Lessons from English Gardens for Americans: Hardscape

By Michael Weishan, Old House, Old Garden columnist

God is in the details they say, and I can assure you that the garden deity dwells most happily where the creator has paid attention to the quality of the hardscape. Let's face it - perennials come and go, trees rise and fall, seasons pass in a quick succession of constant flux - nothing is more ephemeral than a garden. But even the landscape has some limited element of resiliency, and that resiliency resides almost entirely in its bones, the hardscape.

Lessons from English Gardens for Americans: Hardscape

Today let's talk about flat surfaces - walls and paving - because they are often the most neglected elements in American gardens. Below is a wonderful set of English garden steps. The detailing and craftsmanship are immediately evident. Not only are the stairs masterfully designed in terms of tread width and riser height, but the use of the flat clay tiles to create the risers is a stroke of genius, animating what would normally be a dull expanse of stone or standard brick. (This is also a cost saving feature, as the rough tiles form the riser radius far less expensively than cut stone.) Note too, at head of the steps, the same bricks are used narrow-end up to form the paving.

 

  

 

Here's a similar example from a different garden, this one using thin pieces of local stone set narrow-side-up to form a medallion. Something like this doesn't take a huge amount of cost or effort, just creativity. Once completed however, it gives pleasure in all seasons of the year. 

 

 

Here's another example, this time using Roman bricks in a vertical wall surface. The surface becomes rhythmic, almost like a set of notes down a line of music.

 

 

Here's one last, this time not from England, but from Cambridge, MA, a small driveway I stumbled upon one day on a walk:

 

 

How much more pleasing than the standard asphalt tongue jutting out from the garage!

So how do you translate this kind of effect to your own garden? It all begins with an idea, and a plan. A very, very, detailed plan that's gone through ample vetting to insure that what's set in stone is worthy of being there. Here for instance is the construction plan for a bluestone courtyard I recently designed for a house in Cambridge, and installed by S&H. (Click on the image below to enlarge.) Their masons took the drawings I sent over and then meticulously plotted out how the final surface would look, complete with the measurements and color indicators of every piece to be used. That way, they could play around with sizes and colors of the bluestone on paper to create the most pleasing design, before it was made permanent. (The little green pieces of tape, by the way, indicate pieces already set.)

 

  

 

Planning like this is time consuming and exacting work, but it is ESSENTIAL to creating the quality you see evident in many English gardens. So too often today I see American masons and contractors creating work on the fly, and while that may produce fair results, it rarely produces divine ones, and that's where you'll find God in the garden if you seek him.

You can read more of Michael's lessons by visiting www.michaelweishan.com/gardenblog/