Chinese garden design decorating ideas
Last autumn I visited the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden in Staten Island, located within the large Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden complex with 27 buildings and beautiful grounds. The Scholar’s Garden, which is hidden within the complex, was constructed by 40 Chinese artisans from Suzhou, China, in 1998, and completed within six months. Today, the plants are mature, and while some of the hardscape is in need of repair, that hardly distracts from the beauty of the many layers of architectural details, and textured plantings, including tall stands of bamboo, pine, cherry, plum, set against the contrasting white walls. Every space I moved through was intimate, and because I could always see through an open patterned window or Moon gate to a “borrowed view” there was also a feeling of endless spaciousness. A taste of the garden beyond, becoming part of the composition of the garden I was in, is masterful. The idea of creating infinite space within a limited area is inspiring (photos 1 & 2).
The Catskills is also a perfect place to incorporate the idea of borrowing scenery as part of your garden’s composition. This concept is first mentioned in the garden manual called the Yuanye written by Ji Cheng (c. 1582-1642), a Ming Dynasty Chinese garden designer. I had used the idea many times when designing urban gardens, but I had not realized its origins. Cheng was a calligrapher, a landscape painter, and a garden designer. In 1631 he published the Yuanye The Craft of Gardens, a collection of the many garden ideas that developed in China up until the time of the publication. According to the manual there are four categories of borrowed scenery: distant borrowing (mountains, lakes); adjacent borrowing (neighboring buildings and features); upward borrowing (clouds, stars); and downward borrowing (rocks, ponds, etc.). Cheng wrote, “If one can take advantage of a neighbor’s view one should not cut off the communication, for such a ‘borrowed prospect’ is very acceptable.”
In my own Catskills garden I created a series of small enclosed spaces, or garden rooms, and had the chance to play with the idea of borrowed views. In the last of a series of rooms I planted the dark green four-foot tall Rhamnus ‘Fine Line’ hedge that frames the distant view of wildflower meadows and low lying hills. The impact is one of my favorite areas of the garden because it is unexpected (photo 3).
Many of our ideas about garden planning, including concealment and surprise, come from the Chinese who believed that it adds mystery if you hide your focal points so that you catch a glimpse here and there. They like to place their main feature, usually a pond, in the center of the garden. Vantage points can be seen from inside the house, or outside on a bridge, in a pavilion, under a covered pathway, or strolling through the garden. Many of these ideas were adopted, first by the Japanese, and then traveled the globe to be translated by a variety of cultures. Each subsequent culture came up with a hybrid version of concealment and surprise that suited its particular culture and climate.
My fellow gardener and friend Mermer Blakslee uses many borrowed views in her wonderful garden. Her husband, Eric, cleared a distant wooded area turning it into meadow, which opened up the view and extended it (photo 4 from porch).
Mermer’s garden rises up the hill behind her house and the views shift dramatically as you wander back down through the different levels. The whole garden takes on the feeling of a waterfall of textured foliage and flowers cascading down the slope. The house and barns become the adjacent views as you shift vantage points (photo 5).
Views of distant mountains are framed by tall trees and serve as a backdrop to a shrub border (photo 6). Another gardening friend, Julia Clay, has a small bridge over a stream that was overgrown in brush. The hill and path beyond the bridge had grown in with dense scrub and she decided to take back the view (photo 7). She hired a couple of helpers to clear the brush and by doing so opened up the view. Now the setting sun lights up the area and brings the whole scene back into the garden composition. The little bridge over the stream makes a nice transition from the tamer to the wilder area of her garden (photo 8).