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Monique Gudgeon on how to make the most of your garden art

PUBLISHED: 11:58 03 September 2014 | UPDATED: 12:04 03 September 2014

Monique Gudgeon

Monique Gudgeon

Simon Gudgeon

Bring alive your garden art with the clever use of plants, grasses and water, says Monique Gudgeon, who created a stunning park setting for her husband’s sculptures

'Embrace' surrounded by sea thrift'Embrace' surrounded by sea thrift

Whether it’s a piece of brutalist post-modernism, a classical carved stone figure or an elegant bronze sculpture by my husband Simon Gudgeon, the decisions and processes of finding the perfect place for your piece of outdoor sculpture are the same. When it comes to art in the garden size does not matter. Whether it’s a four or five-metre piece or something more modest in a smaller situation the same rules will apply.

When we moved to Pallington Lakes six years ago and opened as a sculpture park, Simon and I had visited numerous art venues around the country. We knew what we liked and we had a clear idea about how we were going to display his work.

Taking your time and planning are the two most important elements. You know your garden and where you like to sit; what bits can be seen from the house and which views are the best. Take all of these into account and then try and visualise that sculpture in those favourite spots. Rather than lugging a heavy statue or sculpture around, get a bamboo stake approximately the same height as the piece. Take this to the various sites you are considering; stick it in the ground and then walk away so you can look at it from different vantage points.

You’ll be able to see whether it’s going to be tall enough to stand on its own or whether it needs some kind of plinth or pedestal. Make sure it’s in proportion to what surrounds it, trees or buildings for example. Also, has it got enough space around it so that your view is not obscured, or does it look cramped?

Lastly, consider what backdrop would suit your new art investment. Sculpture easily gets lost amongst a welter of flowers, colour, leaf shapes, differing heights and depths. Instead use flowers as part of the frame, keeping the backdrop simple and maintaining the sculpture’s impact.

Remember that there are two elements to your sculpture: the wider context, or vista - how it is seen from a distance, and the closer encounter - the more intimate view when you are beside it. Both of these have to work.

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My Golden Rules

-Keep planting simple, chose one variety of plant if possible.

-If the piece is going to be in the middle of a bed, make the planting low enough so that it doesn’t obscure the piece, or put the piece on a pedestal.

-If the sculpture is against a hedge or similar, ensure it comes above the top of the piece, like a curtain behind. Avoid the line of a hedge cutting through the middle of a piece.

-Choose a plant that will look good all year round – evergreens are best.

-If you go deciduous, dead head if needed and keep it tidy.

-Be aware of the conditions of the site you chose such as exposure to wind, or frost and consider how this will impact on the plant you choose.

-Put in some subtle lighting if you can, particularly if the piece is going to be seen from the house.

-Look after your art! Ask the artist what the piece might need in terms of after care. Dust off the cobwebs, wash off the bird poo and make it feel loved.

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Creating the Right Frame

I try to frame all Simon’s work in some way so that the piece is defined but your eye is not distracted, so choosing the right planting plan is crucial. From the following examples, you’ll see it doesn’t all have to be uniform. Texture is just as important as colour.

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Water and Sculpture

Water and sculpture are perfect partners. Not only does it impart wonderful reflections, whether a perfect mirror on a calm day or dazzling dancing patterns when the wind blows, sunlight also bounces off the water and lights the art in a completely different way. It’s always on the move, changing hourly, even minute by minute.

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Grasses, Trees & Other Plants

Grasses are ideal for planting around the feet of a piece of art. Remember to choose the right height for the piece or put it on a plinth so that it can stand above the grasses when they are in full growth. Again there are hundreds of varieties to choose from, some evergreen and some not. The deciduous varieties can be left in place over winter as they look superb when all frosted, then cut them back in February.

My personal favourite is Pennisetum ‘Red Head’ – a deciduous grass with the most beautiful burgundy hued flower heads in summer that last well into winter.

To form continuous carpets around a sculpture choose a low growing plant such as Thrift or Sea Pink. This variety (left) is called Armeria maritime ‘Rubifolia’ but again, there are so many different varieties available now.

Small growing, evergreen geranium varieties, which are hardy, offer an excellent foil to frame a piece of art. Some also have good autumn colour but all have beautifully coloured flowers. This one in particular (right) is Geranium subcaulescens ‘Splendens’.

Not only does woven willow provide a good green backdrop in summer but an interesting, uniform pattern in winter - uniformity is the key here (far right). A woven willow arbour or hedge can be as big or as little as you want so ideal for small or large gardens. This tunnel uses Salix viminalis, its high maintenance and needs to be kept in order.

Silver birch (Betula pendula) have great bark colour and are relatively cheap to buy when small if you are planting a lot of them to surround a piece. They also support the second highest number of wildlife species of any UK native tree, the common oak being number one.

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Framing Sculpture - Monique’s favourite plants

New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax): This plant can’t be beaten for drama and durability. Though relatively easy on maintenance, be warned they can take up a lot of space.

Bamboo: There are many varieties of bamboo - from the well-mannered clump forming varieties to the rampaging spreaders. Avoid the latter or your sculpture might disappear in a jungle! My favourite is Narihira bamboo (Semiarundinaria fastuosa) – it’s a particularly upright variety, spreads very slowly and grows nice and tall with good, chunky canes to give vertical texture as well as greenery.

Yew (Taxus baccata): The classic and best for hedges, yew’s dark green colour makes it the perfect foil to any work of art. Any conifer that is happy to be kept clipped will do just as good a job, however, avoid fast growing varieties like Leyland cypress.

Beech (Fagus sylvatica): I love a beech hedge for its ability to change with the seasons; fresh and green in the spring and, because it hangs onto its dead leaves, a rich chestnut brown in winter. Try copper beech as an alternative, its dark purple colour contrasts beautifully with bronze sculpture.

Boxleaf Honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida): An evergreen relative of the hedgerow climber, it just loves being clipped and trained into all sorts of interesting shapes (see above). It’s a fast grower so you’ll get good results quickly, but there will be a lot of ongoing maintenance.

Common Box (Buxus sempervirens): Another classic but also a slow grower, so patience is required. Also, concerns about the fungal disease which causes Box Blight has meant it is not nearly as popular as it was, but it’s still a lovely and versatile thing.

Cotton Lavender (Santolina chamaecyparisus): This lavender has a generally rounded habit which I take advantage of by keeping it clipped back hard so it forms little rounded hillocks. It is excellent for creating a low border around a sculpture in an open situation or around paving. However by keeping it clipped you do lose the flowers but sometimes sacrifices have to be made in the name of art.

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Visiting Sculpture by the Lakes

To arrange a visit to Sculpture by the Lakes, at Pallington, near Dorchester go to sculpturebythelakes.co.uk and follow the links to Plan Your Visit and Bookings. For further information call on 07720 637808 or you can email us at sbtl@me.com

Our recently published book about Sculpture by the Lakes describes the process of creating the sculpture park, and a lot of my thinking behind the planting and design of the garden and grounds. It also explains the inspiration that led to Simon’s most iconic sculptures and how we marry art and the garden successfully. Buy it online via Amazon at £35 (plus £2.80 postage and packing). Alternatively, visitors to Sculpture by the Lakes can buy a copy direct from us for £25.

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