JARS v50n4 - Secrets to Beautiful Rhododendron Garden Design

Secrets to Beautiful Rhododendron Garden Design
Joe Parks
Dover, New Hampshire

Gardening is such an intensely personal, hands-on activity that few gardeners - even if they can afford it - rely on professionals for their garden design. Instead, most garden designs are the result of intense interest, much thought and hard work on the part of their owners. But why is it that some gardens are so much more enjoyable than others? Why is it that the number of rhododendrons - or their size or rarity - has little to do with how beautiful a garden is? Why do visitors seem to want to come back again and again to some gardens while, for others, visiting once is enough?
There are many ways to achieve a beautiful garden upon which to feast your senses and to bring "oh's" and "ah's" from your visitors. Too, there are many versions of how to design a garden, some so complicated that just reading about them is discouraging. This shouldn't be, for there is a simple, effective, quickly mastered approach to the design and creation of a beautiful garden. And best of all, creating a beautiful garden is no more difficult - and no more work - than that of creating a humdrum garden. That is, if you know the secrets. It is curious that such simple techniques have remained secret for so long. Perhaps the fact that they are simple leads to disbelief. But I can tell you from experience that they work.
To digress for a moment, I am not talking here about landscape design of a property. That is another subject. In this article I am talking only about the design of the garden itself. Also, although this is written as if starting anew with vacant land, such seldom occurs in real life. Instead, the gardens of most of us are at various stages of completion, and is any garden ever truly finished, truly completed? Whatever the present stage of your garden, following the simple principles outlined here will help you achieve a more beautiful garden. Although it is the open spaces (or "garden rooms" as I think of them) that define a garden, the true secret of garden beauty lies in the paths connecting these spaces. It is the paths that allow you to reveal (or conceal) the elements of your garden, that create mystery, anticipation and allure. It's not what is seen at any given moment that's important, but rather what is not seen . Truly, it is the paths that make one garden seem so much more beautiful and enjoyable than another.
In a beautiful garden, the paths are more than just a means to conveniently move from point A to point B. They are the essence that creates the anticipation, mystery and wonder that make a garden so enjoyable. Paths are a practical necessity for getting around the garden and guiding visitors, but too, they are high art that subtly focuses attention on that which you wish to emphasize. More importantly, paths provide the framework that holds the entire garden together.
No matter whether your garden has ten, a hundred or a thousand rhododendrons, is a hundred square feet or a hundred acres, think of the pathways as the element that connects it all together and makes a whole of the individual parts. If you do this, you will be a long way towards a charming garden. Life's greatest pleasures are the result of anticipation, mystery and illusion. So it is with a well designed and constructed garden. With such great importance, it is surprising so little attention is paid to the role paths play in garden design. And yet, in spite of its tremendous importance, a path should go largely unnoticed, instead drawing attention to the garden rather than itself.
Just as paths create anticipation, mystery and illusion, open spaces ("garden rooms" and vistas) provide the "meat" upon which the senses feast, each "room" or vista offering its own version of beauty. Open spaces, however, must be defined. Just as rooms in a house are defined by the walls, the "rooms" in your garden will be defined by the shrubbery surrounding them. Shrubbery (think rhododendrons) can be planted closely if you want a small intimate room or at some distance if you wish to encompass a large area. Size of the space is not important. But what is important is what is in the space.
A garden that can be observed entirely from a single point tends to overwhelm the senses and titillates little or not at all. Moreover, if most of the garden can be seen from one point, those parts that are not at their peak tend to detract from those that are. By using your rhododendrons to divide your garden visually into smaller units (no matter how small your garden may be) it becomes more pleasurable and, just as importantly, easier to plant and care for.

