Balance – The Ongoing Struggle

Design, Garden Therapy Column, General Philosophy

Garden Therapy Column – September 2018

Balance is one of those “mushy” topics that can be tricky to discuss. It has very different colors in different contexts.  While it is pretty clear when trying to stay on the beam or wire, in other scenarios it can be much more subjective.  Struggling for a little balance in life (which I know many of you can relate to) is extra tough for me between April and December when the ground is pliable and I am immersed in work. I have to carve out a little down time so I don’t run my tired old self into the ground.  For my retired friends the balance sometimes involves getting busy, getting out, moving and doing for others (which is evident in the various good will, activism and volunteerism these folk sustain locally). At any rate, and at any age, we all seek balance, be it work and play, physical and mental activities, friends and family, ice cream and vegetables …

The garden is no different.  Balance in the garden is incredibly important and although one would think that it should be fairly simple, it is actually multifaceted and can be quite complicated.  It is also probably the most important consideration in the overall look and feel of your landscape.  Balance in the garden is very similar to perspective which I often talk about but perspective is more about size and scale which I consider a subset of balance.  Balance is more all-encompassing.  It is often associated with symmetry and asymmetry of the elements of the landscape but there is so much more:  color, texture, height, hardscaping materials, level of detail and numerous other parameters.

Balance is in a landscape is subjective as are all things design, but I will share my point of view.  There are a few general principles that I think hold true for most.

Don’t put everything on one side of the area involved:  I know this is obvious but I feel like I have to say it.  Putting too much weight one side of the boat will tip it over; the same applies figuratively in a landscape space.  The distribution could be symmetrical, asymmetrical or seemingly random but however it is placed, it should not “tip the boat”.

Work within the context of the available space: if the space is quite small don’t put in really large plants or objects.  However, an exception would be one right-sized specimen that provides a perfect balance for the area if placed well.  When the space is very large the landscaping elements need to be scaled large as well to create a comfortable balance and feel.  This can be accomplished by using very large elements or substantial groupings of medium and smaller elements.

I reiterate, if the space is generous, don’t make things too small.  This an important general rule including not making paths too narrow, beds too small, posts too skinny and walls to short or thin.   For example, a foundation bed that is too narrow looks awkward and out of balance.  To provide the proper proportions, it needs to be at least as wide as half the height of the house to create the balance of a good foundation (and it could easily be wider).  Think big!  Small looks mingy and thinking too small is probably the most common mistake that new gardeners make.

Use the entire space and don’t only focus on the edges of the lawn/property:  Think about pulling elements into open areas or lawn areas to break up the space and provide the feeling of different rooms or spaces.  Pay attention to the shape of the lawn as an element.  A lawn with a shape can be an impactful feature that creates balance in a large area. A line mown to differentiate and define a meadow area and a tended area can be very effective.

Use a variety of shapes and sizes:  Nothing is less exciting than a lot of plants that are the same size and same shape.    Conical, rounded, vase-shaped, low-spreading and spikey elements all have their place and come in different sizes.  Group them in interesting ways; balance a tall large conical plant with a couple of medium-sized rounded and vase-shaped items and with a grouping of small spikey or spreading elements.

Mix up colors and textures:  You can do a lot with color but don’t try to do it all with flowers.  Flowers are fleeting in perennials and shrubs and usually only last for 2 to 3 weeks so foliage color is a vital element in creating balance in the garden.  There are many shades of green and I love playing with green on green.  However, it is more difficult and takes thought to keep it from looking like a green wall but the results are well worth it.  This is where using different textures is important.  Mixing big leaves, small leaves, long leaves, palmate leaves, tight structures and open structures can make it beautiful but adding some plants with purple or chartreuse leaves can really break it up and balance the light and dark feeling.

Using color and intensity:  Flowers a   re generally the strong, eye-catching focal points in the garden and run from hot to cool with varying degrees of intensity.  To my eye, too many brightly colored flowers in a space create the opposite of balance.  I love flowers and use them in masses for strong elements and as specimens to add beautiful accents but too many intense colors together can create an overwhelming feeling.  A more balanced approach is to put in foliage between groupings of flowers and to counter very intense colors with more muted ones.  I actually like clashing colors for a certain effect but putting different shades of the same color together is very confusing and certainly throws me off balance.

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