Purple Wellies

One woman's musings of plant lust for intoxicating blooms

Shedding Light on the Show

Fresh back from working with Gold medal winning and Best in Show landscape designers, Adam White & Andrée Davies (Davies White Ltd) on their Zoflora & Caudwell Children's Wild Garden, at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, I thought I would give you an insight into how you can make your garden at home a showstopper too.

Of course there is all of the usual things we try to include in our gardens such as scent of plants, and foliage too for that matter; having textural qualities to the plants that make us want to reach out and touch them, and even taste them if we can. A contrast in foliage of size, shape, colour, texture and matt or gloss tendencies needs to be taken into account. After all a shiny leaf reflects the light in gloomy areas and brightens our spirits.

Shelter in a garden should also be considered. A light wind on a scorching day can be pleasant on clammy skin, but shelter from harsh winds should be created for both human and botanical subjects. Grasses and perennials swaying gently to and fro in the breeze can be mesmerizing and is surely a better site to look at than tattered, wind ripped leaves.

To make a garden truly special it should be about the experience you want the owner or visitor to have as they move through the space. There is one key factor to try out which you just can’t get at a garden centre, or anywhere for that matter. Think of it as a theatre, a stage to be lit. Light - do you ever think of using it and shadows in your garden?

Soil type, pH level and moisture all vary greatly from garden to garden throughout the world. The one thing we all share in our gardens is light in some form or another, but using it to the full can add mystery, drama, sparkle and magic to your garden. Whether you have a garden in full sun or in shade, you still have a level of light there that can be manipulated and played with to create wonderful effects with planting and movement of shadows.

If you have a south facing plot that makes you feel like you are in the Sahara, rather than Surrey, then you need to introduce areas of shade. Without it a garden is hot, bland and uninspiring on the eye and devoid of shadows, it can feel flat. Adding shade will bring peacefulness, tranquillity and coolness on scorching days. This could be in the form of a pergola or arbour and may create interesting patterns on the ground from the dramatic lines cast by the horizontals on these structures.

Transitioning from open areas in sun where you can feel the heat on your face or back, then moving into dappled shade can, such as in the Zoflora & Caudwell Children's Wild Garden, add a sense of depth and possibly a chill down the spine. It also opens up a greater palette of plants to choose from.

Understanding how light works is key in order to use it to your best advantage. Seasonal and altitude variations can make a difference, so learning how light intensity, quality and direction changes will also help you immensely. If you watch your garden throughout the year you will see how different areas attract differing qualities of light.

In spring, as deciduous trees to come into bud, leaves soon develop; shadows are steadily getting shorter day by day. Summer sees the sun arching to its highest point in the sky causing the rays to hit the earth at a steep angle and creates very short shadows and sharp silhouettes. By autumn these shadows are increasingly getting longer and as the leaves fall, areas once in shade could now be in full sun. Winter brings low sun. Shadows cast by buildings and other objects are at their longest and outlines appear fuzzy, so previous sunny areas may now be in shade for some or even all of the day. Shadows at whatever time of year, will always be at their maximum length at twelve noon when the sun is at its highest point in the sky.

Careful positioning of plants, furniture and accessories whilst plotting the sun’s movement throughout the day, month and year can create another dimension to your garden. The bluish light we have in the UK dilutes these shadows lessening the contrast between light and dark. The best shadows are achieved on summer evenings and during low winter sun. They contain a lot of natural blue light. This can be used to your advantage if you choose blue paints and stains for woodwork. They give the shade some vibrancy by using colours that are more intense and contrasting. Even in very low light, the blue is enhanced.

Areas benefiting from morning sun (east facing) see plants and structures take on different textures as the angle of the sun moves higher in the sky giving way to dappled shade. West facing gardens see the reverse getting evening sun.

In north facing gardens tall boundaries are best avoided to stop blocking out too much light. Think about creating shadows instead from more open structures such as a decorative iron gate with ornate twists and curls projecting their shadows onto flagstones. A row of espaliered apple trees lining a gravel path will project interesting shapes. Delicate frothy planting swaying in the breeze will reflect constantly moving decoration on an un-patterned floor. A vine on an arbour or wall will project a mirror image and double in size; or even immaculately clipped lines of topiary or Niwaki will form a sharp silhouette on the plane behind.

Dappled shadows can be created with small leaved, open branched trees, such as birch or willow. An area contained by a semi-circle of trees with the sun penetrating the tree canopy from one aspect to another, can cast a myriad of shadows in the centre of the garden throughout the day on a lawn or pond. Woodland gardens have the upper hand here.

Think about how the sun moves around the garden, architectural specimen plants, such as an agave, could be positioned in a pot and when front lit would create a work of art on a wall for a few hours a day or try pairing with a translucent leaved plant and backlighting to create drama. Ornate metal tables and chairs could be placed on paving to create interesting shadows on the ground.

Steps are another way of using shadows. The horizontal lines of the risers create a shadow visible when ascending. On descent, the shadow is obscured and the material of the treads revealed instead. You can set the risers back from the edge of the treads to create a deeper shadow, or closer to the edge of the risers for the opposite effect. Floating stepping stones across a pond can create inky black shadows on the water below.

In shady gardens placing a series of mirrors in order to bounce the light around to a hidden secluded corner could turn it into an opportunistic seating area which would otherwise be redundant. Still water in ponds, lakes and infinity pools has the wonderful power of being reflective, bouncing back any image that falls on its surface. It can unite a design by bringing the ground, vertical and overhead plane all together. It can also increase the sense of space by reflecting more light and adds a serene calmness unachievable with any other medium.

Grasses work best in strong sunlight, with the light beyond or beside them and set against a dark background. In the summer months grasses are best viewed, at dawn tinted with soft pastel pinks and mauves, or late in the day so the light is warmer and the rich tones of red, orange and yellow are revealed. Autumn light is less harsh than summer, and this is the time when many grasses are coming into their own by flowering, best lit from behind by the last radiant rays of the day.

Purple, red, magenta and orange foliage adds a touch of allure to your garden giving it an elegant feel. Broad leaved plants should be positioned where the sunlight can dance across, and backlight them. Plants can be shown off to their very best by mixing textures and colours with backlighting. They should sit against lighter backgrounds to give drama.

Although rarely colourful, seed heads make another good candidate for backlighting, with their delicate and fine hairs. Hairy plants can radiate their beauty to twice their size. Site them with darker perennials sitting behind for the best effects.

Decorative and peeling bark on trees can bring the winter garden to life, with a deciduous canopy the light filters through the branches and highlights the detail. To get the best translucent barks plant the tree so that it can be viewed from a southerly direction, with the sun lighting the trunk against a dark background. Trees could be used as a colour contrast to other planting surrounding it, as a focal point, or if you have the room – planted en-masse to make a really striking feature.

At dusk the most prominent flowers that stand out are large blooms or a profusion of small flowers such as white roses, peonies or poppies. Many plants release their fragrant scent at this time of day too, especially on warm evenings, such as Lonicera (honeysuckle) or Jasminum (jasmine), so why not think about planting one or more aromatic plants nearby to a seating area.

Sun and shade are constantly changing patterns, altering the feel of the garden from hour to hour and season to season. So by treating your garden as a stage and playing with the light you have you too can add intensity, drama and mystery and bring your garden to show stopping heights.

Posted: 05/07/2017 14:46:40 by Pamela Barden