Thursday, 26 January 2012

Something to say - Ballad Of A Thin Man

"But what does it mean? Oh, what's it trying to say, surely it means something?"  Hear the petulant wails as people whack through the flourless chocolate cake and Earl Grey tea.  They've just visited a garden, they're the new breed, they're trying to make sense of it all. 

Can you imagine such a scene?  And the vibrant conversation that ensues: are gardens art? What was the creator's brief?  How to judge, whether to judge?  Was it beautiful?  Was it right? Does it matter?  Was this the point?  Was that the point? 

Ephrussi De Rothschild, Nice, France. 

No, that's not really how it works.  Gardens don't seem to invite artistic or philosophical discussion with any ease.  That's not to say they don't sometimes get it, and there are many who feel an aesthetic of gardens should be encouraged, helping us all to develop better gardens and better understanding of them.  I sometimes feel this too.  And then I turn round and feel the exact opposite.  So I'm not to be trusted, but, as ever, I'm willing to toss a few opinions about.

In any case, a garden mostly means itself.  Like a landscape, it means that here was considered a good place to grow this or that.   It means that the people who made it thought this thing or that thing were worth doing.  It means society, history, fashion, art, money, labour, aspiration and practicality.  It can mean leisure, class and memory.  These things can be read in it, but they may not be intended as meaning.

The Pursuit of Paradise by Jane Brown gives us the complete low-down on the social history of gardens in the UK.  I highly recommend it, if you enjoy detail and illumination.  Few pictures but lots of evidence for interesting assertions.  Threads of influence and expectation woven through our understanding of what a garden is or ought to be.

A garden often represents some pretty simple aims;  pleasurable control of nature and contact with beauty.  It might also present a point of view, or a set of thoughts, it might mean an insult, or a dream.  But it means all these things in a rather gardeny way - it can never really be free of being a garden, it's hard to understand why one would want it to.

The Garden House, Devon

The website urges us, in its manifesto, "to promote productive and pleasureable debate through gardens and to foster gardens that offer deeper artistic expression".  That's fine, I'll give it a whirl.  But I don't know, not at the expense of what we have taken for granted in gardening. That everyone can do it,  that it's a kindly balm, that it's a humanist endeavour at its heart.  And that we should create and encourage, not the reverse.

Proper art, whatever that is, has greater freedom.  It's chains are self-imposed by the creator's desires and capacities.  A wild and irritating generalisation, of course; nothing is free, or all that easy. 

The gardener's volatile materials are growth, place and weather; prone to tempers and unreasonable behaviour, they demand deference.  The Wicked Fairy of fashion steps through, just as exigeant and forceful.  Time tarnishes and then, with luck, softens.

But there are routes to beauty.  Effective placing of lovely plants only emphasises their inherent charms and interest; a sense of scale and all the other design mantras all look like the absolutely obvious when they're right.  The decisions of the garden-maker disappear as the branches spread.

Naumkeag in Massachusets.  

Not true of a combination with striking architectural elements, like the steps above, of course.  That's the way to make your mark.

There's another thing that happens.  As a garden-visitor, you create your own experience, because it's a whole environment, you're in it and part of it, seeing what is visible and meaningful to you.  The garden-maker may focus your gaze, but not your active attention.  Gardens are often sociable baths of sensual leisure, thinking seems out of place and criticism mean-spirited.
Guess who can shed a little acrid light on the role of the critic, it's Dylan of course, singing Ballad Of A Thin Man.  I chose this next photograph because of the slightly weak, disconnected look on the defensive, but defenceless face. And there he was thinking he was the Emperor Tiberius.

We all know the song surely, the singer mockingly accuses the subject of  his ballad, Mr Jones, of not knowing what's " happening". "Do you, Mr Jones?"  You've heard that cawing, sneering tone of voice.  It's charismatic but frankly not that attractive.  Difficult to enjoy even if you are not the target and even if you think the target deserves it.

But this target doesn't seem seriously offensive, his biggest crimes seem to be his appearance, his weak attempts at asking questions and the way he moves, holding a pencil, being a bit like a camel.   This doesn't add up to much, but he's an uncomprehending, ignorant outsider, with an educated veneer.  Lovely to sneer at, with all the pleasures of bullying and being superior.  Indeed he's beset by aggressive questions from an enraged circus troupe, who relish their own more exotic flaws.

