Garden design: The magic of juxtaposition

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September 29, 2022

The tools you can use to take your garden to the next level

Column and photographs by Jay Sifford

Have you ever visited a garden in which everything was coordinated and well tended, yet left you feeling rather flat, underwhelmed and unengaged? Worse yet, perhaps your own garden reads this way. Maybe everything matches, like a suite of furniture purchased from a big-box store in a single afternoon. Perhaps it’s time to shake things up by introducing some thoughtful juxtaposition, which can be viewed as eclecticism with a strong common thread.

If you think about it, you’ll realize that everything, whether animate or inanimate, has four variables or parameters: size, shape, color and texture. These variables are tools we can use to take our gardens to the next level. 

If all four of these variables match, the garden reads as uninteresting, predictable and mundane. If none of these variables match, the garden appears as haphazard, unplanned and chaotic. Many gardens read this way, whether they are curated by plant collectors or clearance shoppers. 

A good starting point is to match two of these parameters and vary the other two. Doing so will give the garden enough continuity to hold together but will introduce enough diversity to create interest and keep the mind engaged. From this point, you can tweak up or down.

In this photo, a diverse collection of plants are sited around a large ceramic pot. The vignette offers many varied elements yet holds together well. The large pink flower heads on the Joe-Pye weed (top left) mimic the shape of the ripening sedum flower heads (bottom center) and form a dialogue with the terra cotta lip and glaze pattern of the container. The blue conifer (bottom right) relates to the container in color and texture. Additionally, the conifer mimics the texture of the sedum. Here, the container holds the vignette together with color and texture.

A farden vignette with a mix of in-ground and potted plants.

Most people would consider it a bold move to site an industrial sculpture, forged from machine parts, in a natural woodland garden. This one works because the sculpture repeats the shape and color of the beech tree trunks while the size and texture are different. Additionally, the face of the sculpture speaks to the fact that owls inhabit this forest. Here, the parameters of juxtaposition transcend style.

Here is a step-by-step example of how to use juxtaposition to your advantage:

1   This blown-glass installation, left, mimics the shape and texture of the dark green Aspidistra (cast iron plant) leaves in the center of the grouping, as well as the ostrich ferns in the background, satisfying the match two/vary two concept. Still, the installation looks abruptly out of place in this woodland garden, even though red and green are complementary colors on the color wheel. More continuity is needed, as a clear common thread is difficult to discern.

2   In this photo, center, a matching third parameter — color — is added. The replacement of solid red glass with glass that contains a large percentage of chartreuse to match the surrounding Illicium shrubs creates too much continuity to be interesting enough to engage the mind for any length of time. 

3   Finally, right, we have hit on a balance that works. By adding a percentage of the solid red glass back into the mix, we have created a balance of continuity and diversity. The result is a garden focal point that feels right and engages the mind. 

The next time you venture into your garden, study it from a new perspective, looking through the eyes of juxtaposition. Your garden will welcome the change.  SP

Jay Sifford is a Charlotte-based landscape designer who specializes in contemporary, Asian and transitional gardens. His work has been featured in Southern Living, Country Gardens and Fine Gardening, as well as Houzz and several books.

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