Mass and void in the garden

 Picture I think I’ve got to the bottom of what’s wrong with my garden (apart from the mud, the ducks, the weeds, the junk and now a load of sludgy snow). I picked up a copy of John Brookes’Garden Design Workbook at the car boot sale the other day. It’s a nice book, as are all Dorling Kindersley titles, and covers briefly the various factors, techniques and steps involved in making your garden look nice – in other words garden design (conventional as opposed to permacultural). The problem with picking something up as you go along rather than being trained professionally is that you can manage to miss out on absolutely fundamental concepts. One that has hitherto passed me by is the principle of masses and voids. Basically you either have stuff (trees, buildings, plants, beds, etc) or you have spaces such as paths, lawns, patios and water. Together they make the whole design.

I have often worried about what I call the ‘bits in between’: non-areas of un-garden such as those odd little triangles caused by the curve of a round bed meeting a straight path, or a tyre bed next to the hedge. I wouldn’t want to put appearance above function, but they do actually make up a lot of garden area. In an ideal world they’d be full of nice crops like rocket and mange tout peas, but in fact they are mostly overshadowed areas of duck-trodden mud – and there’s only so much plantain a girl can use. I’d been hoping someone else would solve the problem – like a WWOOFer, or someone who comes to visit, but no one has. As for the stuff, I read in a book once that ‘collections’ look better than individual items, so I have tried to cluster the duck house, the empty buckets, the compost heap and the bins of duck food, say, or group all the pots of plants together on the patio. But it still persists in looking a complete mess.

So now I am contemplating mass and void. Where I went wrong is to place ‘things’ (duck house, bird table, hedgehog house, compost bin, shed) and create beds or plant trees, and leave the remaining space as non-area. In other words the void has not been designed. A better approach might be to design a nice shaped void and then cluster plants and things in the odd shapes. For example the lawn. At the moment it is arranged as follows:

  • North a (disproportionately) narrow border of random plants and weeds follows the line of a completely straight fence;
  • East a bedraggled hedge follows the slightly diagonal boundary wall, with a jutting out bit of wall, a washing line pole, steps to the gate and a messy area of compost bin, bundled willow, old bike wheels and a hole for disposal of the neighbours’ cat shit;
  • South a diagonally placed potting shed, a paddling pool-come-fig-propagator against a broken boundary fence, the dog crate that the ducks live in when they’re at the back and a bit of haphazard planting around the pond;
  • West a row of blackcurrants, a (disproportionately narrow) wooden arch, the other washing line pole, a fuchsia, a rose and an old freezer (cold frame).

In the middle the so-called ‘lawn’ is bisected (unequally) by a path of paving slabs, crossed by the washing line and dotted with disparate pieces of garden furniture.

So I’m going to do that thing that Don Juan tells Carlos Castaneda to do (in A Separate Reality I think), which is instead of looking at the shape of the thing itself (in his case leaves on a tree) you look at the shape of the gaps in between. I’ll make a nice round patch of grass void and around it arrange a mass of benches, paraphernalia and plants. At least that’s what I’m going to do if it ever stops raining.

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