Whenever my sisters and I whined about it being too hot to move during late-summer’s brain-frying heat, my mother’s response was always to sit down, slowly count to 10 and think pleasant thoughts. My favorite place to do this was deep inside a neglected, shrubby tangle of forsythia and mulberry that grew on our neighbor’s faded 19th-century property.
Although my private, sun-dappled leafy dome wasn’t exactly a conventional garden structure, it nonetheless was my introduction to horticulturally inspired architecture. That’s probably why I’m still a pushover for outdoor formations that belie their intended purpose.
Well-designed garden structures are masters of disguise. A carefully executed replication of an ancient Roman temple that houses lawn equipment or a light-filled art studio that looks like a boathouse are far more exciting than an aluminum shed plopped in the far corner of a backyard. Once you get into the spirit of architectural deception, you’re only one step away from discovering the joys of stealth gardening.
No, I’m not recommending illegal flora tucked behind a gazebo. I am suggesting, however, that a thoughtfully designed garden structure can disguise even outrageous horticultural adventures. For example, if you ache to dabble in viniculture, but dare not because muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia)—the only grape that survives the Deep South’s heat and humidity—is usually grown on unattractive clothesline-like supports, why not let them scamper over a series of wrought iron arches?
Some gardeners prefer a vine-covered pergola to an arbor. In fact, there is little difference between them in appearance and purpose, except that an arbor is often used as a freestanding covered passageway, while a pergola is more commonly attached to other structures. Some pergolas do not touch the ground. Consider suspending a small one above a garage door. It adds architectural interest to one of America’s most boring symbols of suburban culture.
And don’t overlook other ways to disguise a garage’s utilitarian purpose. With careful thought, your solutions will become architectural components of an exquisite garden. Just ask Charleston’s grande dame of all things botanical and horticultural, Lucile MacLennan.
Renowned landscape architects Robert Marvin and Sheila Wertimer designed MacLennan’s sylvan garden, but she and her late husband, Mac, designed and created a wooden pergola made from a series of Roman arches and attached it to the back of the property’s brick garage. A yellow Lady Banksia rose (Rosa banksiae) has free rein to romp in every direction across the pergola’s top, while the interior, filled with comfortable seating and exotic plants, has been a favorite gathering place for decades.
The rear garage wall provides a decorative element to this outdoor living room and also serves as a barrier against the weather. The facing wall, which runs parallel to the garden, is embellished with family mementoes and also serves as a backdrop to an herbaceous border that contains whimsical statuary.
This architectural melding of garage and pergola serves as the entry into the formal garden and as a visual guide that draws visitors into a romantically inspired woodland filled with native plants. The result is stunning, but the MacLennans were uncommonly fortunate—she has the eye of a landscape architect and Mac was a professional master craftsman.
Homeowners often have great ideas, but they lack the technical expertise to execute them—not to mention the patience to wade through blueprints. Fortunately, MacLennan has great advice: “Get someone to design it for you.”
A good designer can help you avoid common pitfalls. An expert, for example, will tell you that although garden structures should be proportional to the surrounding landscape, most homeowners fail to take into consideration the length, width and depth of the most important feature—their house. And while the garden structure’s material, color and style are important parts of the design, it’s important to keep in mind that the view from inside a home also affects the overall appeal.
Another pitfall to do-it-yourself garden structure design is the lack of appreciation or understanding of the lay of the property. MacLennan insists upon working with the land instead of against it. For example, it is more practical to adapt a garden structure to a slope than it is to level the land.
Before consulting with a garden designer, MacLennan suggests collecting and analyzing pictures of outbuildings. Doing so will help you discover that there’s more to attention-grabbing structures than architectural detail. Exceptional ones draw you to them because they evoke a sense of place. They are invaluable for blocking or camouflaging unattractive or mundane views while providing privacy and protection from the wind and sun. Properly situated garden structures also offer solutions to perpetually problematic areas such as poor or compacted soil.
Finally, don’t short-change yourself. While Charleston garden designer Katy Wood (katywoodlandscapedesign.com) considers functionality the most important element to a successful design, she strongly suggests erring slightly on the larger size while planning. Homeowners frequently underestimate finished dimensions and then later end up wishing for additional space.
Wood also believes that seating is essential. Although clients sometimes initially balk at the notion of including multiple seating areas in the overall design, because they “never go there,” Wood prefers sticking with her if-you-build-it-they will-come philosophy. She usually wins out and folks later thank her for her persistence. “When functionality is combined with a place to sit, structures become more connected to the overall landscape,” says Wood. “Sit and enjoy. Make it part of your garden.”
PJ Gartin is a garden writer and landscape photographer who lives in Charleston.