Once gardeners get a taste of working in the soil, they often find it impossible to have too many plants. Before long, their yard is dotted with a hodgepodge of interesting but often unrelated vegetation. What's missing? Art that ties the garden together.
Gardening is an art itself, and looking at well-designed gardens helps us understand what works, just as visiting galleries helps us appreciate paintings.
"To do a garden artistically, you have to think like an artist," says garden author and columnist Tovah Martin. "[Some] gardens can be like run-on sentences. You need a punctuation point."
Punctuation can come in many forms, such as a stone wall, terrace, pathway, tree, bench, or sculpture. These visual guides can help to define the garden's borders and emphasize certain characteristics of the garden. Ornamental objects such as a wrought-iron fence, sundials, birdhouses, Victorian gazing balls, or obelisks can also help anchor a garden in a specific architectural style or time period.
Sculptural forms serve as foils amid the greenery, and their tangible shapes help to draw the eye. "When something looks like a blob, our eyes are more likely to rest on a shape," says Ms. Martin.
The most basic sculptural shape is the triangle, appearing as conical-shaped trees and shrubs or pyramidlike plant supports, sometimes known as tuteurs. People tend to find horizontal compositions restful (think sunsets on the beach), while vertical shapes convey an edgy, raw energy (think mountain peaks). Because many backyards (especially those in newer subdivisions) are flat and often featureless, almost any tall object that breaks up the horizontal plane adds a sense of excitement and vigor.
Even woodland-style gardens that mimic natural forests benefit from the clever placement of art. A perfect example can be found at Garden in the Woods, home to the New England Wildflower Society in Framingham, Mass. This 45-acre "living museum" was started in the 1930s and has since expanded to include nationally recognized native-plant conservation and education programs. As part of its outreach, the garden hosts events that cast a fresh light on its existing plant collections. Currently, the work of eight sculptors is featured through October in an installation called "Rock On!: Celebrating Stone in the Garden."
Even periodic visitors who thought Garden in the Woods needed no embellishment will be impressed by the synergy between plants and sculpture. Debra Strick, a garden spokeswoman, says that she and other staff members have found the art "wakes up your vision." They are already lamenting having to pack up the sculptures at the end of the exhibit because each piece seems inseparable from its site. (Three sculptures will remain.)
That wasn't an accident. Tom Smarr, horticultural director, along with Gregory Lowenberg, director of education, worked closely with the sculptors to choose locations that brought out key features in both landscape and sculpture. They envisioned areas of the garden as galleries, from the lily pond, to the pine barrens, to the rare-plant garden.
As a result, on a ridge overlooking the pond, a massive Christopher Curtis sculpture carved from a glacial boulder, called "The Part That Is Not There," reaches for the sky, giving definition and drama to the garden's natural topography. In the rock garden, Linda Hoffman's small bronze figures match the scale of a gentle hill covered with tiny plants, drawing a visitor's gaze carefully downward to make sure nothing is missed. And towering like an ancient sentinel over the lily pond, Jerry Kuyper's stacked-rock "Sentient" amazes with both its sturdiness and fragility.
When asked for advice to gardeners on choosing art, Mr. Smarr says it helps to look at a garden as you would your home. "You don't pick out a rug without seeing how it complements the rest of your décor. Looking at parts of the garden as 'rooms' [with] 'furnishings' makes it simpler."
No one is suggesting that a piece of fine sculpture should be treated the way one would treat a couch, but Smarr's point about complementing the features of an existing landscape holds true. And even if your budget won't allow spending thousands of dollars on work by a recognized artist, plenty of options exist. Along with the rise of gardening as a hobby, a cottage industry has sprung up of individuals making one-of-a-kind garden accessories:
•Jill Nooney of Lee, N.H., makes arbors and other garden furnishings from a host of salvaged agricultural and industrial parts. In addition, she also sells antique garden ornaments on her website, www.finegarden.com.
•Dave and Eda Benttinen in Mercer, Maine, create steel mobiles, kinetic sculpture, and other decorative items that they sell at regional craft fairs and on their website, www.demetalworks.com.
While it's increasingly difficult to find bargains, some ornaments can be bought for under $100. And buying a handmade item is more satisfying than getting a mass-produced one off the shelf at Lowe's or Home Depot.
Garden art is also a means of telegraphing the owner's personality. For example, a garden tour in Lexington, Mass., once featured the garden of a family who had taken their sons' many pairs of outgrown athletic shoes and turned them into a quirky, oversized, caterpillar sculpture. The caterpillar appeared right at home with other recycled critters poking out from the shrubbery. In another garden, Converse All-Stars were filled with potting soil and bright pink impatiens.
Whether a gardener's tastes run to the humorous or the elegant, bringing art into a garden can play up natural features in the landscape. The hard surfaces of rock, metal, clay, glass, and wood offer a counterpoint to the softness of plants, while plants slowly grow up around and modify the hard surfaces of the sculpture, producing chemical changes in their turn.
"Nature will take over," says sculptor and garden designer Ron Rudnicki, whose work is displayed at Garden in the Woods. "Someone said to me once, 'You install the design, but nature will complete it.' "
• For more information on "Rock On! Celebrating Stone in the Garden," visit www.newfs.org.
Gardens are more than just compositions of plants. Noteworthy gardens speak of the "genius of place"; their vocabulary draws from local traditions and the land's history. Choosing garden art doesn't have to be a serious business, though. Some gardens succeed because they are in tune with the owner's personality or fantastically out of step with the prevailing style. For instance, a Brazilian woman who married an American and moved to a Boston suburb, created the closest thing imaginable to a tropical garden, with pots of crimson-blooming plants, an awning-topped outdoor swing, and salsa music playing from a boombox.
Some gardeners, however, feel inhibited in the beginning. Garden expert and author Ken Druse recommends starting with a bench, which, as he points out, is more like sculpture because gardeners almost never sit down. Benches are easy to place and less intimidating to work with than other forms of sculpture.
Landscape architect Julie Messervy has an affinity for stones, both for their agelessness and the elements they bring to a garden. She advises gardeners to look at how stones function in nature, and avoid placing them in a row "like a string of pearls." For example, in a streambed, notice how stones have been pushed and carried along by water. The buildup and erosion buries some rocks and reveals others.
Tovah Martin, author and garden columnist, points out that one large piece says much more than a lot of smaller pieces. She makes a case for using one bold color in the garden, which carries more effectively than a pastel or white. Painting a bench or birdbath a rich aqua or sky blue helps integrate the sky into the garden. Colors such as reds, purples, blues, and even mustard-yellow offer a counterpoint to all that green.