Function and form
A long term and continuing debate has been whether form follows function, or function follows form. Initially, as a trained artist, but as a novice, student designer I felt instinctively - and arrogantly - that the function, or functions of the garden could follow its form; in other words I would be able to design the ground patterns and layout I wanted for various areas and could then translate these into a garden that fulfilled the functions required by the (at that point theoretical) client.
This approach is not entirely without merit and remains a luxurious possibility if you are fortunate enough to be presented with a completely blank canvas, a rather large working space and a big budget. However I discovered very quickly that most sites - with the occasional exceptions of brand new estate gardens - are not blank canvases, but almost always possess existing features, furniture and conditions that necessarily must be incorporated into a new design, in addition to the wish list of the client. The smaller the garden the more demanding it is in this regard and even if empty will already present its own peculiarities and limitations that cannot be ignored.
So I realised that the job of the designer – as distinct from the artist – is to create something that performs its function as perfectly and beautifully as possible. The artist's interpretation of a subject is usually less limited by practicalities, other than those of the medium and materials used. The artist also usually does not have to please anyone but himor herself and so can be controversial and even outrageous . That is why art can be ahead of its time. As a designer you can push the boundaries, indulge in blue sky thinking and introduce innovative ideas, but the bottom line is that the garden must be functional – as a place of quiet reflection and retreat, a source of food, a space for entertainment, play and recreation, storage and utility, all according to your client's needs. It is they who will be paying for, maintaining and using the garden long after you have left.
Without any design training it is perfectly possible to achieve all the functional requirements of a garden without one iota of aesthetic consideration. However the resulting garden will not be attractive and will certainly not have the 'wow' factor. Fulfilling these disparate requirements whilst making a garden that is beautiful to behold is the challenge which only a good designer can meet. And this same challenge epitomises the rule of thumb that I subsequently understood – that form follows function.
Fences: How to Specify & Design Enclosure
Fences can have multiple functions. In addition to defining boundaries they can act as wind breaks, screen unsightly structures or views, create privacy, support climbing plants, and be features in their own right as decorative backdrops to planting. They can be as low as 50 or 60 centimetres, to enclose raised vegetable or formal beds, or above 1.8m high.
If you are designing fencing you must check if there are any planning restrictions on height, or positioning, or if neighbouring properties are likely to be adversely affected. Check the deeds of the property or any documentation such as an official survey, to establish on which side of the fence responsibility for maintenance or replacement lies.
Fencing that is erected by builders and developers frequently comprises unimaginative close board panels, supported by ugly concrete posts. The majority of fencing timber is also rough-sawn, pressure-treated softwood, lacking any defining or attractive features. The fence panels are too often a garish orange-brown, being heavily impregnated or surface painted with chemical preservative.
Solid fencing is a poor windbreak, causing turbulence on the leeward side, which can damage plants. Unless the fence faces south the adjacent soil will also be colder. Being unable to dissipate the force of the wind badly supported panels can collapse after a gale hits them. Much more pleasing supports are made of timber, set into a concrete base and with post caps to minimise ingress of rainwater.
These posts should carry a guarantee against rot, warping or splitting of up to twenty five years. However, your clients may be completely impervious to the negative impact that closeboard fencing has on a garden space, especially a small garden. Some clients may even be delighted with their clean new fence and its white concrete posts. It is therefore up to you , as designer, to open their eyes to alternative solutions, without necessarily demolishing the entire fence. A mood board is a useful tool in helping clients visualise such possibilities.
It's depressing to see that the shelves in DIY stores and builders' merchants that are devoted to exterior timber finishes are still dominated by large cans of timber preservative in three shades of brown – in effect dark, medium and light, though they may be termed oak, chestnut etc. There are more interesting exterior finishes on the market but you, the designer have to bear in mind that these are still relatively costly for coverage of large areas of fence and in the context of a small budget you must decide whether you can justify the expense.
Painting fencing in quiet colour s will reduce its visual impact but you will still be left with the wind-rock/turbulence problem. Perforated or trellis panels spread the force of the wind and look pleasant, if unexciting, even left unpainted.
Willow or hazel hurdles can form attractive short-term fencing in the right setting. Planted, woven willow whips will quickly sprout foliage and develop into a living fence. However you must also bear in mind the required longevity of the fence and also whether it needs to keep out neighbouring dogs and/or deter intruders.
Designing with nature requires the designer to develop heightened awareness, not just of suitable plants for a specific location, but of climate, prevailing wind direction, exposure, aspect, gradient, soil type, indigenous vegetation, geology, threats from animals domestic and wild and the site's general ambience and atmosphere.
Every garden is unique and your job is to recognise, explore and exploit this genius loci – sense of place. Such wide-ranging knowledge will equip you with the confidence to make selective decisions about the garden you are employed to transform, or optimise. Nature can be a great help. Use it. Make notes on-site about every detail, positive or negative, problematical or inspirational. You will learn to look for these vital signs and keep a checklist handy. These are the building blocks that will inform every decision you make during the design process.
A fundamental precept of designing with nature is to work with it, not against it. Not everyone recognises that it's a bad idea to site a pond on top of a hill – ponds naturally occur in sunken areas, usually drained from higher land – or to attempt a tropical garden in a frost pocket.
If you are commissioned to design a garden in a rural setting, aim to fit the garden comfortably within the surrounding landscape. Echo in your ground plan or in the shapes of plant groupings the patterns, rhythms and colours of rolling farmland , outlines of hills or mountains, or the vertical shapes of tree trunks in a woodland setting.
Harness the light-giving properties of water to reflect changing cloud patterns via ponds, brimming half barrels or even just a few judiciously sited wide, shallow stone or metal bowls. If there are windblown dunes of marram grass nearby, borrow this look, planting cultivated grasses that move with the breeze - another natural element. If the site is boggy and badly drained you don't need to persuade your clients to spend thousands of pounds drying it out.
Forget rose gardens, and herbaceous borders and go with the flow, quite literally. Ensure the soil is not sour or compacted and create a wetland garden. Your expertise in gaining your client's confidence is essential, as they may have fixed ideas as to what they want, but scant appreciation of the hassle and cost of achieving sometimes unrealistic or over-ambitious aims.
Houses on new or established suburban estates may not reveal any immediate natural characteristics, so can be treated more or less in isolation. However the same guidelines apply to the specific properties of the site. A small patch of soil or lawn (often containing hidden builders' rubble – beware!) can hide several different challenges – from wet to dry, acid to alkaline, shaded to sunny, sheltered to exposed.
All of these occur more or less naturally and must be observed and respected or corrected. But don't make more work for yourself and more expense for your client if it isn't necessary. You can still achieve a design that delights both of you.