Garden Skylines

Nicely composed landscapes and garden vignettes remind me of interesting city skylines. I'm sure you can picture some of the world's most famous city skylines right now if you tried - San Francisco, Sydney, Hong Kong, New York ... These skylines are compelling in a way that a suburban strip-mall is not. But why?

Nicely composed shot of an interior SF Skyline

A recent post by Danger Garden showing a sepia post card got me thinking about how to zero in on form in our backyard gardens. Let's try removing some of the color "noise".

Waterwise garden vingette
My backyard garden in full color

With the colors gone the plant shapes and the over all 'garden skyline' become a bit more visible.

Waterwise garden vignette in sepia tone
My backyard garden in sepia tone

Next lets convert the image to a sketch which will drop out much of the detail but still contains some reference to texture.

Sketch of backyard garden
Our backyard garden as a sketch

Now that items in the background have been omitted, the garden skyline is emerging clearly!

One thing that popped out to me while sketching the above - the textures of this garden are almost exclusively coarse. Agave and Aloes have such a strong, rigid form. I
think this part of the garden could benefit from some softer textured plants like a tall grass, Leucodendron, sage or a native CA plant.

Next lets reduce each plant within the garden to a basic shape: globes, mounds, vase, towering rectangles, domes, blocks, mats etc.

Remove any hint of plant texture and our garden-scape is starting to resemble a city-scape! Aloe "Hercules" has turned into a skyscraper, the stone border is now a promenade and the gravel path a body of water.

If you squint, the SF skyline below has a very organic feel. The tangle of buildings and their right angles appear like a naturally occurring blanket of vegetation punctuated by a few taller buildings - some with interesting shapes like the Transamerica Pyramid. This picture lacks some of the bigger more dramatic structures of other skylines but it's still pleasing. It feels harmonious somehow.

San Francisco city skyline

Shopping malls on the other hand lack that certain something that draws tourists from around the world. This shot feels... flat and without spirit ( though no fault of the photographer - it's just the subject matter)

Panoramic view of a shopping mall

Stripmall by Keith Peters licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

What's different between the two pictures and why does it even matter to someone like me puttering in his garden? I can't help but feel there is some lesson to be drawn from the difference between these panoramic shots.

The mall shot could be almost anywhere. There is no sense of place unlike the SF shot which is somewhat uniquely placed on a hill behind a body of water. The San Francisco skyline is iconic so it's a bit unfair to compare these two images but at the same time great city skylines are iconic because they are unique! A mall image is not iconic because it is not unique. I'm not saying every garden should be iconic but it helps if a garden has some "spirit of place". As an aside and if you'd like to dig deeper into the implications of the "forces of nowhere" here's an essay entitled "The Architecture of Social Isolation" with some interesting thoughts on our modern society.

The skyline photo above of SF feels harmonious partly because of a rough symmetry. The silhouette builds to a center high point and falls away on either side - not precisely but in an asymmetric, organic fashion you might expect from a place that's been built, burned down, and rebuilt over many decades. If you have ever worked in, lived in or visited a city like San Francisco then you've seen the continual construction that takes place. Like a forest it is a place of constant renewal. I don't mean to pick on malls but they are static things - they grow all at once and then seldom, if ever, change until they are torn down and replaced.

I'm starting to wander now... but what happens when gardens and city skylines are combined?

Highline Garden
Highline Gardens in New York

Highline by Helen K licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I'd love to see the Highline Gardens of New York some day. They deftly borrow offsite views of the city skyline so that a 'flat' garden still has a visual pop. Imagine this same planting surrounded by a suburban style wooden fence; it wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

Back in SF a new elevated transit corridor was recently completed after many years of planning and construction (for awhile I worked next door to part of the construction). It was a massive project.

Section of the SF Transbay Transit Terminal from the street

Photo by Timothy Vollmer licensed under CC BY 2.0

Up top a few trees can be seen peaking over the edge.

SF Transit Center rooftop park
SF Transit Center Rooftop Garden

photo by torbakhopper licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Garden and city skylines expertly woven together. For some reason this feels like we are on the road to OZ where adventure awaits!

Rooftop Aloe trees in the heart of San Francisco!

Aloe by Dianne Yee licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

After this long ramble I'm not sure what to take way other than I'll be paying more attention to the outline of my garden endeavors going forward. On a smaller scale it should be possible to capture some of what an engaging city skyline has to offer.

Happy Gardening!


  1. Your drawing is really cool. The sepia-ization makes an interesting experiment.

    Gardens change a lot faster than cityscapes--your 'Hercules' is just a little baby. It will all look so different when Herc is 30' tall and the pachypodium is 20' tall (my neighbor's is!).

    I found it easier to add architectural plants (tree aloes, agaves) to an area of "soft" plant silhouettes foliage than the other way around, but that could be just a lack of ability.

    Interesting post, lots to think about.

    1. Thanks! it was a fun flight of fancy. btw, my Herc likes to be called a toddler now. Part of me thinks it won't ever make it to full size as it's been growing so fast it the rich soil with plenty of water - I'm not sure the roots have kept pace with the trunk.

  2. That's an interesting exercise. I vaguely recall that one landscape designed (Rebecca Sweet maybe) encouraged gardeners to employ black and white photos of their garden landscapes to evaluate the distribution of light values and variations in form but you comparison to city skylines takes that evaluation to a new level. I'm afraid I'd fail miserably at the sketch phase of the evaluation.

    1. The good thing about a sketch... no one else needs to ever see it in order for it to still be useful! I hadn't heard of Rebecca Sweet - I like her style.

  3. Interesting post! (and not just because you mentioned my blog) I really enjoyed the various steps you took changing what we saw in the corner of your garden.

    1. glad you enjoyed the read! some times it's fun to dig into theory - but not too much before getting out and actually doing something in the garden!

  4. Fantastic article by Roger Scruton-thanks for the link. You have an interesting philosophy to your gardening approach, and one can almost imagine tiny inhabitants your viridian "cityscape". "An architecture of a place"-definitely something worth considering as I start off on my own new garden/landscape adventure. No "bauhaus eggheadery" here! My imaginary citizenry must be as intrepid and resilient as pioneers, and as tenacious as homesteaders-look out for marauding deer!

    1. Glad you like that article. There was a piece I read yrs ago along the same lines that I've been searching for - no success yet. But the general message was similar to what was implied by Scruton - thoughtful beauty in a built environment can make people's lives a little better each and every day. A sense of place (or Genius Loci) is important if you want to defeat the 'forces of nowhere'. I still borrow heavily from what I like - I just try to make it well suited to our environment.


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