Classic Garden Design Courtesy of the Fireflies - by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden


I just came back from a walk around my new yard, where fireflies were drifting over the bamboo stumps and cracked clay of the recently exposed earth. I have cleared the slate. In the past few weeks we have removed nearly forty trees to bring in the sun and make room for all of my schemes. My garden awaits me, hidden between the stark planes of the new fence. I feel as if I have taken a stick and drawn a line in the sand, declaring my intentions before even knowing what they are.

In all of my years of gardening at my former residence, I never once saw a firefly. Here, just a few miles away, they are positively thick. When I was out walking, I followed their neon trails as they wandered through the darkening expanse. I feel comforted by their presence, as they remind me of the summer evenings of my childhood in upstate New York. I am glad that the tree clearing of the past few weeks has not chased them away.

I feel as if I am waiting for a sign. What will the new garden be? Perhaps the fireflies were illuminating the paths I should follow. Their meanderings probably have more structure than we might imagine, certainly more than my hectic life. I often feel like a rat in a maze, always being prodded forward, not always sure of where I am or where I am going, just reacting. Perhaps that is I why I crave structure and clarity in the garden.

I am a convert to classical garden design. I love formal gardens for their inherent sense of order and structure. For years here in Austin, owning up to your love of anything formal was about as popular as being a real estate developer, but I sense that, in this too, the times they are a-changin'. More and more gardeners are looking to classical design schemes for their inspiration, often retrofitting naturalistic plantings so that they become clearer to the eye and more easily managed.

People often assume that formal gardens are more difficult to create than those that try to replicate natural settings, but I have found the opposite to be true. Wildscapes are hard to pull off, and most end up looking a whole lot more wild than their creators intended. I admire totally naturalistic and native plantings, but they don't feel like gardens to me so much as landscape restorations. It doesn't matter whether you have your heart set on a wildflower meadow or a jungle, weaving some formal elements into your landscape will make it feel more inviting and will certainly make it easier to maintain and use.

While some folks equate formality with difficulty, others object to the idea of formality. They assume that a formal garden is somehow anti-nature, that it is just as ruthless in its logic as a highway poured across a virgin landscape. They see formality as an imposition of man's will on what is natural and true. I, on the other hand, look upon gardening as a collaborative venture. I think of it is an act of co-creation with nature. The hand of man is revealed, not hidden, in most successful gardens. It is fun to experience the personality of the gardener when strolling down the paths of his or her garden.

Classical design simply implies an order based on geometry and using some of the same tricks employed by Renaissance artists, namely perspective, symmetry, and repetition of forms, colors and themes. A garden based on classical design does not have to be stuffy. On the contrary, it can be filled with whimsy, even mystery, as long as it is held together by what the renowned garden designer Penelope Hobhouse calls the "bones" of structure. One of Austin's most respected landscape designers, James David, owner of the nursery Gardens, says that he likes to start with classical designs and then "destroy" them with loose informal plantings.

Playing by the rules of classical design is actually quite liberating, because they provide the tools needed both to create and to integrate. For example, one of my biggest design concerns right now is how to tie the architecture of the house into the garden so that the two feel unified. I find myself defining the critical focal points of the garden by the views from the house. Our new home has a bedroom window that is seen from the very front of the house down a long hallway. From the window, you can see all of the way to the back of the yard. Classical design would suggest keeping that view clear, making the view from the window an axis line, and putting something significant at the end of the axis that catches your eye. Voilà, a simple rule that helps pull everything together.

What should I use as my focal point to cap off the view? Does a classical design imply a large statue or fountain? Well, perhaps, but I think that I may use blinking Christmas lights in the shape of a firefly.


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