Mr Jones is very uncomfortable, like a toad who's flopped unwarily into a hairdresser's.  He's puzzled and harried, lost for a response and  faced with confusing forces who seem to know more about him than he knows himself.  They scream together in coded language.  He has no idea what to do and that seems to madden his interlocutor further.  All this you learn, not from him but from the unrelenting attack.

It's a pretty horrible situation, one I instinctively wish to avoid.  My sympathy for Mr Jones is reluctant, because he has got things wrong, but I hope to have nothing but distaste for the ganging up and the superiority.  I've seen that frozen, defensive look on the faces of garden visitors when their opinion is sought. They sometimes have no clue what they're supposed to be looking at or for, even as I enthuse or criticise with others.  I'm sure I sometimes have that look myself.  Taste is not simple, condemnation circles in the air.  Try Germanicus for the hard look on the singer/protagonist's face as he directs proceedings.  

In the song, Mr Jones probably represents the press, who have to turn out a story, even though they completely misunderstand the nature of the culture they're looking at.  He doesn't understand its anarchic reality, or its revolutionary possibilities and he doesn't understand that he'd better be a part of it.  There's an underlying gay sex theme, implicating Mr Jones in further hypocrisy which he hasn't begun to come to terms with.  He doesn't even know about himself, let alone the subjects of his interview.

But is ignorance and fear best dealt with by mockery and exclusion?  Rhetorical question of course.  The song speaks of the piercing truth of the situation, from both sides. Dylan nails it, and he manages to do that from a one-sided perspective.  He leaves you questioning how you too are implicated.  If it's unfair criticism of an unfair critic, whose side are you on?

The alternative to harsh criticism cannot be universal tolerance and misty-eyed acceptance of everything.  That would never work.  How we rate and what we perceive in the work of others needs expression and exploration.  And that's where thinkinGardens comes in, but confusingly.  Try it and see.

I'll finish with this very influential garden, Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, Kent, UK which completely "got" the zeitgeist about 10 or 15 years ago and seemed to speak to the hearts of most people.  But not me, I don't know if it's contrariness or a dislike of too much self-conscious bric-a-brac, however "found" and place-specific.   I could see it was clever, and artily done, but it left me cold, almost like this week's song. This picture does it no justice at all; you might like to search for something better.  There's plenty under both its name and Derek Jarman's.

It's only fair to say that the garden's focus on the simple, the natural and the wild is no longer so new and different as it seemed then.  Time passes, impact is lost as repetition dulls.

But if I ever met the current caretaker, or had ever met Derek Jarman before his untimely death, I would have found something I could honestly admire and I would have remained silent about my cold heart and the reasons for it.  Is that cowardly and dishonest?  Voicing it would have seemed churlish and wrong.  There are those who think they've spotted a naked Emporer and you really need to be both absolutely positive and correct.  Is that possible about this sort of thing?

You don't pay to enter this garden, you can go any time - doesn't that make it worse to criticise? If you go to a private garden through the National Gardens Scheme or others, part of the small price, usually paid to a charity, is reasonable tolerant enthusiasm and acceptance.  That's because you're an honorary friend and it's why so very many people in this country open their gardens to the public.  You're never far from a garden to visit and it's a marvellous thing on the whole.

My dishonesty would not matter a straw under those conditions of course, but if I had been an influential person writing a published review I think I would still have focussed on the positive.  Would my hypocrisy have made me unreliable, to the point of uselessness?  There's a good tradition of constructive criticism, which involves balancing a good thing with a bad, suggesting a way forward.  Any mentoring or management tome will help us with that.

If I had been honest,  I would have had to do more than simply "not like " it, I think.  And that's the challenge of the thinkinGardens reviews.  Harshness must be justified. Gardens set a high bar on that, precisely because they're gardens, with all that that means.  We couldn't give Mr Jones this much credit, but some sort of paradise is always being pursued in a garden.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Quietly Excited - Visions of Johanna

There is a central paradox at the heart of the garden, which is created for human use and pleasure.  To fulfil its purpose it needs to bring you a sense of peace. Simultaneously, because human beings love complexity and novelty, it would be best if it could also excite, entertain, or stimulate.  Perhaps beauty lies where these two poles intersect.

Here's the entrance to Penelope Hobhouse's The Coachhouse, now sadly closed.  I remember breathing more quickly as I approached this green promise;  is it just me?

An overwrought garden lacks the harmony and peace we have the gall to demand of our outside spaces, and a garden with nothing interesting in it is probably also dull.  But a complex garden can also feel tedious and an empty one can be deeply stirring.  So we're exploring the two fighting arms of this contradiction in terms, hoping not to have to resort to chemicals in order to get the calm excitement which will draw us out to explore and relax.