Garden with curving path.
A basic essential for a beautiful
garden is a curving path.
Photo by Joe Parks

Of course the terrain of no two gardens is alike. Certainly no two gardeners have the same objectives, and it is just as unlikely that many will be starting a garden from scratch. However, if as you change and modify your garden over the years, you follow the basic principles outlined below, I can assure you a more beautiful and alluring garden - one that both you and your visitors will come to enjoy more and more.
A. Paths should be curved to conceal that which is beyond the immediate view.
Of course, topography, trees and other existing features will determine where and the amount of curve. The point is to curve the path enough to conceal what lies ahead. This is basic to creating mystery and anticipation.
B. Screen at least one side of a path with shrubbery, trees or a wall to restrict the view on that side of the path.
Any height of material may be used, but the height (or ultimate height) must be such that it will restrict the view. This stratagem focuses attention on the open space (garden room) on the other side. Both sides of a pathway maybe screened, but be careful. Long "halls" tend to become monotonous.
C.  At some point along a curve, bring the shrubbery up close to the path.
This shrubbery should not be below eye level unless the material being concealed further on is also low. The point is to prevent the view beyond a curve from competing with the immediate view.
D.  Around a curve, provide an open space containing something to attract the eye.
It could be an unusual rhododendron, it might be a delightful vista or it could be a perennial bed or even a piece of sculpture. The size of such an open space is relatively unimportant. The important thing is to provide something that is pleasurable and intriguing to see.
E. Define the open space by surrounding it with a screen of plants so that attention is focused within the space.
Rhododendrons are perfect for such screening. If there is a vista, lower plants should be used. Higher plants (which might be in tiers) would be needed if you are restricting the view to nearby objects.
F.  Arrange the path to encourage visitors to dawdle and enjoy each part of the garden.
Think of your paths as a stream; where it is narrow, the water rushes by; where it is wide, the water slows or is still. Thus narrow paths tend to hurry people along, while wider ones (or wider sections) encourage them to go more slowly. G.  Design your paths to lead somewhere - even if only to return to the beginning in a roundabout fashion.
No matter how short, think of your path as leading people on a pleasant journey filled with mystery and delight. Avoid little side paths; they create confusion and detract. If a path needs to fork, be sure that both pieces come back together at some point. Few people like to come to a dead end and have to retrace their steps. Neither do they like to wonder where they are in the garden and what they have missed.
The importance of a properly curved and screened path for the smaller garden cannot be over-emphasized. By obscuring that which lies ahead, the immediate view becomes the more important. A straight path, on the other hand, allows people to look further ahead, thus making the garden appear smaller. Worse, it destroys almost any chance of creating anticipation, mystery and illusion.

Garden sculpture 
to attract the eye.
Around a curve provide something to attract
the eye, even a bit of sculpture.
Photo by Joe Parks

Even with the largest of gardens the principles are the same. If you want the immediate view to bring the most enjoyment, don't divert attention with another more distant view. Large gardens are best thought of as a series of smaller gardens, artfully connected by paths, each garden offering its own version of loveliness. By selectively concealing and revealing the parts of the garden, in the eye of the beholder the sum of the parts becomes greater than the whole.
And never forget that it is your eyes that see the garden most often. The same principles that heighten interest for others will also serve to heighten interest for you. Even though you know your garden by heart, a garden is ever changing; every day - nay, every hour, every week and every season - brings forth some new joy. If these uncountable nuances are hidden so that you have to seek them out, then for you too the mystery of change, the anticipation of beauty and the joy of discovery is heightened and monotony defeated.
In a nutshell the secret of creating a beautiful garden - large or small - lies in a curving path, a limited view, and once a curve is rounded a display of beauty. Try it. There's no way to lose when winning such an elusive prize as beauty is a certainty.

Auxiliary Reading
Space and Illusion in the Japanese Garden by Teijo ltoh. Weatherhill/Tankosha; 1973.
Garden Design Ideas, The Best of Fine Gardening . Taunton Press.
Garden Paths by Gordon Hayward. Camden House Publishing; 1993.

Joe Parks lives in New Hampshire where he has a six-acre rhododendron garden and 70-acre Tree Farm. He also hybridizes rhododendrons. He is a member of the Garden Writers Association, has been a newspaper garden columnist and has written for such magazines as Fine Gardening and National Antiques Review . Joe is past-president of the Massachusetts Chapter.