Thursday, February 27, 2014

Figure-Ground Theory in Garden Design

figure ground in planting schemes
The Herbaceous Border at Rockingham Castle,
Northamptonshire, England is designed with
careful attention to distinguishing contrast, subject and ground. 

Image © Copyright Marion Haworth
I love gardens. I love seeing them, designing them, making them and lusting after them. And over the years, I've grown to understand what that magic ingredient is in the gardens that appeal to me most — the gardens that excite and inspire, and make me say "Be still, my heart!" (The garden on the right makes me say that. Lustfully.) The gardens that cause my heart to flutter are those that are well-grounded. They pop and burst in all the right places with clear separations between plants. The plants are entities of their own, but part of the whole composition. And it is a composition. Good garden design is an art form. It's about balance, color, texture, depth and contrast.

Well-grounded gardens are designed using figure-ground theory, whether intentional or not.

Clear contrast between the subject and ground
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.

Rose garden shines with a dark green background
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
"The background of dark trees is so important that I venture to dwell upon it with some degree of persistence. Anyone who has seen an Ayrshire rose growing wild into a yew will recognize the value of dark foliage as a ground for the tender blush white of the rose; and so it is with the rose garden as a whole." 

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. 

contrasting planting schemes
The herbaceous border at Kirby House, West Berkshire, England
 — a fine example of a well-grounded garden.
Image © Copyright Stuart Logan

Note the planting scheme in the Kirby House garden (left). It is clear this herbaceous border was created with good visual perception. Whether the designer was intentionally following the rules of figure-ground theory or not, she/he certainly had an understanding of the importance of contrast. 

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. 

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