I first met Shirley Williams in 1994 while attending a landscape design chart. The classes were held at several of the participants’ home gardens, including Brigham Hill Farm, where Shirley and her husband Peter lived. Since then, I have had the privilege of being involved in creative collaborations—designing, building, and many of the gardens that beautify their historic landscapes. The farm is the setting for their hilltop home, an eighteenth-century Georgian colonial in North Grafton, Massachusetts. He is an avid gardener, charitable land conservationist, and horticultural host for many regional, national, and international horticultural organizations.
In 1997, Shirley and Peter asked me to create a new landscape design for the area that had previously been planted with greenery. The garden space occupied a large rectangle, 70 feet wide and 90 feet deep. Three sides of its circle were enclosed by fieldstone walls and outlined along the edges with granite curbing. The fourth side was open and faced a beautiful, oval-shaped swimming pool set about 12 feet apart and not connected to the center of the rectangular space.
The layout certainly had its challenges, but I decided to use them to uncover the direction of my design. Protractors, compasses, and T-squares are typical tools of the trade when planning gardens. But beyond using these tools, a studied understanding of the basic intrinsic value of geometric shapes is the key to an attractive landscape. Using the existing walls and pool as references, I used motifs of circles, angular beds, and layers of whimsical plants to create a cohesive space that is still exciting and full of wonder.
A geometric approach offers an explanation.
After the pool and the bosquette of trees formed the center of the garden, the beds outside it were arranged using radial lines to balance the space. The zigzag and straight lines of the borders convey dynamic movement through the garden. To the rear, further circles appear in the lawn space outlined by curved beds and a raised bed containing a moon garden. The shapes of the island beds echo the arcs of the circles and the straight lines of the garden circle. This garden is a dynamically interesting place to explore. An aerial view illustrates the geometric backbone of the landscape. See planting plan with plant ID.
- A grove of trees
- zig zag bed
- Angular island bed
- Round island bed
- Curved gravel path
- A place to sit
- Raised Bed Moon Garden
Symmetry of circles, arcs and curves unifies the landscape.
The oval swimming pool’s walled, rectangular garden space cannot be overlooked. An asymmetrical plan became necessary because the position of the pole is not aligned with the center of the rectangular space. However, there was a way to achieve harmony. Using the axis of the pool (black line on the site plan) as a reference, I drew an 18-foot diameter circle (dotted line on the site plan) along the center of the pool. This new circle forms the central focal point and compliments the new entrance to the garden (#2 on the site plan). To illustrate this, six Sugar Time® crabapple trees (Malas ‘Soteism’, Zones 4–8) were planted around its perimeter. These trees were underscored by two concentric circular rings of stone.
A circular pleated bosquet of crabapples creates a dramatic shaded threshold. It draws the eye from the pond to the entrance to the garden while also defining the garden as a separate space. Symmetrical, viewing arcs created by evenly spaced tree trunks dynamically divide—yet connect. A number of bulbs are planted in the shady lawn below the crab. In spring the crab blooms like a white cloud over a sea of blue flowers.
Other circles (along with curves and arcs) are thematically incorporated into the sequence. A circular lawn is centered between the rear garden walls. To the left of the turf is a crescent-shaped bed. It is bordered by a curving gravel path that leads to a rustic red pine arbor and stone seating (#6 and #7 on the site plan). Curved gravel paths also meet two opposite walls. These walkways increase air circulation to deep borders, allow access for garden maintenance, and facilitate close-up views into and through the beds. An island bed on the opposite side of the lawn has a rounded edge and creates one of the curved arcs of the lawn (#5 on the site plan).
Finally, a circular bed defined with curved granite curbstones forms a focal point at the right rear of the garden. It symbolizes the Garden of the Moon and is planted with a full moon maple (Acer japonica ‘Aconitifolium’, zones 5-7). Silver-leaved ferns and white-flowered masterwort (austrantia cv., zones 4-9) carpet the ground below (#8 on the site plan).
Angular bedlines characterize the borders.
