Green Geometry

(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)

Has the California drought turned your green garden brown? Has the recent rain been enough to revive your dry and dead patches? In either case, are you interested in enhancing your curb appeal with a water-wise landscape? If so, try “green geometry,” a term I just made up. But my new term is based on an old concept called “the formal garden.”

Green geometry has a few easy steps. First, grab a sharp pencil, paper and measuring tape from your catch-all drawer.

Next, head outdoors to the area you want to revive, draw a rough outline of its shape and then measure it. Head back indoors and draw this shape more precisely, and to scale, using graph paper, ruler, protractor, and compass. Or better yet, any drawing software program. Now, using geometric shapes, symmetry and rhythm, design your landscape, that is, your formal garden.

The French call these stylized gardens “jardin de francais.” They became popular during the French Renaissance and were inspired by earlier Italian Renaissance gardens at Boboli and Tivoli. They were also inspired by Renee Descartes, founder of analytical geometry. Descartes believed that the world could be measured and that space could be infinitely divided. He also believed that all movement is a straight line and, therefore, space is a universal grid of coordinates and everything can be located on its planes. You can mull this over on a sunny day, with lemonade in hand, while lounging in your new garden.

Basically, Descartes’ notion can be illustrated on paper. You may remember learning about the Cartesian plane in high school. If you draw a horizontal line and cross it with a vertical line, you’ve drawn the “x” and “y” axes. Imagine that the dot at the intersection is a French chateau, that the axes are walking paths, and that the four squares created by them are four separate gardens, or “salons” as the French would say.

Each of these gardens can be further divided into geometric shapes like rectangles, triangles, circles, and cones. In a formal garden, these shapes are defined with plants, shrubs, trees, and walking paths. Each shape further divides its space. Descartes would be thrilled.

During Descartes’ day, and perhaps influenced by him, was a masterful landscape architect by the name of André Le Nôtre. Under the reign of King Louis XIV, Le Notre designed the gardens at Chantilly, Fontainebleau, and the avenue of Champs-Elysees. He is most noted for the Gardens of Versailles, a grand spread covering 1,976 acres. No doubt, Le Notre not only divided his four squares umpteen times, but extended them further along the x and y axes. His divisions included kitchen garden (vegetables and herbs), floral gardens, specifically shaped lawns, topiaries, water fountains, statuary, and bosquets (at least five identical tree species planted in rank and file order so that the trunks line up).

The formal gardens at the Chateau de Villandry were designed by its resident, Jean Le Breton, in the early 16th century. They’ve undergone transformations over the years but today reflect their original Renaissance design. The property has separate, geometric gardens including a salon of crosses, a salon of love, a salon of music and even a labyrinth salon.

Although the formal gardens of European chateaux are enormous, we can most definitely adapt them to our own homes. Stylistically, this works best with Mediterranean, Victorian, Tudor, and cottage-style architecture. So getting back to the scaled outline you’ve drawn on your graph paper, if you are stumped, think of ways to divide it into symmetrical and geometric shapes.

Take topography, sunlight and logical traffic flow into consideration. A nice way to outline your garden is with a dwarf hedge like boxwood, which is also a good choice for shaped greenery or topiaries. Golf Ball Kohuhu, a variety of pittosporum, and junipers are also good options to create round, conical or spiral shapes. As you develop your plan, add height somewhere — a short tree or tall fountain in the center might work. Let symmetry and consistency guide you. Rather, let them command you. Keep it simple so that the design, itself, does not get lost.

Napa residents, Franck and Kim Perrotti, originally from Côtes Bleue, Marseille, France, have done a beautiful job creating a miniature, water-wise, formal garden in their front yard. Symmetrically placed boxwood hedges and spheres strongly outline the composition. Well-placed grasses offer texture and movement. And, a pair of palms in tall, black pots matching the black door add personality as well as underscore the design’s symmetry and balance.

You might think this a simple design, but such simplicity is deceptive. Such simplicity takes considered thought, planning and possibly a sheet of graph paper or two. It also takes restraint, that is, the Perrottis were disciplined enough to limit the varieties of plants.

They also did not diminish their garden’s elegance with garden art and chotchkies (which is where some homeowners go awry). Throughout the seasons, rain or shine, this garden always looks très belle.

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