There’s something about a circle: It’s a perfect fit in any garden.
Garden designers turn to circles to define spaces, frame views and break up the sharp lines of a garden. They change the usual geometry of a space and your experience of it. Circles are approachable, restful, cozy, embracing. Squares and rectangles are formal and businesslike; circles have no sharp points and are graciously accommodating.
Carving a circle into the design of a garden is surprisingly easy. With a stake and string, you can quickly trace out a circle of any size for a lawn, a flower bed or a patio. Then define it any way you wish.
Kristopher Dabner, a garden designer in Kansas City, Missouri, sometimes uses several circles of different sizes in a single landscape, arranged in great overlapping arcs out from the door opening onto the garden. The first circle might be a brick or stone patio; the second, perhaps a step down in the landscape or a round sweep of lawn; and yet another, just to one side, might define a seating area around a fire pit. The shapes create movement, compelling you to step deeper into the garden from one circle to the next.
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People have been fascinated by circles forever. The monumental ring of stones at Stonehenge, in England, may be 5,000 years old.
The modern use of circles in gardens is also well-rooted in American garden design and history. The Danish landscape architect Jens Jensen, who settled in Chicago in the late 19th century and became one of the pioneers of the Prairie School of design, incorporated “council circles” in his gardens. A ring of low stone seating was a perfect spot from which to contemplate the natural world, Jensen felt.
Circles are democratic, Jensen said. Sitting in a circle, “there is no social caste,” he said. “All are on the same level, looking each other in the face. A ring speaks of strength and friendship and is one of the great symbols of mankind,” he wrote in his thoughtful book, Siftings, first published in 1939. The mythical King Arthur must have been thinking along the same lines with his famous Round Table of knights.
Council circles — and story circles, as Jensen called them when they were in a school or a playground — still have a place in gardens today. When the Chicago Botanic Garden added its spectacular, naturalistic Evening Island landscape, a council ring of stones was built at the highest point in the plan.
A ring speaks of strength and friendship and is one of the great symbols of mankind
landscape architect Jens Jensen in his book ‘Siftings’
You don’t have to have a council ring to experience the soothing magic of circles in a garden. Keep an eye out for the circles in nature: They are there in the shape of lily pads, in tree rings, in spiderwebs. The face of a sunflower is a magnificent sunny circle, and a dandelion seed head goes even further: It is a lovely gossamer sphere. The splash of a single raindrop in a puddle generates a mesmerizing pattern of concentric circles. A round birdbath on a pedestal captures the Zen of the circle in a brilliant disc reflecting the dome of the sky.
Dabner uses circles in playful ways, too. In one client’s garden, he laid out a brick pathway punctuated with antique grinding wheels of different sizes. In a pond, he added a bubbling orb and floated glass globes on the surface of the water.
Circles fit easily into gardens of every style. Margie Grace, a garden designer in Santa Barbara, California, used bricks to define circles in a Spanish-inspired garden, with a decorative tile mosaic in the center of each. Agave plants grow in the middle of another brick circle.
Circles can be lifted up into the vertical plane, too. A landscape architect in Richmond, Virginia, designed a formal garden with a rectangular patio for one of his clients, but the garden is first revealed to visitors through a gate with a large round opening — a moon gate. The circular frame around this glimpse of the garden imparts mystery and intimacy, coloring the whole experience of the garden. Partway along a brick path to the patio, a circular gathering space is defined by neatly trimmed balls of boxwood, echoing the circular motif.
Like the face of the moon, circles in a garden are soothing and compelling. The patterns they create may be playful or profound, and they’re always just right.