Here's another lost garden, Magnolia House in Yoxford - it was open for many years, smallish, imperfect, but  in my view nicely placed on the calm/stimulation axis. You need both to be piqued and pulled through a garden.  It's nice to be fascinated and hopeful about what lies beyond, enchanted by detail and soothed by distance. Interested, not mindlessly zonked out in some kind of flowery cloud of unknowing.  Better to be alert and pleased.

Enter the song - Visions of Johanna, on the Blonde on Blonde album.  It retains an air of  mystery; each following verse holding the promise of greater clarity.  But it always recedes, you never quite get there. Your journey accumulates more images, some startling; casting different lights on what lies behind or before, never truly illuminating the whole.  But you turn and turn about, looking round, never quite able to leave the enclosed space. I don't hear the horror, or the despair, or even the acute loneliness that others seem to; to me it's a striving for creative transcendence, stuck in a room, stuck in a city, surrounded by what I can only call weirdos.

From East Ruston - below

And we do have the quiet/excitement axis.  The slippery protagonist traces alternative ideals, Louise and Johanna,"concise and clear" versus repeated "visions".  Of Johanna, obviously.  I'm thinking of Louise as the calm, and the  inexpressible visions as the excitement.  Sometimes they seem to change places, sometimes Johanna even changes places with the singer, who dissolves into his own visions. 

To succeed, the song, like a garden, needs to stay aloft, tensed between the contrasted forces.  And this is where the music helps - there's an  organ making horizontal lines of sound in the background and there are both sharp and gentle beats and tricklings of sound tying everything together, reinforcing the calm, amplifying the gradual crescendo of excitement towards the end.

So let's consider a particular rather extraordinary garden.  East Ruston Vicarage garden in Norfolk, UK, created by Alan Gray and Graham Robeson.  My photographs date from at least a couple of years ago, taken hastily, not that flattering but let's hope, illustrative.

The garden is a tour de force, containing tours de force, stimulating, exhausting, huge, complicated, probably over-designed, but triumphantly horticultural in intent. The enormous palette of plants and the density of variety need every peaceful trick in the book to help you stay interested.  Firm structure or clarity is the tool of choice, holding everything down.  Concisely put, clarity becomes calm.

If you can detect anything in the somewhat reflective photograph of the plan above, you will see that the garden around the buildings is a honeycomb of enclosed hedged compartments, all interconnected with tunnels and arches, filled with symmetrically patterned arrangements of topiary and flowers. Symmetry seen sideways becomes repetition, a lesson you can learn over and over again in this garden.

Here a tree fern compartment could be a glamorous suburban garden, without the very long complex view at either end obviously.  It's very calm, but rather out of this world. Ladies playing in an empty lot?

Long straight walks, other axes, stretch across the flat space.   They are varied longitudinally and horizontally with crosswalks.  The whole garden is enclosed with impenetrable shelter belts, probably much greater now than on the plan. The main lines are straight, but the woodland and the desert gardens are "informal", i.e. twiddly, or curvy.  Your eye is rarely free to wander; its movement is controlled by enclosure, though the spaces may be large.  There is a sense of looking for something, never quite finding it, but seeing extraordinary things on the way.

Here's a calm centre - the main axis away from the buildings.  Here there is width and horizontality from the retreating steps and lawn.  Horizontal lines are an excellent way to achieve visual stability.  But we have a few other soothing elements.  Tidiness, smoothness, work all done. These are prosaic qualities but, for the sake of peace, you can settle for them.  And pattern, our brains crave pattern, which seems to help them relax.

If you know the song, you can build your own connections.  I find them infinite, but simultaneously, not there at all.  The excitement of realising the self in creativity is the driving motor of this garden, and of the song.  For the singer, it seems to be better than sex, better than love;  why wouldn't he be excited?  You hear it in the last verse.  His conscience explodes, he's breaking new ground.  He fears what it will cost him, and loss and failure of this creativity even as he celebrates it.

Try this next one for hallways and little boy lost - don't be too literal; it's all atmosphere, atmosphere.  Anyway, perhaps she's really Alice.

Let's get out of these tighter enclosures.  The garden flirts with danger in the stony desert area where agaves, yuccas and cacti have gathered, presumably wondering how on earth that happened.  Pictures and visions of strangeness in Norfolk - a bridge like an upended dinosaur, endless twirly lines of bigger stones on a groundwork of smaller stones.  Jewels and binoculars on the heads of mules perhaps?

