Garden Design in the Round

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Visits


salzburgGoing round in circles can be a good thing if we’re talking about garden designs. In an earlier post I spoke about my passion for using geometry in design and how strong shapes lend their character to a setting and form a structural element so sturdy that it frees you to use almost any type of planting. The same hold true for circles, which, as far as I’m concerned can work in any setting. They contrast with more angular lines to form a pleasing geometric juxtapositon as they do here at Mirabell Gardens in Salzburg, Austria, or they can add an element of more intentional form to a rambling, naturalistic design as they do in my own garden, above.


There’s something at once artificial and natural about circles. Humankind has been enamored of this cosmic form since the mists of prehistory. Stonehenge (as seen in this National Geographic photo by Joe McNally/Sygma) is comprised of circles. So are some Mayan observatories. The circle pointed the way to the wheel, and so drove us forward. In Medieval times, scholars believed there was something “divine” or “perfect” about circles and so revered that most simple of shapes. As do I. So I use circles whenever I can, and appreciate them whenever I see them.


06-sept-12-071One of my favorite places for seeing circles in landscape design is the phenomenal Naumkeag, a Berkshire Mountains manse with gardens designed by Fletcher Steele at the apogee of his creativity. His iconic Blue Steps are surely based on the circular forms which reappear throughout the garden in such places as the Chinese garden, exited by a circular Moon Gate, and the formal stroll garden centered around this circular fountain.


Nearby in the Massachusetts Berkshires, The Mount is the former home of writer and passionate gardener Edith Wharton, who designed this Italianate walled garden around a rustic rockpile fountain shaped like a circle.


Last but not least, the simplicity of the concentric circles, or parts of circles anyway, lend the Amphitheatre at Swarthmore College a rugged structure that contrasts pleasingly with the surrounding woodlands.  


Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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Ken from Sweden January 16, 2009, 3:18 pm

I´m to for landscape design.
I think it is very importan that you use bouth straight lines and round forms, its makes it more intresting.
We have a big garden on a flat field so we must use many landscap designs bouth on the ground and also to get any hight, for example with fence hedges and pergolas.
I like the form and structure on the english gardens.

Hi Ken–Contrast is good! Straight lines and rounded ones complement each oher, and look better together than either one alone. And yes, I wasn’t even thinking about height, but that’s anopther area one can play with straight and curved lines, or strive for repetition with recurring forms.–Steve

Nancy Bond January 16, 2009, 3:37 pm

All these gardens are circular treats for the eye, but I especially like that Italianate walled garden. The water feature in the middle, well, it just looks very peaceful. A nice place to sit and think.

Yes, that Edith Wharton garden is a beauty-it was restored only recently. You should see the rest of it. Worth a visit if you’re ever in western Mass achusetts area.–Steve

Darla January 16, 2009, 4:12 pm

I’ll take soft curves in a garden any day over straight lines. Curves are more forgiving!

Curves are forgiving, Darla. But I like the dynamism of using boths curves and straight lines or rectilinear shapes. That said, a little bit of straight line goes a long way.-Steve

Lisa at Greenbow January 16, 2009, 7:49 pm

I am happy to see that my garden fits right in with these master pieces. Ha… only in that almost all the flower beds in the back garden are round. I have one large oval. I almost made it two circles but…well, it is too much to discuss here. I am thrilled to see that there are famous circle gardens.

Sounds like you are definitely gardening in the round, Lisa! Love to see a picture of that layout.–Steve

Diana January 16, 2009, 10:05 pm

Great post about structure. I was reading along and thought, gee, that garden looks familiar…and it was! We were at the Mirabell gardens in Salzburg this summer and thought they were just lovely. Very formal in some places, like your photo, but more mysterious around the walls and steps and hedges. thanks for sharing!

What a coincidence, Diana. I really liked Mirabell’s statuary, off to the side where they have statues of all these elvish, gnomelike characters. I think those less formal areas with the walls, steps, hedges and terraces add so much to the overall experience of wandering through there. It’s the tension between formal/informal that is so compelling. In my picture, I love not only the circular water feature, but the majesty of that axial line pointing straight toward Hohensalzburg, the big castle on the hill,.–Steve

Hostabuff January 17, 2009, 1:17 am

I developed my first circular garden last summer. A circle was a great way to creat a garden room in a smaller space. I’m still working on the bones of the plantings and expect it will be a work in process for some time. In your photos, I like the contrast created when combining hard edged stone accents with a circle form.

In my garden, all the circles are edged in stone or brick, I think materials like that really strengthen the form. Circles make terrific island beds, and then you can close in around them with surrounding beds. create a circular walkway…and you’re off to the races!–Steve

franniesorin January 17, 2009, 3:21 am

A visit years ago to Naumkeag was my introduction to Fletcher Steele and his work. What a phenomenal place! And knowing that it was Edith Wharton’s home makes it all that more special! Fran

Hi Fran–I think Naumkeag is the perfect introduction to Fletcher Steele. It is just overrun with great ideas. He and the owner had a long collaboration, and every year of it was valuable. A lot of that garden constituted the very cutting edge of design at the time. As for Edith, who would have guessed she was such a gifted garden designer? The formal promenades and such at The Mount are phenomenal.–Steve

Bonnie Story January 17, 2009, 11:07 am

Also round (usually): Labyrinths! I love those! Very inspiring post and thanks for the great research and pictures.

Thanks, Bonnie! And you’re right–I guess I usually think of labyrinths as spiral, but they are contained within a circle. I’d love to be able to figure out a way to get one of those in my yard.– Steve

Pam Kersting January 20, 2009, 6:53 pm

What a lovely post! I love using concentric shapes in the garden. They are also a great way to connect objects or places in the garden that generally are very disconnected. An example of this use of organization would be how Pierre Charles L’Enfant organized the city of Washington, DC. He provided order by inserting all of the circles! I love this topic and will probably write a post about this in the future. When I do, I’ll certainly link to you!

Thank you, Pam. I look forward to your go-round on circles. In the meantime, your post on squares, checkerboards, and repeating patterns was an eyeful. Very interesting.–Steve

Robb at Villa Verde,Palm Spgs. September 5, 2009, 1:26 pm

Thanks for your photos &comments. My circle evolved into an heart shaped bed of yellow Lantana beneath three large California Fan Palms next to a koi pond. Will it prove to be too coy a device? Aww. I hope to make it work since for gardeners and lovers – Hope Springs Eternal.

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