The Background On Backgrounds

– Posted in: Garden Design

new verbascum and mapleI’m one of those who believe the basic language of visual design applies to almost any topic or media. The ideas that make a successful garden vignette could also be employed to create a pleasing painting, a tempting textile, a beautiful building, or a fine photograph. There is a design language, and it does boast a few important “phrases.” Thus we hear, ad nauseum,  about contrasting forms, about the use of color, the value of texture, blah, blah, blah. I don’t mean to belittle those essential elements, but how come we never hear anything about, say, backgrounds?  

A good background is critical to the success of almost any composition. I learned just how important back in the day, when I was a newspaper photographer working the trenches at several big-city dailies.

For those of you who may not remember newspapers, which are, tragically, soon to be extinct, let me remind you that they covered everything. Everything. Fires, elections, weather, riots, food, personalities, sports, parades, crime-and that’s just for starters. I covered all that stuff too. And every day, under less than optimal conditions and in less time than I needed, I was expected to parachute in and grab an image good enough to be a page one contender. Add to those obstacles the miserable reproduction capabilities of most newspapers, and my challenge was clear. How could I make my pictures “pop” off the page? It didn’t take long to realize one of the most reliable solutions was to seek “clean” backgrounds–simple, graphically pleasing elements that reinforced my image rather than distracted from it. I also learned the value of dispensing with backgrounds altogether, by throwing them way out of focus, or by seeking mysterious dark backdrops which, although they might appear a muddy gray in print, nonetheless helped my subjects leap from their confining rectangle. The idea was to direct viewers straight to the heart of my image, to create visual impact, to simplify the act of seeing.

Those same lessons, I later learned, applied to my garden. Just as a background sometimes played a make-or-break role in photography, it did the same for garden vignettes, which always became more vivid when associated with an appropriate background. And in both garden-making and picture taking, I took the same approach. Simple is good. Dark is good. Dark and simple is REALLY good.

Walker.HBJ 018-1

long house pots-1A wall of a house or barn can be a good background, as can the dark green of a woodland, or meadow. A hedge-and I’m using that term loosely– is one of the best (i.e. dark and simple) backgrounds. You might have a neatly clipped privet hedge (like Ben and Francis Burr in Bellport, NY) , a  more rambling configuration or needled and broad-leafed evergreens (begind th epots at LongHouse in the NY Hamptons), a woodland edge hedge (At Richard Copeland’s in Roxbury, CT), or even a distant border (like the one at Berkshire Botanical Gardens in Stockbriddge, MA), providing it is comprised of massive blocks of plant.

copland green 3

Loomis Creek.BBG 068

Echinops and verbascumOn a smaller scale, a single tree or shrub can serve ably as background. Any evergreen will do–the red branches of Acer palmatum ‘Sangko Kaku’ just pop against the dark backdrop on pine and rhody. And dark leaved deciduous candidates–purple smokebush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’), ‘Diablo’ ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’) or a burgundy-hued Japanese maple (Acer palmatum spp and cultivars), especially a mounding, dissected-leaf form–work especially well to create small but dramatic effects at Sydney Eddison’s Newtown, Ct garden at left and atop the post.


Danny Hills benchGot paint? Get out there and brush up your own background, like this vividly blue wall at Ana y Jose’s in Tulum, Mexico or this totally turquoise scene at Danny Hill’s ands Wayne Hughes’ Lonesomeville garden in Portland, Or. Take the opportunity to go bold, really bold, with color.

Ana y jose cacto-1

Last, if you’ve really got background problems, build your own. At her garden Green Dreams in Avon, Ct, Jan Nickle did just that hanging a trellis off a wall and ornamenting the scene with a few well-chosen orbs. It works!

blue balls 2-1

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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6 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Eric Hegwer November 21, 2009, 9:51 am

GREAT post!

For me the #1 rule is always, “Watch your background”

Thanks Eric–If you get your backgrounds just right, it’s easier to get a little drama in front.–Steve

Frances November 22, 2009, 3:35 pm

Your words are so ably illustrated, Steve! We have been making sure evergreens are well placed to enhance their neighbors in our gardens. We just moved the white muhly grass, M. capillaris ‘White Cloud’ to the front of the hedge of Chamaecyparis ‘Gold Mops’. The white flowering grass was completely lost in the miasma of non evergreen garden plants and now shows the elegant beauty nicely.
Too bad about the newspapers. Sad but true.

Sylvia (England) November 23, 2009, 8:21 am

Great post and pictures Steve, thank you. I am very aware that most of my garden suffers from a poor background, road going up/down hill and other houses but no hedge or fence allowed. It isn’t so bad when you look towards the house but I look out of the windows! Still the small back garden has a nice walled/fenced look so it isn’t all bad.

Best wishes Sylvia (England)

Maybe you could put in a few clumps of background, Sylvia–a Japanese maple, a grass, anything that provides the basic effect but is not too expansive.–Steve

kris at Blithewold November 23, 2009, 10:28 am

I’ve never thought about it quite this way but you’re right – backgrounds are SO important. I’ve probably thought about it under a broader contrast context but I’ve also really struggled with getting the backgrounds just right both in the garden and in photos – without being totally aware that that was the sticking point.

Hi Kris-Getting the idea to reside in some part of your consciousness is where it starts. From there it s just a matter of refining. And yes, photos ruthlessly reveal the value of a good background; they actually make or break some scenes, just as they do in the garden.–Steve

healingmagichands November 23, 2009, 6:05 pm

Wonderful post, very instructive. One of the things I really love about the fences at The Havens is they make such wonderful backgrounds for so many of my shots.

I thought about having a hedge for about five minutes one day. Then I decided that I didn’t really need another chore to take care of. Keeping a hedge beautiful here is a real challenge. First of all, you do have to trim it occasionally or it will turn into a jungle. And then, here where I have so many happy little birdies I can just imagine what I would be having to dig out of my hedge after a couple of years: poke, henbit, poison ivy, virginia creeper, cherry trees, mulberry trees, blackberries, strawberries, and I don’t know what all else. Then I think maybe a hedge isn’t such a good idea.

Then I go and look at the photographs of the wonderful gardens with hedges and think, well maybe it would be worth it after all.

I’m still thinking about it. Meanwhile, I am loving looking at these pictures. Beautiful.

Thanks–a hedge needn’t be all sharp lines and crisp tidiness. A rambling, free-form hedge has a lot going for it too. Or just have a hedge in a small part of the garden.–Steve

Susan November 23, 2009, 8:34 pm

I know I should worry about such things, but after 30 years of gardening, I know I will never change. I have an instinct about plants and sometimes they agree with me.

Susan-Actually you should never worry about such things. Gardening and especially the design aspect of it it, is meant to be fun. Instincts are good-go with them. The best gardens are always the most personal.–Steve

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