CURVES WONDERFUL CURVES: Good Lines Mean Good Designs – Part 2

At the end of March, I published a post on some of the early, though somewhat obscure, Harbingers of Spring – for me these offer hope after a long cold winter (my tolerance for winter must be decreasing as I get older, because this winter was neither long nor particularly cold).

The glimmer of colour I noticed radiating from tree branches last month is now a full-on flush of green as plumped-up buds become tiny unfurling leaves, especially after this week’s rain. The waiting game it seems is over. Hooray, gardening season is upon us! Perennials and annuals have been arriving at local greenhouses for a few weeks, trees and shrubs are here now too. Rakes, shovels, gloves and overalls are coming out of storage – it’s time to start ‘digging in the dirt’. Okay hold on there gardeners, slow down – remember you need to get those garden design lines right first. Guess I better finish Part 2 of GOOD LINES MEAN GOOD DESIGNS before your attention turns to the array of bright shiny things at your neighbourhood nursery.

Alrighty then….. last post we looked at Landscape Design Concepts that contain straight lines – from that discussion you might conclude that a rectilinear design theme is my preferred concept form. Not so – in fact my back yard is curvilinear and my front yard, arc and tangent.  So you see I do like curves, but if I’d presented curving themes first, would you have read further?


Curves are the design line most favoured by gardeners, often to the exclusion of other design themes. Admittedly, there is something very captivating about voluptuous curves – the problem is curvilinear designs are the hardest to execute skillfully. The curves required to make this design theme work, are sweeping arcs as opposed to wiggly lines.

The curvilinear design theme is a design formed from continuous flowing lines using the circumferences of adjacent circles and/or ellipses. The fewer circles used and the more of each circle you can utilize, the more effective this theme will be.

Weak vs. Strong design lines. The top image illustrates weak design lines formed from many circles, utilizing a small portion of each circle. The bottom example illustrates strong design lines formed from fewer circles utilizing a greater portion of each circle.

Unfortunately the tendency is to use too many smaller arcs. As I’ve mentioned before, gardeners tend to subscribe to the adage that more is better – they equate simple with boring and mistakenly assume that adding a few more bows and bends will up the wow factor. It doesn’t. Instead it creates an awkward kind of visual movement as the eye wanders along a vague path.

The extra curves (top left) unnecessarily complicate this design line. The simplified curve shown in the second image (bottom right) would create a more effective curvilinear design.

Not all sites or space allotments are ideal for a curvilinear design theme. It’s really best suited for a site that is relatively large – large enough to accommodate some big bold arcs. Sometimes though, there may be a reasonable amount of space, but only in one direction, say a site that is either narrow and deep, or wide and shallow.  In this case, the solution might be to choose a different concept form altogether, or you may just have to be a little creative in your understanding of the curvilinear theme.

Side yards are typically long and narrow – gardeners often opt for a weak serpentine line like the one on the left, assuming there isn’t room for larger arcs. Instead, one could reinterpret the curvilinear theme to include a straight line, resulting in a bolder design line.

A back yard with very little depth can still be designed in a curvilinear fashion, but not with the use of weak wavy lines(left). Including one or two straight lines can allow for the use of longer deeper arcs even when space is tight(right).

But what if you have no appreciable distance in either direction – does this mean you are limited to straight lines?  Not necessarily. While a very small urban yard doesn’t lend itself to a curvilinear design theme, there are still ways you can incorporate curves into your garden beds. The Arc and Tangent Form I discussed in my last post can work nicely in a small yard, or you could try a circular design form, which is made up of circles and portions of circles. There are several circular design themes, but the simplest of them is overlapping circles.


An overlapping circular design is formed entirely from the arcs of overlapping circles. The key to making this design theme work is to use a variety of sizes, with one dominant circle. The circles should overlap enough that they can intersect at 90 degrees or more, thus avoiding acute angles.

An Overlapping Circular design theme can work equally well on a small site or a large site, because the circles can be moved in any direction. Note that on the larger property space is taken up, not by increasing the number of circles, but rather the size of the circles. This ensures that they will be in scale with the site.

A lovely example of an overlapping circle design. Photo Credit: Merton Designs, Dublin


Regardless of whether you choose a curving or straight line design there a few things to keep in mind.

  • Maintain continuity – stick with one design theme, as mixing themes will result in disunity.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t include an arc or a circle in an angular design, but the dominant theme must still be angular. It’s also acceptable to use one form in the front yard and a different one in the back, assuming that they are visually separated hence wouldn’t be experienced together.

This angular design contains a single arc for the purpose of creating emphasis.

  • Avoid acute angles – when design lines meet at less than 90 degrees, acute angles are formed. These are best avoided if at all possible. Aesthetically, these sharp angles appear awkward – in fact as a design instructor, they are first thing my eye goes to when critiquing student’s work. Functionally, there are several reasons to avoid them – in concrete, the use of acute angles creates weak areas prone to cracking. In beds and borders it creates tiny unusable spaces, too small for plants to grow in, and in lawns creates tight spots that are difficult to mow.
The use of acute angles in garden design is not recommended, for both functional and aesthetic reasons.

The use of acute angles in garden design is not recommended, for both functional and aesthetic reasons.

  • Use design lines to guide planting – the outline of your garden beds can influence ‘where you plant what’. For example, the space that is created when a design line arcs or juts out, is a great place for a feature plant or Focal Point. As well, you can accentuate your design lines by planting a single type of plant along the entire length of that line. Or you can alternate two or three different plants in a rhythmic pattern along the line, which will also serve to emphasize it.
The generous curves in this simple curvilinear design are accentuated by the alternating blue and green Junipers. The Malus 'Rosyglo' in the foreground is nicely 'framed' by the arching design line around it. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The generous curves in this simple curvilinear design are accentuated by the alternating blue and green Junipers. The Malus ‘Rosyglo’ in the foreground is nicely ‘framed’ by the arching design line around it. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Okay gardeners, I’m finished talking about arcs & angles, form & function and other designerspeak. Now you can go plant shopping – if you’re like me you’ll be the proverbial ‘kid in a candy store’. They say you should never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry……..

Happy Gardening (at last),

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

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