Does Your Garden Have Good Bones?

Winter is the perfect season to stop and look at the structure in your Seattle garden

Photo by David E. Perry
Spring's cheery bulbs, summer's lush greenery and showy flowers, and autumn's flashy landscape colors are gone. What remains is the essential structure, or the "bones" of the garden. A garden with good bones has a strong structural foundation that defines the space and carries on the show (albeit more quietly) even in the depths of winter.


Many different elements contribute to a garden's structure, but each of the elements can be categorized as part of the garden's softscape or hardscape. The softscape elements consist of the living components of the garden, and include lawn and other living groundcovers, flowers, shrubs, vines, and trees. The hardscape elements consist of the non-living components, such as concrete, stone, rock, wood, metal, glass, or plastic.


Seattle Landscaping Softscape and hardscape landscape elements can be used alone or in combination to create architectural structures. In turn, architectural structures are used to define the garden's spaces and direct the flow within the garden. When planning or assessing the architectural structures of a garden, it is very helpful to view garden spaces as "rooms" and the garden's architectural features as floors, walls, and ceilings.

"Floors" can be created using softscape elements such as grass or low groundcovers; hardscape elements such as mulches, concrete, or paving stones; or a combination of the two. Similarly, "walls" that define and enclose a room can be created using softscape elements such as hedge of narrow trees or shrubs; hardscape elements fashioned into fences and walls; or a combination of softscape and hardscape elements. A "ceiling" could consist of a tree canopy, a shade cloth, or a pergola (with or without a softscape cover of vines).


Architectural structures are also important for creating a change in feeling as we transition between spaces in the garden. Frank Lloyd Wright was known for using transitional spaces brilliantly. He would narrow an area, or lower the ceiling at a transitional space, so that when one emerged into the destination, the feeling of spaciousness would expand dramatically.

We use this in garden making by directing one's path through a pergola or small arbor, or even under the arching branches of a low tree and then into a larger garden room.

In addition to defining garden spaces, architectural structures emphasize our experience of being in or moving through the garden. Paths and terraces define where we walk, sit, or entertain. Fences and plantings enclose and direct. Strong plantings at the elbow of a path signal a turn or termination. Sculptural pieces, decorative containers, and accent plants provide special features to attract and hold our attention.


Seattle Landscaping

In addition to incorporating architectural features to create rooms and direct flow within a garden, it is critically important to ensure that the architectural features relate to each other and to their surroundings in terms of proportion and scale. Altering proportion and scale changes the way we feel in a space.

Seattle Landscaping

When proportion and scale are well balanced, the result is an engaging, satisfying garden. But when proportion and scale are off, we are left with a somehow unsatisfying landscape although it is often difficult for us articulate why it doesn't work.

Seattle Landscaping

When considering proportion and scale, the human body is our unit of comparison. Think of grand cathedrals where the building and space within is so imposing that the effect is of awe, humility, and feeling small. Conversely, in a small and cozy room with a fireplace flanked by comfortable chairs, we feel safe and at ease.


An integral aspect of successful structure in the garden is defining and understanding the desired effect. Hardscape structure can be used to draw attention to rich plantings by providing the foil needed to balance and showcase the plants.

Seattle Landscaping

Another aspect of successful garden structure involves repetition. Repetition of structural units (such as certain plants, paving materials, or carpentry details) serves to unify a garden and give it cadence.

Seattle Landscaping

Softscape or hardscape elements might be useful to block a view that is undesirable, or conversely to create an interesting view or a captivating point of interest.


Seattle Landscaping
House & patio by Christopher Keyser, Architect

Finally, the choice of softscape materials is often influenced by seasonal changes in the use and viewing of garden areas. For example, front and back gardens often have different purposes. In general, a home's front garden, especially the entry, is its public face. As such, the front garden should look as good in January as it does in July. This general rule also applies areas of the garden that are traversed throughout the year, or are viewed most often from the inside of the house. Softscape elements that help carry the show in these areas of the garden include broadleaf evergreens, evergreen conifers, and deciduous plants with interesting winter features in terms of form, bark, or berries.


In general, the softscape in the back yard garden can be more ephemeral, with more deciduous and perennial plants that really shine during the warmer seasons. For example, perhaps that deciduous hedge of Limelight hydrangeas is best placed where you will enjoy it during the summer and early fall, rather than flanking the walkway that leads to the entry of the house.

These quiet months of winter are the perfect season to walk your garden and note what is working and what changes are needed.

How are your garden's bones?