Inside our houses we organize our furniture to allow us to feel comfortable within our space. If the furniture is too close together it makes the room seem crowded; if it is spaced too far apart the room can feel featureless. This equilibrium between the bulky items (mass) along with the open area (the void), is essential in our gardens just as much as it is in our houses.
We believe a great deal about how we use shapes when designing gardens, however, shape is really just the creation of lines to create a two-dimensional object. In garden design terms, shape is merely an abstract idea; it needs the third dimension that we find in mass.
Mass is anything that has volume or is strong, like buildings. However, most significant for gardens that it includes plants, plants, hedges and trees. The reverse of mass is empty space — the void. In gardening this is lawns, paving and water.
Let’s look at some examples of gardens where mass and void are used to greatest effect and especially how the plantings are one of the main ingredients.
Gardens normally have mass to void. The more mass you have, like the evergreens used here, the more enclosed the garden will feel, whereas more open area generates more of a void.
The open paved space here is the void; it lets open views from this garden.
When we speak about mass in garden design, we are not referring to mass planting — a planting of a large group of the same variety or species — but about the three-dimensional nature of the impact of using these plants.
The combined planting inside this border proves that it is not just globular evergreens that produce this sense of mass, but also the close planting of grasses and phormiums.
We can clearly see in this planting scheme how the usage of mass in the planting creates that sense of enclosure.
To create a place of implanted mass, you don’t have use evergreens exclusively. As a guideline, designs typically include one-third evergreens into two-thirds deciduous plantings, or vice versa.
Katia Goffin Gardens
Though exactly what and where we plant are all essential to our mass-void equilibrium, other factors can come into play.
At midday, when the sun is high in the sky and there are no or few shadows throw, any structures or plants will appear reduced in mass. Later in the day, shadows will probably be much longer, making any plant or construction seem to be higher in mass.
In most gardens it is necessary to find the ideal balance. Here we can observe the equilibrium between the mass — shaped by the rock walls along with the clipped boxwood — along with the void of the lawn.
To understand whether spaces in your garden design work you can look at the ratio between the quantity of mass and void. Usually a design requires 20 to 40 per cent mass for an interesting and workable area.
Some gardens were created so that the void takes priority over the mass.
Both the lawn along with the ground cover planting of pachysandra, hosta and heuchera create an open area here that gives a very clear perspective of the mass of this bronze statue.
Land Architects, Inc..
On occasion a garden design requires minimum mass to create an expansive, open texture.
Any mass inside this garden is provided by the reduced swirls of clipped boxwood and pachysandra that snake at the border of the lawn. With this planting, the garden may lack interest and texture.
Boxleaf Design, Inc..
On occasion the void is the perfect problem solver in a garden design. This enclosed courtyard might happen to be dark and oppressive, but because there are few mass features — even the planting is very mild — it feels open and light.
Westfall Design Studio
When the correct balance between the mass and the void is achieved, we see how visually pleasing the result is. Here the mixture of deciduous and evergreen plantings from the proper boundaries is in the correct ratio, with the void made by broad concrete walkways.