Consider water. Water, and its possibilities. It brings colour to a garden, but what is the colour of water? It is the colour of light changing direction, whilst leaving some of itself behind, caught and lost to the fluid. A still pool can form a mirror which changes moment to moment. I have stood on the terraces of Versailles and watched the pleasure-boaters row among the clouds of the Canal, and I knew I was in the demesne of a sky-god. The surface of the water was still as glass and the clouds played across it, bringing patterns to life for moments only. Even still pools move. A breeze passing over the surface raises ripples, scattering the light. There is a pattern to the movement, a tempo. They move without moving, in constant flux as the clouds reflect.
Many years ago, I was sat in the gardens of New College, Oxford. It was nighttime and I believe it was winter. The garden there is enclosed on two sides by the northeast corner of the medieval city wall. As I sat on my bench, watching the stars and thinking, I became aware of a fog spreading out over the sunken lawn. The water vapour had lifted from the nearby rivers, the Cherwell and Thames, flowed up Long Wall Street and entered the garden through the modern pedestrian gate in the eastward wall. When the basin had filled, I retreated from the cold. Venturing out later for a final walk before bedtime, the whole garden was filled with fog so that only the battlements of the wall remained visible. In the years following, I have designed gardens, on paper at least, which can provide a theatre for water to act in this way. The trick is to include differentials of height and a combination of enclosure and permeability. A pool at the top of a slope can ‘overflow’ in this manner down a flight of steps. Confine the steps between low walls and the effect will be stronger than that created by a permeable structure such as a hedge. Provide no restraint and the effect will disperse as soon as it begins. A sunken area, such as the lawn at New College, can be filled to its brim, even to the height of city walls!
As for water, so for scents in the garden. I stood on the south parterre at Versailles, looking out over the Orangery to the Pièce d’eau Suisse. The breeze was from the southeast and had been cooled and moistened from its passage over the lake. It was September and few of the citrus trees on the terrace below were in flower. Earlier in the year, in the heat of summer, the air I was breathing would have been scented by them. I have designed for scent in this way. Some enclosure is needed to allow the scents to concentrate. I know it is possible to direct the flow of scent with the air current, but the essential oils are volatile and ‘lighter’ than water – less biddable as a result. I have always gardened in Britain and my efforts have achieved successes which are only shadows of what is possible. This small temperate island rarely experiences the degree of heat and the duration of that degree for the scents to develop to the desired intensity. The possibility exists though, and the promise is erotic.
Is my hypothetical garden with its raised pool only truly perfected when the water vapour flows? When the design has its fullest expression? Of course not: a garden has many perfections which change over time. In my mind, the pool is placed at the crossing of two paths. The paths are edged with low box hedging or similar and the flower beds thus defined are planted with herbaceous species. In winter, the herbaceous plants are cut down to ground level and the design is pared back to its bones: the straight, hard paths; the hedges functioning as architecture, being living walls; the round pool like an oculus, opening to the sky – no wonder the celts thought of water as gateway to another world. The design must please even when dormant, when the purity of the lines and the proportions are paramount. The forces of the world can still express within it. There may be frosts and frost-shadows created by the pattern of the hedges – again, the water moves. The different thermal qualities of the materials – the water, the stone, the soil, the leaves – hold the frost for differing lengths of time, creating the possibility of another set of changing patterns. Through the growing season, the herbaceous plants grow, filling the space with colour, scent, texture, form, and volume, whilst changing its aural qualities: external sounds are softened, insects hum and buzz, the breeze caresses foliage. Each season is unique as the different species respond to the changing pattern of light, temperature, precipitation, and their own changing natures as they mature year on year.
The water vapour may or may not rise from the pool, covering the ground and suspending the flowers in the air above a sea of mist. Someone, other than Berkeley’s God, may be there to see it or it may pass unwitnessed. Without a pair of ears, the tree falling in the forest is silent. Without an audience, a work of art signifies nothing.
