there, and ready to be seen. Studying the relationship of black to white, and dark to light in your landscape-what better time than now?
Deborah Silver is a landscape and garden designer whose firm, Deborah Silver and Co Inc, opened its doors in 1986. She opened Detroit Garden Works, a retail store devoted to fine and unusual garden ornament and specialty plants, in 1996. In 2004, she opened the Branch studio, a subsidiary of the landscape company which designs and manufactures garden ornament in a variety of media. Though her formal education is in English literature and biology, she worked as a fine artist in watercolor and pastel from 1972-1983. A job in a nursery, to help support herself as an artist in the early 80′s evolved into a career in landscape and garden design. Her landscape design and installation projects combine a thorough knowledge of horticulture with an artist’s eye for design. Her three companies provide a wide range of products and services to the serious gardener. She has been writing this journal style blog since April of 2009.