A Guide to Creating Mystery in the Garden

One of Einstein’s most referenced quotes speaks to the significance of appreciating what we do not know. When the theoretical physicist claimed that ‘imagination is more important than knowledge’, he may not (we can gather) have been speaking about the practical pastime of gardening, but inadvertently, his wisdom applies to a philosophy that professional garden designers inherently apply, to some degree, to their projects.

Following Einstein’s approach, the secret ingredient to any successful garden – whatever its size, function, climate and layout – may be the rather hard-to-put-one’s-finger-on concept of mystery. Each garden that draws the viewer in, that encourages us to experience and explore the botanic offerings in the flesh rather than just observe from a comfortable distance, shares a common virtue. Through clever tricks of the landscaping trade (or the opposite practice of letting nature run wild over many years), the best outdoor spaces evoke a feeling of enigma. They ask a question to the viewer – what is that over there, just beyond – and invite them to seek to answer the puzzle by exploring the space for themselves. Thus, the best gardens are ones that are experienced rather than just admired, ones that provoke the human imagination to investigate and discover.

In the same way a seductive person presents an aura of complexity and mystery to their captivated admirer, the beguiling garden only gives away so much in a single viewing; it retains its secrets only to be revealed to those willing to look deeply.”

The good news is that any style of garden can evoke this sense of mystery in subtle ways. You don’t have to put up with a gothic cast iron gate and overgrown garden which conjures more a feeling of displeasure than enchantment if minimalism and simplicity is more your cup of tea.

In an effort to blend a little method with the healthy madness that is cultivating outdoor mystique, we ask landscape designers Fiona Brockhoff and Michael McCoy their tips for creating mystery in all gardens, great and small.

Image by Daniel Shipp

Engage with mystery as an inherent quality of nature, not just a design strategy
Michael McCoy conceptualises mystery as a phenomenon inherent in all his engagement with nature, not simply as a method of manipulating an outdoor space in order to create visual appeal. “Mystery is so abstract, it’s a tricky thing to talk about. But to me, the mystery of gardening is about working with nature… I see my own gardening a bit like surfing. While you wait for the wave, you’re not exactly sure what nature’s going to dish up to you. You’re not sure of the size of the wave, where it’s going to break, you are forced to play with the seasonal forces around you.

I love that gardening is so unpredictable. To me, that’s much more rewarding and indeed much more mysterious than if an exact output had an exact outcome.”

“There is an inherent mystery in feeling dwarfed by the greater force of nature, which is coupled with a distinct humility for the gardener.”

Michael suggests that even novice gardeners can evoke a sense of wonder in their own life by playing with the mysterious dynamics of growing from seed. “If you want to turn up the mystery, then plant something that looks dead and brown, like a tulip bulb, and watch it transform…To plant a bulb is alchemical in its mystery. You are planting this dry, flaky thing which can produce such a stunningly gorgeous flower. You’re not sure when it’s going to peak as it’s subject to so many different forces – some flower in response to day length, some to night length, or to a temperature level.”

Gardening for me is such an extraordinary way of nurturing wonder; to dance with something so much more powerful than yourself is so life enriching.”

Bulbs are some of the most mysterious plants, according to Michael McCoy. Image of Galanthus spp. (snow drop) flowers by Michael McCoy.

Embrace the fact that gardening itself is an imperfect, mysterious venture
“Given the fact that the most spectacular gardeners are the ones that fail the most spectacularly, says Michael, “it’s really critical to get over your fear of failure. It’s an indication of your adventurousness. So many home gardeners are afraid of the failure because they are disempowered when in fact there’s no other way to learn other than to laugh at your failures and try again. I know that’s a really easy and annoying thing for people with proficiency to say, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the gardeners I know who have achieved the most are often the ones least self satisfied with the consequences.”

Good gardening is not about knowing it all and guaranteed success; it’s about accepting the mystery and ambiguity of the process,” says Michael McCoy.