Plant selection allows the designer a range of freedoms. If I choose to plant a garden with F¹ hybrids, or daughter plants which I have propagated using cuttings from a mother-plant, then I am using plants which are genetically identical. These clones will not grow identically within the garden because their growth is an expression of their genetic nature in response to their conditions, but the range of that expression will be limited and, to an extent, predictable. Homogeneity can be appropriate to certain planting schemes such as the Victorian favourite ‘carpet bedding’, or the seasonal infill on a box parterre. These planting schemes tend to be in open ground, with near uniform levels of light, exposure, fertility, and moisture provision. Uniformity is what I desire, because the feature is tightly composed and controlled. Elsewhere in the garden, I may choose to plant species raised from seed. Immediately, there is variety. The random combinations of sexual reproduction and spontaneous mutation are encoded in every cell. I have opened the design to the possibility of surprise, for the free expression of the variety of life.
Space can be left in the design for plants to seed freely. Some move under their own power, having dehiscent seed pods which burst open with force, scattering the contents. Seeds can be carried on the wind or moved by animals. This spatial permeability allows for the non-human agents to act in a garden although it is likely that the gardener will ‘edit’ the results so that the integrity of the design remains intact.
Some intended combinations may succeed, some may fail. I planted Paeonia ‘Duchesse des Nemours’ with Iris germanica ‘Frost Echo’. The contrasting forms of the flowers combine pleasingly, whilst the creamy white of the peony and the palest silvery-blue of the iris harmonise beautifully. Both are scented, but with very different notes. They flowered concurrently twice in six years, but the possibility that they could do so every year if the season favoured it contributed to the suspense and excitement of the garden.
What of flowing water? Florence Yoch, the American Landscape Architect most famed for her film sets, described it as ‘the voice of the garden’ (design notes ‘The Little Garden of Gaiety’ (Yoch, James J., Landscaping the American Dream, Sagapress, New York, 1989)), although I would prefer a voice: a garden is polyphonic. In the age of gravity-fed fountains the flow rates would have varied and the spray patterns and sounds of the fountains correspondingly. The fountain has become an instrument through which the rainfall on a distant mountain finds its song. Even as the water jets above the pool it is falling – don’t be fooled by appearances.
In the spray of fountains, Descartes saw rainbows which only Descartes could see. Rainbows are unique to the viewer, being formed by the angular relationship of the light, the refraction and the eye of the beholder. When I see rainbows in fountains, I enjoy them superficially. I do not think that when I walk around a fountain that I am creating something in the world which exists for me and for me alone. Perhaps I should: for Descartes they were the start of a philosophical investigation.
Moving water can stand still of course, just as still water moves. When fountains freeze it is as if gravity were a function of temperature rather than mass. The frozen spout of the fountain rising above the pool, the cascades held in the air mid-fall to the pool below. It seems impossible that this could not occur in a moment, an instant change of state from liquid to solid, and yet I am told it is gradual. So many possibilities exist when water is given a place in a garden.
Water is a home. Place fish in a pool and they will swim in ways to please themselves, but in so doing can please us. Water draws birds to itself to drink and to bathe, and their pleasure in the garden enriches our own. Birds are another of the garden’s voices, and trees decked with caged songbirds or aviaries were once common features of the grander gardens. Today, the demotic practice of the garden bird table has not only affected species frequency – goldfinches have become more common – but are a source of evolutionary pressure – the beak of the great tit is growing longer in British gardens. Like water, food is another enticement, a provision for the birds which then act as birds will, but which we invite to act, because their participation in our gardens pleases and enriches us.
A gardener can construct a theatre where the world can express itself, the gardener can direct its expression, but there will always be a Knut moment: the tide will come in and the world will express itself regardless of the will of the gardener. It may do so beautifully, realising a possibility which to that moment had existed only as a possibility, such as the beauty of the icicles of the frozen fountain, or it may do so destructively with the storm-wrecked tree.
I confess that my idea of a gardener so far has been Deist – the gardener has been creating the garden, a theatre of possibilities, and that has been the extent of his work. Although, as previously observed, gardens are dynamic and never finished. The work of the gardener, or of other human agents in the garden also has the potential for exploiting the conceptual and spatial permeability of the creation. A simple annual task such as the raking of autumn leaves can be transformed into a work of art. There are constants – the reach of my arms, the length of the rake’s haft, and then there are the variables – the volume of fallen leaves, the wind speed and direction as they fell and thus their distribution across the lawn. As a result, the point at which I reach the tree and need to accommodate its trunk changes and the curve I take around it ripples out across the subsequent rows. The work is my purpose, but the beauty manifests.
This post is an abridgement of a chapter in the forthcoming The Aesthetics of Imperfection (Bloomsbury, London).