Managing Vistas

I drove out to White Sulphur Springs last weekend on a gorgeous, warm, sunny day. I make this trip frequently, so I have my favorite vistas picked out and slow down to enjoy them. I love the change in seasons in the mountains. Now, stripped bare of leaves, the brown-grey of bark and the deep rich greens of pines, hemlocks and native rhododendron stand out on the hillsides.
I took I-64 out to White Sulphur and stopped at the Sandstone Visitor Center for the first time. It is run by the National Park Service and the building is beautifully designed and constructed, using dressed native sandstone and wood. The surrounding garden, not at its best now, is composed of native plants. I’ll have to stop there in the spring and see the garden again.
On the way back I drove on old Route 60. I love the wild hairpin turns in the road, the lonely stretches of forest, and the native rhododendron thickets. If you grow sad looking rhododendrons, take a spin along 60 to see what they’re supposed to look like. They must be a stunning sight in bloom.
While at a luncheon in White Sulphur Springs, I met a woman who has amazing vistas to look at daily, as her family owns a large farm in Greenbrier County. Vistas, she told me, can be a real problem when designing a garden.
How can a garden be integrated into a vista and yet be visually important enough to be noticed? That’s a good question.
Years ago, my husband and I visited the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. The house is enormous, a 60 room stone mansion in the English style, elegantly built in the 1920’s. The surrounding gardens were designed by Jens Jensen, a well known naturalistic designer who popularized the Prairie Style of gardening. Gardens are informal and wandering, trees are given space to mature to perfection, natural features are incorporated into the gardens.
The gardens are complex, but look simple, easy, flowing.
The back of the house faces Lake St. Claire, a vast, watery vista viewed from a large stone terrace. No gardens competed with the water view. There was, however, one large evergreen tree between the terrace and the water, off to one side, yet definitely in the line of view. It was a spruce I think, a bit misshapen from the wind coming off the water. Standing alone, it looked like a specimen in a Japanese garden. It was tall enough to be in scale with the massive house and it was positioned to frame the view, not block it. Whether intentional or accidental, the lone spruce was a brilliant stroke.
If you have a great vista from your garden, it’s all about getting the scale correct and framing the view. Little bitty perennial beds and tiny terraces will be lost in the vista. The gardener needs to think big when confronting a big space.
I’ve been working on a garden for almost ten years that sits on top of a hillside and commands a fabulous view of the surrounding countryside. A 200 foot long, four foot wide perennial border framed the top of the hill when I first saw it, and the plants in the border were three to four feet tall at most. The border should have been spectacular, but it wasn’t. It couldn’t compete with the view.
We shortened the border down to 90 feet long and made it 15 feet wide. Behind the perennials, which we massed, we added shrubs in a variety of heights from four feet tall to 10 feet tall, with the tallest plants on either end to frame the view.
Now, you look at the border and beyond the border at the same time. Colored foliage, boldly colored flowers, brightly colored stems all make big statements that draw the eye. A collection of bird feeders on posts covered in clematis vines are rhythmically positioned through the border. They draw the eye upwards and outwards as the shrubs do.
Garden hardscape, such as fencing, pergolas, and terraces can all be used to frame views and create perspective, along with the plants. The first step is to decide what you want to focus on and so you can screen out what you don’t.

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