Beyond the sliding glass doors of a rear bedroom, my backyard offers a quiet, unused space. A corner palm offers shade, and vines meander along the surface of the fence. Other than that, it’s a blank slate. There is little ground covered, aside from a smattering of pebbles and the occasional weed. No garden beds, no patio. The area needs some affection and, more to the point, imagination.
Over the past six months, I’ve been pondering what to do with this space and researching the possibilities. I’ve come across a variety of concepts and ultimately placed them under five possible thematic approaches. But I don’t yet know which to embrace.
The Zen Retreat
During his years in Japan, Lafcadio Hearn wrote of gardens in detail. “To comprehend the beauty of a Japanese garden,” he wrote, “it is necessary to understand … the beauty of stones.” The goal of a Japanese garden is to create a quiet space for meditative sitting, typically in a confined area, ideally one overlooked by a porch. The Japanese garden can be completely focused on rocks, with large rocks serving as mountain islands surrounded by “seas” of gravel. The gravel can be raked into serene ripple patterns meant to imitate water. To this, you can add grassy mounds, which can also serve as islands or, at the perimeter, as the “shore.” Top each mound with a small tree or bushes pruned to look like trees. You can also collect large rocks together in formations that imitate small mountain ranges or maybe even add a small pond or reflecting pool. To include a sonic component to the ambience, you can hang mellow, bass wind chimes from a tree. And for a particularly Japanese feeling, include decorative elements made from bamboo (but not bamboo itself, unless you have a way of keeping it from growing out of control).
The Secret Garden
To cultivate an intimate space, begin by rimming your garden with a collection of small, verdant trees, like crepe myrtles, and smaller plantings. The centerpiece of a secret garden, however, would be a patio contained beneath a pergola. The space should be surrounded by lush plants, such as elephant ears, and the pergola should be covered in bougainvillea or something similar. (I did this myself once upon a time, planting vines at the bases of the posts. I found the crawling flora more than willing to overwhelm the structure. With a hammock underneath, it made for a private, sleepy spot.) Under the pergola, place a seating area or, better yet, a dining table. Attach lanterns to the posts, and set one on the table. At night, over dinner, guests might find this space to be ever so slightly romantic. It would work particularly well in a location with ready access to the kitchen, so you can reach for the next bottle of wine without delay.
The Modern Oasis
Recently, I worked with a landscape architect who designed for me a spectacular modern concept. The plantings included a variety of grasses, lavender, rosemary, red yucca and a blue agave. The most striking feature: On a bed of Mexican pebbles, he arranged a series of 6-inch-wide, 3-foot-long concrete pavers. If the pavers are remarkable enough and arranged with some artistry, they can become the centerpiece of a modern landscape.
The Tropical Paradise
Various thematic approaches are possible, depending on whether your ideal is Caribbean or Tiki. If you go the Tiki route, grimacing masks would play a role in your garden. You would also at least consider putting in a hammock and, perhaps with tongue-in-cheek, a bar with palm roof thatching. In the past, I’ve used bamboo screening to good effect. As to plantings, a mix of large and small palms, ginger, birds of paradise, gardenias, hibiscus and bougainvillea would all fit the bill. All thrive in the New Orleans climate, which is, for a good part of the year after all, tropical.
The Glorious Mess
Winston Churchill spent years working on his Kentish garden at Chartwell and delighted in strolling – and painting – the grounds there. He left tangles of natural undergrowth to their own devices, planted flowers with the needs of butterflies in mind and generally cultivated a verdant chaos in contrast to the stately country house. Think heathers, lavenders and nectar plants. My wife took a similar approach to one of her gardens. She simply planted a bunch of her favorites, predominantly lavenders, in one garden, and let them grow up together in colorful commotion. Here and there, in the gaps, she planted more over time, based on what she happened to like at the moment. It was a stream-of-consciousness expression, a cluster of various notions. And it worked.
Churchill once said, “Every garden presents innumerable fascinating problems. Every land, every parish, has its own tale to tell.” I suppose I’m still waiting for that corner of my backyard to tell its tale, so I can make up my damn mind.
“The pine tree lives for a thousand years,
the morning-glory but for a single day;
yet both have fulfilled their destiny”
– Japanese proverb