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Creating Inspiring Gardens

Photo - Michael McCoy, from 'The Gardenist', published by Pan MacMillan

Michael McCoy says a garden shouldn’t just look good, but feel good. Creating it is simple: make a great space, then decorate it. Could it be that easy?


Our habit leans towards thinking of gardens primarily in terms of a series of visual features, as some landscapers do (‘let’s put a water feature here and a summerhouse over there’), or as a collection of favourite plants, as many home gardeners do. In order to look at gardens in a different way altogether, sans flowers and features, I’ve often imagined them with a great white sheet thrown over them, obscuring all the detail, and reducing them to nothing but amoeboid sculpture – deep, shadowy caves and swelling protuberances.

I’ve also imagined burrowing into dense forest with a chainsaw and ‘carving’ out a series of spaces – some vast, and others about as wide as the trees are tall, connected by tunnels and avenues – in order to get a grip on the ‘feel’ of unadulterated, undecorated space. When creating a garden, we are usually going the other way - adding solid plantings to an empty space, but dreaming of being able to do the opposite can revolutionise our thinking.

In these methods, by which we tease out the truth that spaces are possibly the most powerful element in garden design, it is obvious that in most gardens larger than the tiniest of inner-city courtyards, the job of defining garden spaces is primarily done by plants. Built elements such as garden walls, trellises and pergolas may also help, but plants provide most of the space-defining power.


Looking through a narrow aperture exaggerates the sense of the openness beyond. Photo - Michael McCoy, from 'The Gardenist', published by Pan MacMillan


Defining space

Some plants are clearly more capable of defining space than others. Big, tall plants have more influence over the spatial ‘feel’ of a garden, so trees are clearly more useful in this role than diminutive alpines. Shrubs are next in line for space-defining power.

After sheer size, the next most important characteristic of plants or plantings used as space definers is permanence. In most climates, the structural or space-defining work must be done by the woody plants. The situation is slightly different in tropical and subtropical climates where some herbaceous plants, such as the gingers, have permanent presence and reach gargantuan proportions, making them appropriate contributors to structural planting.

The woody plants make up the virtual walls of our outdoor spaces, and usually even suggest a ceiling over our heads with their spreading canopies. While they often make a secondary contribution to the garden in the form of decoration, their major contribution is always to the structural planting that maps out the garden spaces – the ‘shell’ that captures and holds the volume we inhabit.


Photo - Michael McCoy, from 'The Gardenist', published by Pan MacMillan

Decorating space

The role of most non-woody pants – including herbaceous perennials, bulbs, annuals and biennials, is primarily decorative. If the structure is the equivalent of the walls and the ceiling of our outdoor spaces, then these plants make up the soft furnishings, the colour scheme and the prints hanging on the walls. They add enormously to the beauty of the garden, animating it with flowers, foliage, botanical interest and seasonality, but they are incapable of providing its fundamental structure. Trying to use them to do so would be the equivalent of attempting to construct a whole house out of cushions.

Using the analogy of house design helps to define the role of each of the plant groups, but it’s also helpful in forcing us to look and think beyond using our favourite plants when considering how to put a garden together. By understanding that there are distinct roles among the plant groups, it’s clear that each of the roles needs to be filled, whether we have any favourites in each plant group or not. You need the walls and ceiling and floor, even if your interest doesn’t kick in until you are making decoration decisions.


Photo - Michael McCoy, from 'The Gardenist', published by Pan MacMillan

Know your strengths

I’m firmly of the belief that gardens are at their most satisfying when they’re equally strong in their handling of both the visual and spatial pleasures, but that doesn’t mean that we as gardeners need to be equally good at first visualising, then defining, then decorating our garden spaces. What’s useful is to know where your strengths and weaknesses lie. If plants are what you are good at, don’t be afraid to call in a designer and request a basic layout that allows you to play with plants to your heart’s content. If, on the other hand, you are confident in the idea of spatial relationships, or basic design, then do the layout yourself and get a designer (or better still, a hands-on gardener) to provide you with a planting plan.

Having said all that, it’s not likely that any of us have reached the limit of our capacity in either area. The intention of my book is to sit right on the fence focussing equally on the creation of good spaces, and the decoration of those spaces – the same approach we should take in our gardens.




This is an edited extract from ‘The Gardenist’ by Michael McCoy, published by Macmillan. Ross Garden travellers will be familiar with Michael, who is a regular tour host. When he’s at home he’s a garden designer, writer and photographer who is passionate about uncovering the secrets to making a garden that looks beautiful and feels so good you never want to leave. You can read his musings at 

Text: Michael McCoy

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Author: Michael McCoy