KNOT GARDEN INFORMATION

In the 16th century, the English gentry gazed down from Elizabethan manor houses onto tapestry sculptures planted in the ground. Two centuries later, similar artistry enchanted Marie Antoinette in the gardens of Versailles. Known as knot gardens, these historic greenery arts are composed of below-the-knee hedges arranged in intertwining geometric lines.

The living paintings were usually woven of boxwood and other hardy plants. Between the plants, red-brick shards, green slate, black cinders or white oyster shells colored the design. Later, French and English Victorian knots framed vivid blocks of annual blooms.

Like so many classical landscape features, knot gardens can provide function and beauty in the modern landscape. A knotted hedge can replace a straight line of shrubs against a house wall or fill a border with leafy sculpture for a clean-lined planting in place of a fussy flowering scene. An open-knot version, with paths between the lines, can formalize the family veggie plot or herb collection.

A knot garden's success depends on using suitable plants set into well-prepared earth. To plant the design to last, begin with the best soil possible, replacing overly sandy, rocky or clay ground with a quality bedding soil if necessary.

To design a small knot garden, draw the bed outline on grid-lined paper, using a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot. No matter a bed's shape or size, you can devise a knot garden to fill the entire space with a series of X's, figure eights and scrolls. Mark the center and divide the remaining space into symmetrical sections using either horizontal or vertical figure eights in each section. Continue the thinking process by sketching in X's, arcs or lines between the loops to fill the remaining spaces and connect the dominant lines to the outside edges.

As in all beds and borders, disciplined grooming keeps the knot garden attractive. Snip and clip in late winter, early summer and autumn to keep the living artwork tight and tidy. When a mature knot attains the desired height, the crossover feature can be sculpted by clipping one row shorter at each intersection.

Planting annuals between the hedges is best left to lands with shorter growing seasons. In our long season, interior annuals tend to shade the hedge walls long enough to kill their lower branches.

For miniature hedges, use woody herbaceous plants such as santolina, dwarf lavenders, wall germander or winter savory for outline walls. Herbs lend themselves to small-scaled knots but require more cultivating acumen than shrubs and are more tedious to groom, as they are closer to the ground. One traditional pattern for an herb knot is the wagon wheel; the hedged rim and spokes are grown of one plant type to contain other plants between the spokes. Building the circle in a mound that rises in the middle helps keep the outline plants alive.

Some believe that the earliest formal knot garden designs were based on Persian-carpet patterns. You can take inspiration from jewelry, artwork, ancient Celtic forms or a set of initials. It is traditional to center the geometric bed with a focal point such as a sundial, gazing ball, birdbath or sculpture.

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