One Big Thing

– Posted in: Garden Design


I wish I could say that my garden evolved to its present state thanks to some grand design. But it hasn’t. Oh, we began with a few basic concepts, but for the most part it has grown by equal parts hit-or-miss, with some trowel-and-error thrown in. Its driving force has been, more than anything else, a spirit of invention. That has meant a lot of changes over the years, as once-hazy, half-recognized notions took more solid form. Garden rooms, for example, seemed totally abstract at first–I could understand the idea, but had no clue how to make one. Same with structure. I grasped its value, but was unsure how to proceed–until I tried approaching from it a different angle. That’s when I started trying ONE BIG THING.

Structure, I realized, was all about form–dramatic form, enduring form, contrasting form. It was about architectural shapes, about summoning order from chaos. Unfortunately Iwas working backwards. I had the body–floppy foliage, shrubby stuff, etc–but the body needed bones, or it was all too ethereal, too temporary, too accidental. My first experients were simple ones. Into an attractive but unfocused part of the garden I introduced a little instant structure: a large empty pot. 


 I realized immediately I was on the right track. For whatever reason, this worked. There was a dynamism between the smooth manufactured shape of the pot and the softer billowy plants that surrounded it. The pot drew attention, providing a center of interest for the once unresolved setting. It was a focal point. It all seemed so simple. All I had to do to provide structure was add ONE BIG THING, or a cluster of things which presented themselves as a single group, or a couple identical things-thereby introducing, in addition, a pleasing element of repetition.


Like this scene at Longwood Gardens. The sea of tulips is handsome enough. But, add the ONE BIG THING of these neatly clipped cones of yew, and–Wowsa!–you’re off to the races.


My ONE BIG THING could be almost anything: a plant, a rock, a building (like this bird cage), an ornament, an empty pot. Sometimes ONE BIG THING led to another.


06-918-077I struggled for years with this part of the garden. I loved my empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa), which I cut to the ground every spring to encourage a fast-growing flush of new, gigundo leaves. In a different spot the tree itself might be all the structure you’d need…but, not in this spot. I could never find the right companions for it. Lord knows I tried. Every spring, I was tearing out old plants and putting in new, different ones in hope that it would somehow come together. But it never did. One year, I was hosting a garden tour and needed desperately to address that spot–I wanted it to look attractive, of course, but more importantly, I needed to create a visual stop, a concealing wall, so that as you rounded that area, a new hitherto-hidden scene was suddenly revealed. I plopped in a couple pottted plants, a canna and an Alberta spruce (which may be kind of dowdy but, you know, their tidy conical form makes them a fine structural plant).  Which helped, but didn’t quite fill the space. So I tucked in a pot (do you recognize that one?), and…Bingo! It worked. The trouble was, that pot was usually employed elsewhere. But I learned my lesson–I didn’t have to solve the problem with plants, I could just as easily use an object–as long as it was ONE BIG THING, or a cluster that read as a single thing. So, the next season I added the “”Brothers from Another Planet,” who served as sentinels in this part of the garden and whose sturdy, contrasting forms had the necessary oomph to coexist harmoniously with the empress tree. Worked for me and, years later, it still does.

The beauty of experimenting with the ONE BIG THING idea is its simplicity. It’s no big deal to get, say, a three-foot-tall  pot into postition, and you know instantly if it works. If it doesn’t, you can rejigger it until it does. If it’s too small, put it up on something to make it more prominent. Move it left or right. Or, try something else all together. The ONE BIG THING you’re auditioning needn’t be a permanent feature, it’s just a way to see part of the garden differently, a way to experiment, a way to generate ideas. For me, many’s the time such an experiment was the first step in re-imagining a part of the garden that needed something, even when I wasn’t sure quite what. This much I learned: ONE BIG THING opened a conceptual door for me, and my garden is all the better for it.

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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Sylvia (England) April 21, 2009, 11:45 am

Steve, I recognise your struggles, I assume we all go through this. I will look closely at my borders in the front tonight to see if ‘one big thing’ would solve their problems. This year, in the back garden, we have replaced some lawn with beds and paths which has really worked. Thinking about it my new paths are my ‘one big thing’.

Thank you for a thought provoking post. Best wishes Sylvia (England)

Thanks Sylvia–Best wishes and Happy Earth Day to you! Paths certainly could be one big thing, and should they form any kind of junction, well, “X” marks the spot for another big thing. Darwinism rules in the garden! And yes, It seems we all DO go through this. It’s all about evolution–of the site, the plants, and, of course, the gardener.–Steve

Darla April 21, 2009, 12:33 pm

GREAT post! I know I needed to read this for sure.

Thanks Darla–I hope you have fun–and get some results–by playing with this idea.–Steve

Jean April 21, 2009, 1:44 pm

Terrific post. Simple and with great before and after photos (and I love your designs). I know this’ll help me and many others. Thanks!

And thank you, Jean. Always hoping to give people ideas!–Steve

Grace April 21, 2009, 3:05 pm

As I’m reading your post, I’m thinking, who is this writer? This is good stuff. Having erroneously bypassed the byline, I scrolled back, oh, Steve Silk of Fine Gardening fame. (Obviously I’m a newbie to this blog.)