Image by Michael McCoy

Think strategically about the arrangement of planting and the type plants you are using
For those interested in practical tricks, there are plenty of strategies used by landscapers to evoke mystery, which can turn a garden into a place of discovery, rather than a static space of beauty.

“If a garden has an element of mystery about it, there’s this creation of a sense of intrigue; it ignites the idea that you want to go and investigate further. It’s basically trying not to show everything at once,” says Fiona Brockhoff. Michael McCoy calls this perfecting the balance between “conceal and reveal.”

Both Michael and Fiona agree that focusing carefully on both the detail and structure of foliage and the layout of planting can be a subtle way of introducing mystery into a garden, especially in a smaller space. A simple strategy is to place larger leafed foliage closer to the main viewing point, such as the house, and plant smaller leafed plants further away. Fiona recommends bold leafed plants that have a “tropical or wild feel about them” which can either grow up a wall or stand alone to add interest and uniqueness. Leaf colour plays a part too, according to Michael: “All colours fade towards neutral with distance, hence the blue/grey colour of a distant mountain. Therefore you can amplify the perspective of distance and interest by using your boldest textures and colours up close and then tone down the saturation of your colours over a distance. It is incredibly tricksy, but worthwhile. What you’re doing is confounding your perceptions as the process of seeing is as much psychological as it is physical.”

Add an architectural feature
An effective method of evoking a feeling of enchantment in a garden is to strategically place a feature which can either be partly concealed from certain viewpoints or exists in its own right to symbolically invoke a touch of wonderment. This feature gets bonus impact in a small space if placed towards the back of the garden, even if it’s as simple as a partially disguised, clandestine seating area obscured by foliage.

Fiona Brockhoff suggests there’s many ways to achieve this, depending on your personal style: “Create some sort of feature at the back of the garden by placing a simple or intriguing structure there. You can partly conceal it from the main vantage point so the viewer is drawn out to discover what the shape is.”

According to Michael McCoy, even the simple act of placing a door against a wall of a garden or courtyard can evoke “… powerful associations for us. Even having that door fixed against a blank wall sends all sorts of messages about what might be over the other side. It has this Narnia-like quality, even if the promise or suggestion of a gateway isn’t consummated.”

Image by Daniel Shipp

Let there be light
Fiona Brockhoff draws on lighting, both natural and artificial, to amplify a sense of interest in her outdoor spaces. “I often use lighting to manipulate the atmosphere in a garden at night. A simple trick in a courtyard is to uplight a palm or other plant with interesting foliage at the back of the garden.” Fiona is also a big fan of utilising the “play of light and shadow on foliage” in the day, simply by planting in areas that will be exposed to shadow as the sun moves. For this reason, she “uses flaxes a lot because the light dances on them so beautifully.”

Of course, the most mysterious use of light in a garden is when nature does all the work for you.”

As Fiona recalls, “My family and I were watching the supermoon the other night, and we all noticed the amazing sense of intrigue that was the play of the moonlight bouncing off our korean rice paper plant, which threw these amazing shadows onto the house.”

Sound plays a part too
According to Fiona, sound is often underrated and underused as a method of creating allurement as well as a sense of peacefulness. She uses the sound of water by installing a simple pond in urban gardens to “ameliorate the sound of traffic.”Trickling water also has the added benefit of drawing us out to seek the source.

If you hear this mysterious gurgling in the depths of a space, you can’t help but feel the need to investigate,” says Fiona Brockhoff.

Fiona also tries to harness nature by “using wind as a tool. The sound of the wind in plants like she oaks and bamboo, where they are whooshed around, is really lovely and quite mysterious to watch and hear.”

Other plants that audibly pick up wind are “things like grasses, flaxes, cordylines and palms.”

Don’t forget the entry and exit points
Michael McCoy recalls a high impact made in a very tiny courtyard, made to look much larger and complex through a clever orchestration of the use of space around the entry and exit points. “The exit points were made to be much narrower than the space itself; if you use narrow apertures to manipulate a special response from those inside the garden, it can increase the layers of mystery.”

Image by Michael McCoy
Image by Michael McCoy