Going in Circles

Dear Gardening-Gone-Wilders, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Scott Calhoun and I’m a writer and garden designer living in Tucson, Arizona. I love exploring backroads and backcountry in search of plants, gardens, architecture, and food. I’m the author of five books which are mostly about plants: Yard Full of Sun; Chasing Wildflowers; Designer Plant Combinations; The Hot Garden; and Hot Pots. I also write for magazines including American Gardener, Horticulture, Sunset, and Wildflower. Currently, I’m working on a book about the mighty American agave plant.

Here are the vital statistics about my gardening region: USDA 9b; Sonoran desert; 3012 feet above sea level; 12 inches of annual precipitation; record high 117; record low 16; alkaline soil; preferred regional tool: Mikita electric jackhammer (for planting 1 gallon plants).

And now…Going in Circles:

I have nothing against rectangles. In fact, if I were to build my dream house again (it would be my third so-called dwelling) it would be a clean-lined rectangle—probably a prefab – along the lines of something from Modern Cabana. And the garden would likely be a linear bristle of trunked yuccas combined with a menagerie of penstemon and cacti laid out in grids. I would hope that when viewed from above, it might look like the love child of American painter Jasper Johns and North Carolina nurseryman Tony Avent. I have spent a good deal of time trying to explain to my fellow desert-dwellers that a Southwestern garden comprised mostly of native plants doesn’t have to be an informal meander of lines—it can be disciplined and formal if you are so inclined.

Still, the desire for curviness is hard to overcome. When you take a line and bend it, the resulting arc can be sensuous. It can also add a human quality to the design. A well-placed curve can subconsciously suggest a smile, breast, bottom, or earlobe. And who says garden design isn’t sexy?

Most of my clients request curves outright, and when I can make it work in their space, I comply with their wishes. But over the last couple of years, I have to admit that I’ve been pushing the straight lines a little—mainly because I get tired of seeing curves, and curvy shapes, abused so badly. While a curve that looks like a bottom is sexy, I’m not convinced that a kidney is a particularly lusty organ whose shape we should mimic in our gardens. Who hasn’t lamented a bean-shaped planting bed plunked arbitrarily in a front yard?

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What I was looking for was a more dynamic, rigorous, and intentional way to use curves in the garden. Where I found it was in shape that combines formality and curves: the circle. The first designer I found using curves in this way was New Mexico designer, Judith Phillips. When I was visiting her in Albuquerque, she showed me one of her designs whose central feature was a labyrinth of concentric circles planted-out with alternating blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), blazing star (Liatrus punctata), and purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea). The design was both formal and informal, and the shape itself was a nod to Native American pottery design.

In short I liked it. A lot. And like any good designer worth his salt, I stole it—I mean adapted it—for my own purposes. I designed a garden where a small labyrinth (with two planting rings) would be the central element. Like Judith’s design, I placed a large boulder in the center. Instead of blue oat grass and purple prairie clover, I substituted blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) and hill country penstemon (Penstemon triflorus) which are a little better adapted to Tucson. I took the photo below last week, just before the plants went in the ground. I should add that my friend and fellow designer, Debra Huffman, designed the nifty concrete pattern and recycled flagstone wall behind the labyrinth. As it grows in, I’ll report back.

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25 Responses to Going in Circles

  1. Sylvia (England) January 5, 2010 at 4:48 am #

    Welcome Scott to one of my favourite blogs. I love circles as well, one garden I had I put in a circular lawn – I still miss it! One of the things I love about Judith Phillips design is it is on a slope – my circles have always been on the flat. Now I have a garden on a hill, I must think about how I could introduce a circle to the slope, in the narrow front garden. Thank you for a great post, I look forward to more!

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  2. Carol January 5, 2010 at 5:12 am #

    A great design and I love the wall! I look forward to seeing this matured.

  3. Lene January 5, 2010 at 8:27 am #

    Clean and fresh – love both the design and your post.

  4. MNGarden January 5, 2010 at 9:14 am #

    I think concentric circles is just the ticket for a collection of herbs that I will be using in my garden. Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. Christine January 5, 2010 at 11:34 am #

    I guess the thing about lifting design ideas is that you can take comfort in the fact that you’re improving upon the original one. It’s going to look fabulous! That wall is drool-inducing.

  6. healingmagichands January 5, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

    Well, I love that wall too, but I have to say I wouldn’t be wasting all those big flat wonderful flagstones in a vertical wall! Those are hard to come by in the Ozarks! I’m afraid they would become paths and patios around here.

    I love circles and curves in my gardens, but in the vegetable garden we are very straight. To every purpose there is a shape.

  7. Jack Holloway January 5, 2010 at 2:34 pm #

    A great post with some really exciting ideas and observations – and a garden to watch! I had a whakky thought about how to solve a problem in my own garden which includes using Fibonacci spirals. Problem is I’d need two days to figure what I’m doing and if it could possibly work before I could even start to draw it out… I’m a great believer that geometry and nature are complimentary, not mutually exclusive!

  8. Mr. McGregor's Daughter January 5, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    I really like labyrinths, and I prefer the more organic curve to the formal straight line, so I’m looking forward to seeing the evolution of this garden.

  9. Scott Calhoun January 5, 2010 at 4:33 pm #

    Thank you for making me feel welcome!