Anyway, great post. It does seem that no matter how much information we digest as we dig into designing our gardens, we must saunter through the rites of passage until our boneless borders leave us scratching our head and going, “Okay now, what advice did I ignore while I was busy planting flowers?” Juxtaposing your one big thing amid your treasured plantings really sets off the vignette.

Welcome Grace, glad you stopped by GGW.
Hmmm, rites of passage. I like that idea. I absorb information in almost a geologic way; I put down layer after layer after layer, and gradually all that sediment builds into something worthwhile. But it does take time. And I like to learn by reading, but get far more out of it if I can actually see how something happens or if I do it with my own hands. So though I often get an itch to fix this or that, it takes time until I know how to give that itch a satisfying scratch. But that’s part of the fun of gardening–the gardener grows along with the garden.–Steve

bev April 21, 2009, 6:03 pm

I love the photos which show exactly what you mean. It makes all the difference to those of us with a visually challenged imagination – thanks!

Thank you Bev–I was just lucky to have those “before” pics…usually I just have a lot of “afters.” One reward of blogging and giving presentations and stuff is that you take a lot more care in documenting the evolution of the garden, and that’s been fun.–Steve

Adam Woodruff April 21, 2009, 8:40 pm

EXCELLENT post Steve!

Thanks Adam, looking forward to your Ball garden post.—Steve

Kathy in Napa April 21, 2009, 11:51 pm

Excellent Steve, a garden designer here once told me to view my garden as a series of vignettes , and that made a great impact in how I designed certain areas–One big thing is an perfect extension of that..

That is some good advice you got, Kathy. Gardens ARE a series of vignettes, hopefully discrete ones, as it doesn’t do to see too many vignettes at once. Have fun with one big thing.–Steve

Bonnie April 22, 2009, 12:01 pm

Love it- you’re so right. I have to knock myself on the head and say “Keep it simple” over and over and look for the singular focus.

Thanks Bonnie–Simple is good. Sometimes it’s easy too think too hard or too much about something, when the solution is actually an easy one. –Steve

salix April 22, 2009, 1:29 pm

A picture tells a thousand words – two pictures (before and after in this case) tells tens of thousands. Thank you so much for these wonderful illustrations. All the “garden” theory one has learned just isn’t the same without picturing them.

Salix–I’m one of those visual learners too-you might have to tell me something a hundred times, but you only have to show me once.–Steve

ryan April 22, 2009, 9:35 pm

The before and after/ with and without photos are great. Thanks.

Thanks Ryan, I really do need to take more “before” photos since it really is the best way to show how changes in the garden work or do not work. Trouble is, sometims the “after” sneaks up on me before I think about a “before.”–Steve

s Pasm Pam/Digging April 23, 2009, 1:41 am

Go big or go home! You’ve got a great suggestion here, and it’s illustrated perfectly with your garden photos.

Thanks Pam! That’s the idea, alright. From the look of your garden you’re thinking along these lines too–love your burly agaves and oversized stock tank.–Steve

Carol April 25, 2009, 9:35 am

Terrific post Steve! We all need to be aware of your concept One Big Thing… love it… simple and simply so… your photos are lovely. What a beautiful bird cage!

Thanks Carol, I like that bird cage too. It has worked as a garden ornament far better than I hoped, and that was a part of my garden that really needs some bones.–Steve

Chookie April 25, 2009, 6:27 pm

That was really helpful, Steve — thank you!

You’re quite welcome Chookie! I hope you can have some fun with the idea.–Steve

MacGardens April 26, 2009, 9:02 am

I remember reading a comment from Henry Mitchell that said in essence to start with the architecture part of the landscape and the flowers will follow in due course. It’s guidance that I find hard to follow but I’m working on it. Your comments are another push in that direction.

Thanks, but I’m usually working backwards. I get a spot established then say, hmmm, needs bones. Then I figure out some way to retrofit the area. Works for me.

Good Henry Mitchell comment, someday maybe I’ll start from that point rather than backing up to it. —Steve

healingmagichands April 26, 2009, 6:20 pm

I really enjoyed this post. I guess I use the One Big Thing upon occasion, but unfortunately the Things I have found lately are So Big they defy moving once they are in the right place. The stone bench we located in our stroll garden comes to mind. It never occurred to me that I could use something that wasn’t so heavy, like a big pot! Sometimes we are just a little blind to the obvious.

Anyway, I have learned a lot about garden design from reading articles just like this one. This year I am congratulating myself because, FOR ONCE, I actually did what the professionals counseled and did not plant my shrubs too close together. Yes, they looked really far apart and lonely the first couple of years, but now that they are filling out they are starting to look really good, just like the masters told me! I need to find a really big, beautiful pot that doesn’t cost the earth.

Thanks–But you know what? I always plant my shrubs too closely. I usalluy try to do a group of three, or so, and then take out the middle one once they start filling in, or I fill in with annuals. I’m patient, but need good looks fast. Maybe that’s what led, in part, to the ONE BIG THING. One problem, as you point out, is that it can be very heavy, very expensive, or both. I’ve got around that a bit by using homemade stuff–like my chainsaw “Brothers From Another Planet” or by taking say a purchased container then building a platform (which will be covered by surrounding plants) to give the pot a big boost.–Steve

Helen April 29, 2009, 6:24 pm

Brilliant! Big things (the right big things) will now be an obsession. Thanks.

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