The complicated art of simplicity22nd Oct 2019
Simplicity is deceptively hard. In fact, it’s one of the most difficult things to achieve in garden design. And, with all the confusion of different plants, materials, accessories and styles available to gardeners today, it’s daunting too.
But simplicity is worth pursuing because contemporary gardens, courtyards and patios tend to be smaller than their predecessors were, so too many things and too much clutter create chaos. If it’s successfully achieved, the visual rhythms that it brings will always be relaxing to the eye, and will almost always create a sense of orderly calm. And that’s a state much to be desired in this crazy-hectic world of ours.
To anyone who loves traditional western landscapes with their mixed herbaceous borders (English cottage gardens), wide, sweeping lawns and sheltering shrubbery (the English landscape style), or intricate twirls and whorls (formal, hedged gardens modelled on Versailles), the idea of a simple, sculpted courtyard, or a restrained, mossy Zen garden may seem to come from nowhere. But, in truth, the basic elements of all gardens remain exactly the same.
The difference here is in the reduction: ‘Less is more,’ said Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who, alongside others like Frank Lloyd Wright, pioneered the modernist school of architecture.
But ‘less is more’ itself is probably the most ironical of quotes since, without a complicated discussion about the nature of less and the nature of more, less can be a mind-numbingly difficult concept to achieve.
Fortunately for us as gardeners, though, your founding principle remains the same no matter which design style you choose: when you make a garden, you’re creating a space that’s nothing more than nature re-examined – and reimagined.
In the modern garden, though, simplicity requires a re-examining and reimagining of your materials. The rough, rustic cobblestone of the garden path of yesterday becomes the neat, almost clinical, exposed-aggregate concrete walkway of today; the dressed-stone-and-rustic-wooden-pole pergola of our grandparents’ expansive, wisteria-covered walkway becomes the sleek steel lattice that shades our tiny outdoor sitting space today.
Given the often cramped space available to us, therefore, the emphasis now turns inevitably to the elements of the hard landscape – the paving, walls, coverings, art, and other non-plant materials with which the garden is constructed.
This, of course, opens up endless worlds of possibility for exploring new ways of making everything from fencing to water features.
But in a country that has the added challenge of almost ongoing drought, hard landscaping – stone chips, apricot seed husks, bark, paving, decking – is also the designer’s friend, taking the place of the thirsty (often non-indigenous) lawns and groundcovers that our parents might have chosen.
Offset the paved area in an enclosed courtyard with a carefully chosen selection of form plants (aloes, for example, or, in a larger space, a well-shaped umbrella thorn or other local tree), and simplicity and serenity are yours. But remember to limit that selection of different types of plant: many of the most striking, most simple gardens sport only one or two.
Of course, it’s possible to achieve simplicity without severity, as the pioneering Vita Sackville-West so famously achieved with her White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle in England.
If you’re after a cottage garden like Vita’s, choose only green-leaved plants whose flowers all occur in different shades of a single colour. Or – and this might be a bit more of a challenge, but one worth tackling nevertheless – create a garden filled only with grey-leaved plants, which is a project probably most achievable along the Cape coast, where the various sages (Salvia spp.), rosemaries (Eriocephalus spp.) and kooigoed (Helichrysum spp.) grow naturally in the fynbos biome. This could be an interesting way of creating a fabulous fragrance garden that’ll attract insects, too.
And that’s the whole point about the minimalist modern landscape: if you study the natural world around you, and distil what you see in it down to its essence, the simplicity of your design should take you – like a remembered fragrance or an almost-forgotten taste – down nostalgic mental pathways, and into happy spaces in your mind that make the whole process of making a garden so incredibly worth pursuing.
Shopping for a white garden
In any light, white flowers make a garden romantic. They glow at night – and they reflect the moonlight – and in the daytime they contrast vigorously with the green of the leaves. And they often smell divine, too. Why wouldn’t you choose them?
Here are some of our favourites – indigenous, of course:
- Arum lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica): the rich, lush leaves and iconic cup-shaped flowers of the arum lily will tolerate full sun or half shade, but they’re only partially tolerant to frost. Use them advisedly, because they can tend to dominate if they like the conditions where they’re grown.
- Agapanthus ‘White Ice’: this white, hybrid variety of the agapanthus looks spectacular in mass plantings when it flowers in summer, but the rich, leathery leaves look good on their own, too, especially when contrasted with dark-coloured paving or the stark earthiness of a terracotta wall.
- White king protea (Protea cynaroides): yes, it’s a thing. Relatively new on the market, the white king protea has the same distinctively large flower heads as the pink version you’ll know as South Africa’s national flower. It’d be a stunner in any white-themed fynbos garden.
- Bush jasmine (Jasminum multipartitum): this free-flowering climber that can be trained as a dense bush bears its pretty, starry, very fragrant blooms in spring and summer. It doesn’t tolerate frost, so choose it for gardens in the Cape, and coastal KwaZulu-Natal.
- Weeping sage (Buddleia auriculata): often cultivated as a large shrub, the sun-loving, drought-tolerant, frost-hardy weeping sage can be trained into a small tree – and, in fact, it’ll bloom more prolifically if it’s pruned after every flowering. Highly fragrant blossoms attract bees and butterflies.
- Trailing phlox (Chaenostoma cordatum; previously Sutera cordata): another star from the fynbos firmament, trailing phlox forms ground-hugging mounds of about 30cm in height. While it will often bear flowers throughout the year, it favours the springtime, when it covers itself in abundant blossoms that the bees seem to absolutely adore.
Find information about these, and many other indigenous plants – with extensive notes about cultivation – on pza.sanbi.org
‘Simplicity and repose are the qualities that measure the true value of any work of art.’ Frank Lloyd Wright