What if I told you that the success of your garden had less to do with plants than with proportion? Or that a simple ratio, used by the Hindus and the Moors and brought to Europe by a thirteenth-century Italian, could solve almost all your design issues? You’d probably think that I’d abandoned my Master Gardener roots, or worse, but it’s true.

I designed a garden years ago that seemed to make people unusually happy (see photo).  I watched as they marveled over this or that feature, this or that plant, and I began to wonder why the space was so magnetic. The need to figure out what I had done led me to research the relationship between design and human behavior, and that lead me to Fibonacci and his ratio. It is the proportion used by da Vinci to compose paintings and by the architect Le Corbusier to configure buildings.

The ratio creates a geometric figure known as a ‘golden rectangle,’ which occurs when the short side is .618 times the long side. Even in modern society, that relationship is everywhere: an index card, a credit card, common rug sizes, you name it. For any number of reasons, humans gravitate to that proportion. Perhaps because we recognize the ratio even in our own bodies: our torsos are typically about one-third the overall body measurement, leaving the bulk of us squarely in Fibonacci territory. Looking at the human face straight on, our eyes are usually set a third of the way from hairline to jaw, and I’ve read (though I have yet to ask for volunteers) that if you put a frame around the average human head, that frame would be of golden proportion. Lo and behold, the perimeter of my garden marks a near-perfect golden rectangle.

That ratio also makes an appearance in the Fibonacci sequence, a rather famous series of numbers that goes like so: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc. The next number in the sequence is 13, which is both the sum of the two numbers that come before it and the product of the ratio. If I multiply the number 8 by the ratio’s inverse, 1.618, I get the number 13. As an artist I can tell you that there is a certain ‘dynamic tension’ in an odd number of items that doesn’t exist with an even number, but it never occurred to me that using a proportionate number of ‘odds’ to ‘evens’ could give the entire space that same kind of energy.

It’s fascinating to find math, a left-brained function, and art, which is decidedly right, in complete agreement. Had I applied myself more diligently to math in school, my studies would have told me to fill the garden with plant materials in that proportion; fortunately, my artist’s sensibility told me the same thing. When I checked the planting chart for the garden, I found that I had grouped the shrubs and perennials according to the Fibonacci sequence of 1, 2, 3, 5 and 8, a combination that gave the garden balance.

The ratio also applies to plant height: a six-foot dwarf tree looks perfectly balanced against shrubs that max out at about four feet; those four-foot shrubs look fabulous paired with perennials of two-and-a-half feet. Even if you’re new to gardening those numbers will have a familiar ring; they seem to be some of Nature’s favorite heights. The proportion looks right to our collective eye because we see it all around us.

The only plants in my ‘golden rectangle’ held over from the original landscaping are two Boule de Neige rhododendrons, anchoring the space left and right. I pruned them into tree form by elevating their canopies, eliminating the bottom two-thirds of the branches. It’s a style that instantly gives leggy, overgrown rhodies a real presence, and it also frees the area beneath the canopy for planting complementary material. I capped the height at six feet and confined the flowering to the upper third of the shrub. That balance between visually open and visually full — what an artist knows as positive and negative space — also repeats the torso-to-body proportion, which gives the rhodies a subtle human quality.

I built the garden further by installing eight Nikko Blue hydrangea, and not just because I wanted those luscious, round heads as a summer echo of the spring-flowering rhododendron. Here in Maine, even though we’re a Zone 5 along the southern coast, Nikkos suffer a good deal of die-back; ironically, that makes them ideal for the interior of this garden. Every year they confine themselves to their four-by-four-foot allotment, giving them the perfect proportion against the elevated rhodies. The majority of the perennials that complete this garden are about two-and-a-half-feet tall, the golden companion to the shrub height.

The walkway wrapping the three exposed sides of this garden repeats the proportion, as well. The thirty-inch-squares of bluestone are arranged in a pattern that uses a strand (2, 3, 5) of the Fibonacci sequence, a fact that leaves me alternately pleased and dismayed. Pleased that at last I know the reason the design works so well, dismayed that the reason seems to have little to do with artistic brilliance.

So for all you left-brainers out there who think you couldn’t design a garden for love nor money, think again; here’s a method of creation that’s right up your alley. For the right-brainers, here’s a way to channel your instincts and fine-tune your ideas. As for me, I think this year I’ll play around with proportionate color, and see if I can control the saturation ratio. Hmmm… looks like I’ll have to add thirteenth-century mathematics to my list of favorite Italian things!


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