Punctuating The Garden

– Posted in: Garden Design

my stairs

Hah! I bet you thought I’d be posting about exclamation points! Exciting stuff! Focal points! But no, today I shall focus on the lowly, misunderstood, but oh-so invaluable comma. Let’s think for a moment about its role. According to Wikipedia, “the comma is used in many contexts and languages, principally for separating things.” So what exactly does that mean in terms of garden design?

Consider a journey through the garden. Is it a straightforward stroll or an oddyssey of sorts, a passage through a series of events large and small, past eye-catching vignettes and special moments? I prefer the latter. And to make that kind of garden, a place where one pauses to savor the moments, we need commas. They help structure a garden as surely as they do for a sentence. Just as a sentence can devolve into meaningless run-on gobbledy-gook without proper punctuation, so too can a garden. A grammatic comma tells you where to pause, and it separates long strings of words into meaningful clauses. A garden comma does the same thing–it divides a garden into structural episodes, or chapters.

gd gateway-1

OB entry potNow you can’t put a comma any old place. There are rules for its use in written language, but in the vernacular of the garden the rules, or rather guidelines, for its use are more subjective.  First, what is a garden comma? It can be object or plant. But it’s not the thing itself that matters, it’s how and where it is used.  It is NOT a focal point, those are more like exclamation points. A comma is more subtle. Its intent is to slow you down, to make a minor announcement, to get your attention, to say, “Here begins a new clause.” So, they are ideal for use at any transition point in a garden. Try some attention- getting but subordinate objet d’art or plant anywhere there’s a change in the garden. Let’s see how a few gardeners have used containers as commas: At a gate (above, in Jan Nickel’s Avon, Ct garden and at left in Ernie sand Marietta O’Byrne’s Eugene, OR garden), at the start of a path (below, Jan Nickel again-here the materials overhead and underfoot change as well, so this is a BIG comma), at the base of a set of stairs (top of the post). Those are some basic placements. 


Pots aren’t the only thing that can serve as a comma, and points of transition aren’t the only place they can be used. More subtle placement draws attention not to a change, but to an immediate location. It says, “Hey, you’re in a special space, take a look around!” The neatly clipped boxwood balls in Bob Dash’s garden, Madoo, on Long Island, NY are just the thing to slow you down, to get your attention, and to make you aware of this particular “subordinate clause” within the overall garden.

madoo orbs 

Finally, its time to take a load off, sit down and perhaps contemplate the meaning and usage of commas in the garden.  This bench in Wesley Rouse’s Southbury, CT garden gives us just the right opportunity. So often benches serve as a focal point or as a destination, so I particularly admire this placement, which is most definitely a comma. It’s NOT a destination, and its casual pathside setting is not a command; instead it is a gentle invitation to pass by, or to sit. Either way, it’s okay. Like the boxwood orbs, what it really says is, “Look around! You’re in a special little room in the garden. Enjoy!” Just like a comma, it offers a pause that refreshes.

wr seating spot

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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14 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Sylvia (England) June 25, 2009, 5:26 am

Steve, this is really interesting and thought provoking. It also fits with my thoughts this morning when I was trying to decide what to do with a little area of my garden. Now I realise that what I need is a comma, I don’t want people to stop just know they are moving from one subtle area/style to another. Now I just need to decide on the comma!

Best wishes and thank you Sylvia (England)

Thanks Sylvia–At least knowing where you want to put a comma is half the battle, now you can audition various candidates. A plant in a pot is a good quick way to get a feel for what the effect might be. Happy comma-making!–Steve

Lisa at Greenbow June 25, 2009, 7:01 am

I enjoy commas in the garden. A nice way to think of them.

I like them too, Lisa, and have often wondered how other punctuation marks might be analagous to garden design.–Steve

James Golden June 25, 2009, 7:22 am

The grammar analogy is really helpful, easy to remember and carry around the garden. Thanks.

Thanks James–I think educators have identified something like 20 different ways people learn things. Some learn best by touching, others by watching someone else do something, others by reading, and on and on. But what the heck, an analogy or story approach is almost always easy to remember, so…–Steve

Carol June 25, 2009, 7:59 am

Wonderful essay! Clever comma usage! Very inspiring and lovely gardens.

Thanks so much Carol. Nothing’s more fun than visiting other gardens and getting ideas–I can never seem to do quite enough of that.–Steve

Randy June 25, 2009, 10:50 am

What an interesting analogy! You are very good at explaining things where a beginning gardener like me can understand it. Well done.

That’s what I hope to do in Design Lines, Randy. Verbalize and distill some of those conceptual notions that are the basis of design. Glad to know this one worked for you.–Steve

healingmagichands June 25, 2009, 12:14 pm

I like this post a lot. Now I know what to call all those benches and changes in my garden, and how to think about putting more in.

HMH–Enjoy putting punctuation marks in the garden, and let them help bring it a sense a of order.–Steve

Barbara E June 25, 2009, 12:16 pm

Hadn’t thought about garden design in this grammatical sense – but yes, I think I get it. Commas always confused me in writing. I’m even more confused on how to apply them in my garden, but I’ll give it a try. Thanks.

Barbara, as long as you use pots or some other mobile contrivance to make your commas, you can eaily experiment until you get a feel for whatever you’re after.–Steve

Olive Branch June 25, 2009, 12:27 pm

Thank you for this blog post! It is very helpful to compare gardening to writing. I can think of a few areas in my garden that need some commas…

Well Olive, as long as there aren’t any parts that need erasing, you’re on the right track.–Steve

lenna gonya June 25, 2009, 12:57 pm

LOVE the pictures! Yes, gardens are many things, textures, shapes and colors!

I hear ya, Lenna! The trick is to get all those plates spinning at once. –Steve

Debra Lee Baldwin June 25, 2009, 1:10 pm

Love this. I immediately went out and evaluated a part of the garden I’m revamping, and have decided to do a comma pathway. Thanks!

Thanks Debra–Wow! I love hearing about instant results. When are we going to see that garden?–Steve

Susan Cohan June 25, 2009, 9:24 pm

Interesting, thought provoking and another way to explain design concepts. In my book that’s a good thing since one kind of explanation doesn’t always get the point across to everyone. Thanks.

You’re right Susan–people learn things in different ways.–Steve

Cameron(Defining Your Home Garden) June 25, 2009, 10:30 pm

Great analogy and easily understood. Love the photo examples, too.


Thanks a lot Cameron–I’m always on the lookout for easy analogies, they’re easy to understand, to remember, and to write about.–Steve

Pam/Digging June 26, 2009, 2:19 am

Nice post. Now I’m wondering what a colon or quotation mark would look like in the garden. 😉

Hmmm–Guess we’ve all got lots of question marks in the garden, as in “Why the heck did I do that?” but the real challenges are semi-colons and dashes. I’ll be thinking about those quotation marks.–Steve

Chookie June 26, 2009, 8:32 pm

Another great post! Now if only my house extensions were done…

Thanks Chookie–Those house renovations could provide you all sorts of cues for some well-placed punctuation. Have fun with it!–Steve

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