The Beauty of Bones

– Posted in: Garden Design

This is the first installment of Design Lines, a new GGW monthly column devoted to exploring the role of structure in garden design.


At the Sunken Garden, it’s all about the lines. I often stroll through grounds of the Hill–Stead, a manse turned museum not far from where I live. The main reason I head in that direction is to look in on its Sunken Garden, a gem designed, back in the day, by Beatrix Farrand. Depending on the season, I might gaze upon its carefully wrought color combinations, its fraternity of plants, and the welcoming refuge of its pavilion. But for me the real splendor of the Sunken Garden’s design lies in its geometry.

Even in the dead of winter, on the darkest days of December, the Sunken Garden is a thing of beauty. Why? Because of its structure, what some refer to as the bones of a garden. Bones are the architecture of the garden, the permanent structural elements that provide a framework for all the rest. Bones might be evergreens, they might be hedges, they might be built objects such as walkways, fences or arbors. No matter what day you look in on the garden you see its bones.


From the top step of the stairs descending to the Sunken Garden, I see a whole world of bones, knit together with a genius that ensures the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. First, there is the pavilion, a simple but alluring structure that extends the promise of sanctuary to the garden visitor. Pointing the way to this place of repose are the arrow-straight brick walkways lined with boxwood hedges. Surrounding the boxwoods and pavilion like a frame for a picture, are a hexagonal brick walk, enveloped in turn by an octagonal yew hedge. Those two elements frame the main garden beds, laid out, from a passing bird’s perspective, as a perfect octagon. Finally, in yet another layer, there are the enclosing walls that define the garden itself, long sweeping arms of stone that hug the garden in a protective embrace. The whole effect is one of classical formality, a mathematical triumph.

Yet, it’s more than that. A math-based garden design could easily be boring or predictable, but the Sunken Garden reminds me, somehow, of a Navaho rug. Those too are paeans to formalism, their perfect shapes interlocked in a seamless celebration of order. But the Navahoes believed only God was capable of perfection, and so to ensure their weaving would be worldly, they introduced mistakes into each piece they produced. In the same way, the Sunken Garden celebrates order, but with a hint of mischief. The enclosing stone walls look symmetrical at a glance, but they are not. And there’s an endearingly quirky entrance to the garden here and there, punctuating the orderly formality with a dash of whimsy. I especially like the almost randomly placed gothically spooky stone archway that leads into the garden through the wall’s eastern side.

One of the dangers of designing a geometric jewel box of a garden sunken into the Earth is that it might feel suffocating or claustrophobic. But the Sunken Garden feels open thanks to its expansive sight lines, which escort the eye out to the surrounding landscapes. Think of the straight shot from the top step: the eye races along the boxwood-lined brick path on its way to the pavilion, travels though, and then onward, past Theodate Pope’s sundial, through the open gate, and out into the freedom of the open pastures beyond. Or, maybe you’re sitting in the pavilion, the garden’s inner sanctum. In one direction lie the fields, in another the arched entry provides a handsome frame for a different destination– the family home. There’s always some place to go, so you never feel locked in.

Like I said, it’s all about the bones, which here are knit together just so, to create a sanctuary-centered, welcoming enclosure surrounded by geometric patterns to delight the eye and engage the mind. All that, 12 months a year. Such is the beauty of bones, and of the Hill-Stead’s Sunken Garden.

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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6 comments… add one

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Sylvia (England) March 20, 2009, 5:18 am

Steve, I am going to enjoy this column, structure is something my garden lacks, though I am working on it. Looking forward to some good ideas.

Thank you. Best wishes Sylvia (England)

Thanks Sylvia–As you might guess, it’s one of my favorite topics to explore. My interest stemmed from my recognition that I needed to add structure to my own garden, and many subsequent opportunities to revisit that basic idea. So, we’ll cover some fun stuff.–Steve

Catherine March 20, 2009, 10:42 am

Wow, that is beautiful. I wish I would’ve believed what I read about the importance of bones when first started our garden. Now I’m trying to improve them and I can see during the winter just how badly I need to.

The good thing about bones is that you can always retrofit a garden with them. Most every garden benefits form beefed-up structure, whether it’s a plant, some hardscape, or a simple tweak of the bed lines.–Steve

Chookie March 21, 2009, 9:34 pm

Oh, thank you so much for this! I’m really going to look forward to learning from you. Hope you don’t mind if I request a column on how informal designs work.

Thanks for the vote of confidence Chookie. Can you give me a little more detail about what you’re hoping to learn about informal design?–Steve

VP March 22, 2009, 10:04 am

What a great start to a new series Steve, thank you. I’d always considered I didn’t have enough lines in my garden, but your piece has made me look at my own garden with fresh eyes and realise the garden walls between the patio and the rest of the garden are an important winter feature just as much as the evergreens.

LINDA from EACH LITTLE WORLD March 23, 2009, 1:25 pm

Oh, dem bones! I’m guessing that space may actually be more beautiful now, with a covering of snow, than at any other time of year.

Hi Linda–While there’s something to what you say-the hedges et al look especially good in winter, I gotta put in a plug for dem bones: they keep the whole place looking tidy and sculptural all season long. And it’s nice to see the contribution made by the walkways and such.–Steve

Commonweeder March 25, 2009, 9:29 am

I’ve been reading about a garden’s ‘bones’ ever since I began gardening 30 years ago, but I have never found them easy to get. I’m still trying. Your post was a great lesson. Thank you. I didn’t realize Beatrix Farrand designed Hill-Stead. It’s not that far away from me and now I’m definitley planning a trip.

Commonweeder–The Hillstead’s fun to see-I’m just a 30 minute walk away. Let me know if you come. I’ll try to sugest a few other worthwhile gardens in the vicinity.-Steve

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