    Sylvia: I see you are a fellow circle lover! FYI, Judith’s garden is actually flat although the picture makes it look a little sloped. Good luck with your circles!

    Carol: Thanks! I will share photos as things mature.

    Christine: The flagstone wall is really pretty *and* it was a great alternative to throwing the flagstone out! My contractor did curse often when he was making the wall. There is a concrete footer beneath the flagstone which holds the beefy re-bar superstructure in place.

    Healingmagichands: We have a lot of flagstone here and many people throw it out when it gets old and “dirty” looking. Much of the flagstone is mined in Northern Arizona.

    Jack: In my view, it is hard to go wrong with Fibonacci patterns. I’m with you when you say that “geometry and nature” are complementary.

  10. Pam/Digging January 5, 2010 at 5:57 pm #

    Great to see you posting here at GGW, Scott. I’ve missed your posts over on your own blog. Like you, I’m a huge fan of circles and recently changed a boring lawn area in my new garden into a gravel circle with a big circular stock tank pond in the middle.

  11. Liz January 5, 2010 at 6:07 pm #

    I agree–when designing I think it works much better to stay away from traditional curves.

  12. allanbecker.gardenguru January 5, 2010 at 6:27 pm #

    Please, may we have more photos of your work?
    What a refreshing way to start the new year of garden blogging!

  13. Scott Calhoun January 6, 2010 at 12:49 pm #

    Pam: I am a big fan of stock tank planters. I use them often as fountains and veggie beds. Do you have pictures of your gravel circle yet?

    Liz: Agreed!

    Allan: As I write more posts, I’ll include more photos of my design work. Thanks for the compliments.

  14. Adam Woodruff January 6, 2010 at 2:01 pm #

    Welcome to GGW Scott. Thanks for sharing this inspiring post with us!

  15. Debra Lee Baldwin January 6, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    Oh! Do you see how the purple-blooming plant in the Phillips garden looks like it’s whirling? What a wonderful echo of the garden’s larger spiral. Welcome, Scott, to GGW. I love your writing. And yes, let’s see more of your terrific photos!

  16. Michelle D. January 6, 2010 at 8:04 pm #

    In short : I like it a lot !
    It’s always inspirational to see how other designers work their magic in specific their regions.
    Can’t wait to see how this garden develops.

    Gotta admit, I’m not a fan of the tilt up flagstone wall. Maybe I spend too much time in the stone yards and quarries but it looks like any number of regular old stone stores to me without much merchandizing magic.

  17. Scott Calhoun January 6, 2010 at 8:20 pm #

    Adam: Thanks for the welcome. Glad to be included here.

    Debra: I hadn’t thought of that, and in fact, the floppy Liatrus botthered me a bit when I was photographing it, but now that you mention it…

    Michelle: Thanks for the compliment and it is good to see a fellow designer here. Sorry you are not a fan of the wall. When my friend Debra suggested it, I was skeptical too. But I have to admit that I like the way flagstone looks stacked vertically on pallets. To each his (or her) own…

  18. Susan aka Miss R January 7, 2010 at 8:16 am #

    Circles within circles sometimes as truncated arcs can be modern or ancient depending on your design viewpoint. It’s great to see them discussed on their own merit. Glad to see you here.

  19. Lorene Edwards Forkner January 7, 2010 at 2:00 pm #

    Wonderful work Scott, your writing, your wit, and your observations are a refreshing deep breath. Sexy curve of an earlobe…you kill me. I’ll think I’ll see if my husband is up for some…uh, weeding?

  20. Chookie January 10, 2010 at 6:33 am #

    I love the designs! And I’ll put in a vote for the spiral in the Toronto Music Gardens — swoon! Except that I can’t see how I could fit it into my garden. How big is the Phillips design above?

  21. healingmagichands January 10, 2010 at 7:15 pm #

    I’m afraid that flagstone is truly expensive here in the Ozarks, since it has to be shipped in. All mine was acquired by laboriously toting it from local streams and such. I would lust after the discarded “dirty” flagstones being thrown out in your area. . .

  22. Scott Calhoun January 11, 2010 at 11:53 am #

    Miss R: Your point is well-stated: circles can be “ancient or modern”

    Lorene: You are too funny. I’m happy to promote matrimonial “weeding” whenever I can. I hope that you and your books are doing well. You are an inspiration.

    Chookie: From memory, I would say that the Phillips design is about 30′ x 30′. Good luck fitting it in.

    healingmagichands: it is expensive here to, but often “free” during remodels.

  23. Amy January 11, 2010 at 1:25 pm #

    I just purchased your book, Designer Plant Combinations: 105 Stunning Gardens Using Six Plants or Fewer. I love seeing real photographs of what I am planting together. I love a lot of individual plants… It is just the “putting them together” phase that has me wondering at times. Looks like a great book and I am looking forward to using it for my garden!

  24. Scott Calhoun January 11, 2010 at 1:37 pm #

    Amy: And who said blogging doesn’t pay? Seriously, thanks for buying my book. I hope you enjoy it. A love of individual plants is undervalued by some designers. I’m highly suspicious of plant-hating designers:)

  25. marmee January 18, 2010 at 8:46 pm #

    welcome scott…i look forward to seeing more of your garden photos as it progresses. i love the idea of adding that wall behind your garden…it adds the textural element right away.
    happy january.