| The Herbaceous Border at Rockingham Castle,|
Northamptonshire, England is designed with
careful attention to distinguishing contrast, subject and ground.
Image © Copyright Marion Haworth
Well-grounded gardens are designed using figure-ground theory, whether intentional or not.
|This image taken at Sissinghurst, Kent shows the positive|
space (subject/figure) against the negative space
(background/ground).The positive space draws your eye.
Photo image © Copyright Lorraine Syratt
So What is Figure-Ground Theory?
Figure-Ground theory has its roots in psychology — Gestalt therapy, but it is also used in architecture, landscape design and art. It is based on visual perception, an important design concept that distinguishes the subject (figure) from its background (ground). The background helps to define the subject, so the subject will be our focus. Our eyes are drawn to it. It's achieved by using contrasting colors, shapes, and reference points. In most instances, the figure or subject is the main ingredient — the element that stands out.
Figure-ground also relates to positive and negative space. Negative space is the space surrounding the subject or positive space. This can get confusing because in design, in this case, garden design, the negative space or background may also be the subject. A good example is seen in the image (top right) of the Rockingham Castle garden. While the flowers are the subject, we can't help but notice their backgrounds — the beautiful evergreen arches and hedges (clearly in the making) that contrast with to the colorful flora. As we walk through the garden, we don't just "see" the flowers; we "see" their backgrounds as well. Nothing is visually missed, and all is relevant to the overall balanced composition.
Using Figure-Ground Theory in Garden Design
I don't know when the term "grounding" was first coined in garden design, but it was certainly in use over one-hundred years ago. Garden writer and designer, Gertrude Jekyll used it in her 1902 book, Roses.
|These roses planted en masse at Alexandra Park in East Sussex, England|
stand out beautifully because they are surrounded by a neatly-clipped
dark green hedge at the edge of a forest.
Image © Copyright Oast House Archive
Jekyll, known today as one of the great rosarians, garden writers and designers of her time, did "persist" on advocating dark backgrounds and contrasts in design throughout that book. While this particular book was focused only on roses, her other gardening books and several articles also gave a nod to the concept of grounding with dark green trees, hedges and foliage. "The wisdom of this treatment is well-known in all other kinds of gardening ..." She went on to suggest that " ... even walls should be clothed in dark greenery."
Figure-ground is also about grounding each individual plant or plant mass in your flower bed. This is done by separating them with a neutral plant. Neutral plants have contrasting textures, shapes or colors.
|The herbaceous border at Kirby House, West Berkshire, England|
— a fine example of a well-grounded garden.
Image © Copyright Stuart Logan
Each plant or plant mass is clearly separated from the others by using an assortment of contrasting plants such as Lady's Mantle (Alchemilla mollis), silvery leaf plants such as artemisia or Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) and plants with sword-shaped leaves — bold shapes and neutral colors that create those separations. To top it off, it's a border in front of a dark green background. Each plant pops with color and interest. Nothing is missed.
Without grounding, the plant subjects have no distinguishing forms. They unite in a blurry jumble of color with no rhyme or reason, no contrasting separation and no restful focus. In a mixed or herbaceous border, you won't see the garden for the flowers. There's nothing wrong with pretty flower jumbles, particularly in wild gardens or wild parts of the garden, but if you want all your hard work to pay off in the more formal parts of your garden, avoid over-jumbling. Add a little contrast. Make each plant count.