The geometric pattern changes as you pass through the circular bosques of Kriabplus. A combination of zigzag angles and straight lines of granite create smart, clean edges to frame perennial borders and separate their colorful flowers and plants from the lawn. The granite was reclaimed from the garden that previously occupied the site. However, its orientation has changed from standing vertically on edge to being flat (#3 on the site plan). These angular elements serve to move the eye from one area of the garden to another. They also unify the garden space from the pond to the stone wall at the back of the garden.
The geometric pattern that outlines the beds is not random. Its design is in line with the overall plan. The alignment of the zigzag bed originates from radial lines (lines that pass through the center of the circle) that extend from the midpoint of the circular lawn at the far end of the garden (red lines on the site plan). Similarly, the granite edge border of one of the two island beds sits along a straight radial line that is also tangent to the circumference of the stone edge circle (blue line on the site plan). This design creates a compelling perspective, giving the illusion of a larger overall garden area. The irregular shape of the island beds on the right side of the Kriabplus also divides the space in a way that creates a layered approach to viewing the plants, allowing for more dynamic combinations of plants. These island beds are surrounded by perimeter paths that also divide the circulation of the garden into separate spaces, adding depth to the garden.
A bold setting lends itself to bold plants.
Color is the primary design element in exaggerating certain areas of the garden. This is most evident in the angular zigzag border. The flowers and leaves contribute to the fiery contrasts of reds, yellows and oranges. Red flowers of ‘Jacob Kline’ Bee Balm (Monarda ‘Jacob Kline’, zones 3-8), ‘Europeana’ rose (Rosa ‘Europeana’, Zones 5-9) and tender salvia ‘Royal Purple’ echo the maroon foliage of smoky bush, red-leaved roses and others. Creeping genie yellow (Lysimachia nummularia* ‘Aurea’, zones 3-9) ‘Goldmound’ repeats in spiraea foliage, while orange sparks color the leaves of tender coleus.Plectranthus scutellarioides cvs., Zone 11) and the vivid flowers of ‘Gartenmeister’ fuchsia (Fuchsia ‘Gartenmeister’, zones 9-11). These warm-colored planting combinations emphasize angular edges to make the bed one of the centerpieces of the entire garden. In the island beds and at the back of the garden near the stone wall, cool shades of green, white and blue are used to provide some relief to the bold vignettes and create additional visual depth.
The structural forms of the plants in this garden cannot be ignored either. A planting theme of strong forms, with interesting textures, completes the geometric layout of the landscape. Vertical elements can exaggerate the perceived depth of space within a small garden. They create a deliberate and immediate contrast between foreground and background. Single vertical plants also create strong focal points and visual stops. For example, tall ornamental grasses add a vertical element to island beds. Their fine foliage and overall appearance resemble those of the nearby Alliums (Elim cv., zones 4–9). Other plant selections have strong mounding habits that fit the circular theme running throughout the garden.
Shirley’s garden displays a beautiful integration of plants and textures throughout the year. A geometric plan creates a vibrant and charming garden space to enjoy within the static outline of rectangular stone walls. The result is a landscape that feels larger than it really is, with new surprises around every corner.
How to Plant a Circular Bosket of Trees
Bosquet is a French term that refers to planting trees in a specific shape. This is the perfect word to describe a crab planting in the center of the garden. When designing this area, my team and I mocked up the bosquette with bamboo poles to give an idea of its scale. Then I planted trees and placed two concentric circles of stone work around them.
After several years of growth, during which the crab developed its canopy overhead, guide wires were strung across the circular diameter of the bosquet to train the branches horizontally, eventually encircling the canopy. go Once the structural framework was established, the wires were removed. Shrimp harvesting is done once a year in August. They provide year-round interest, with white blooms in spring and fall giving way to red fruit that lasts through the winter.
Reptile Genie (Lysimachia nummularia)
This plant is considered invasive in AK, CT, IL, KY, MA, NH, OR, PA, RI, TN, VA, WI, and WV.
-Warren Leach is a horticulturist and co-owner of Tranquil Lake Nursery in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. He has been designing gardens for over forty years.
Photos, except where noted: Diana Kohm