Thursday, February 19, 2009

Compositionally Speaking

Merce Cunningham, the renowned twentieth century choreographer, famously compared his dancers to tubes of paint. While this comparison may not have flattered the egos of his company members, it served to clearly illustrate his philosophy regarding composition. His goal was to focus the audience’s attention on his choreography, not on the personalities of the individual dancers. Many a garden could benefit from the application of similar principles.

If we take our clues from nature, it is not usually the individual elements, but rather the overall composition that creates an inspiring visual experience. The viewer takes pleasure from the pale green of rolling fields backed by a darker mass of undulating forest, not from concentrating on a patch of grass or a single tree. It is the effect in its entirety that creates a pleasing landscape, not the analysis of its disparate elements. Of course, few of us have the luxury of working on such a grand scale. Nevertheless, the same principles can be applied on the residential level. And as with a dance, the outcome is more satisfying when the stage isn’t cluttered with competing soloists.

I often find myself disappointed by the photos of display gardens presented in seed catalogues. Though I might be impressed by the health and size of the plants, I’m inevitably disenchanted with the composition. Twenty different types of dahlias in full bloom make an impressive sight, but they might just as well be stalks of corn or some other crop. It is the judicious selection and arrangement of plants that make for a visually pleasing garden, not merely the size and quantity of the flowers. When designing a landscape, I consider what the various elements will contribute to the composition as a whole, instead of allowing myself to be charmed and distracted by their individual characteristics.

Of course, it is hard to deny that certain plants are natural scene-stealers. Delphiniums and Roses are arguably the highlight of my June garden. Still, their colors and forms are selected to enhance rather than detract from the impact of the garden’s design. Were this not the case, I’d probably be tempted to bring the flowers inside and enjoy them in a vase. The luxury of having a cutting garden is that it allows one to grow flowers like vegetables, as a crop to be harvested, but more on that topic another time.

This spring, as you make your first foray to the local nursery, take a moment to consider whether the plants that have caught your eye are likely to harmonize with your existing design. Try to avoid impulsively purchasing plants simply because they look pretty in their pots. Ask yourself if your choices will contribute to your overall composition or if your selections are likely to remain a collection of soloists vying for your attention. If the latter, perhaps some editing is in order.

On the home front it’s snowing here again. …..sigh!


  1. What a great post! Gardening is like painting a picture. I do often just stare at my garden and think about how a plant will look both in it's little spot and as part of a whole. I think a lot of gardens do suffer from the problem your talking about, like those rows of impatiens, blech! I do think newbie gardeners (like moi)are a bit nervous and start out small, rather than thinking big as you write about.

    BTW -- welcome to garden blogging! We need more in Massachusetts, especially people that can actually write!

  2. Is this why my gardens always look like a Jackson Pollock? I KNEW I was doing something wrong.
    Nice tips on how to visualize garden plantings!

  3. Hey SG, thanks for posting a comment. It's always nice to hear what fellow gardeners have to say

  4. Love the Merce Cunningham analogy! One of the hardest parts for me is sticking to a limited palette (speaking of Jackson Pollack!)! It's so easy to fall for a bright pink camellia when your plan is in white and blue. And then there are those yellow jonquils that I planted 5 years ago...