This is an entirely created world, but there's no visual reason to say it's out of place, for the internal connections are reasonably convincing and beyond the boundaries of the garden the flat agricultural land is invisible.  The stones and the repeated shapes make a unity, which is calming, but we're on the farther end of our conceptual axis and we can only hope the excitement feels good.  I'm not certain Johanna's to be found here.

Without doubt, this is a garden that strives.  I feel I have not begun to do it justice, there is just so much, and much is interesting.  Some is lovely and takes off.  Here are two simpler moments, with another way of telegraphing peace, somewhere to sit.

For a deeper contrast, on the margins of the garden, true otherness. A mirage of the garden that is not. And perhaps a release from all that creative self-expression. Louise is definitely here.

And finally, a sort of companion piece to Penelope Hobhouse's entrance courtyard at the top.  Compare and contrast, as the topiary does with the free growth.  Binary systems, oppositions and similarities, inside and out; these seem to be where we've arrived.  A crescendo to the beginning again.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Looking for Comfort - When The Deal Goes Down

Over the years, various friends have asked, in concerned and puzzled tones "But what do you find to do in the garden in winter?" and I have found it hard to answer.  Running about with oil and sharpeners for my tools, tidying the shed, disinfecting the greenhouse, dismantling and remantling the mower - these are excellent ideas.  But you can imagine already, they're not what I do.  I'm not that practical. Me and my equipment, we have a non-aggression pact.  I use it, and it struggles on.

But I'm ready to answer.  This winter is barely winter however - we have shot from October to late March without pausing for lowered temperatures.  People keep saying lugubriously "We shall pay for it later".  I think we will,  but not in the way they expect.  Climate change is a huge preoccupation for me, helpless and eaten up by anxiety, I'm in a hyper-vigilant state, tensely checking whether my breath shows in the air - and it almost never does.  So I need help from gardening.

Contact with plants is a prop and a stay, an even keel, a hope and a promise.  It doesn't always work in drought or high winds, when the stress they suffer is painful.  But a warm winter shows no teeth; we're suffering from excessive comfort.

So I'm mostly to be found bent over or kneeling,  extracting the bad, expanding the good, removing what will prevent or disfigure new spring growth, checking for seedlings, disrupting excessive growth, making space, filling space.  I'm restoring edges, spreading leaf-mould and compost, firming unsteady plants and replanting according to my own wild wishes.

Winter is the time to search for promises of beauty and try to be of service to what will come, balancing the human longing for order against the needs of nature.  That is to say, time for a good tidy up, secateurs, plastic rake and broom at the ready.  This isn't the moment to talk of the building site at the end of the garden and all the displaced plants.  We'll deal with the possible, not the entirely out of our hands.

The scent of sarcococca fills the garden.  These are wonderful plants, growing in every situation I have tried, a neat background in summer and a lusty outpouring of perfume in January.

Here's one, near our old gate. 

Now is the time to start working on ferns if you have them.  Or perhaps you've considered them uninteresting, polysyllabically confusing and over-similar.  I hope to persuade you of an unexpected charm, their rusty knuckles.  By this I mean that many of them benefit from being cut back to their tightly curled bases, every tatty end neatly trimmed. 

You will be left with a sculptural bronze heap, from which new fronds will emerge in April, pristine and thrilling as they unwind and stretch.  I saw a magnificent example at Great Dixter last year,  three times the size of the one I show, rising over a foot from the ground and in a proud position.  It was a natural art-work, created with oriental care and, probably, sharp pointed scissors.  I firmly believe it to have been a polystichum setiferum, but you know how these things are. 

Here's another - a polypodium I think, before and after.

Don't give all ferns the same treatment at the same time however, unless it really makes sense to you. Most polystichums are ready as soon as they begin to brown from the inside.  Matteuccia strutheropteris is desperate for attention (and for curbing if it's running about hysterically) but orangey dryopteris erythosora can be left until much later; I'm not sure it offers such a nice base anyway.  But last years fronds go more lemony and can glisten against the darkness.  Wait till it starts to look messy, or you really need the space.

Truly evergreen ferns, such as aspleniums, blechnums and cyrtomiums perhaps need individual fronds selecting and removing as they brown off.  I would use my eyes and hands first to get the feel of the plant and how it grows.  The benefit of the treatment I suggest is that it's a lot easier to remove the old guard before the new opens, when you will undoubtedly cause damage.  Over time a fern will benefit, staying tight and attractive.  The erythoniums and snowdrops you have around it will have space to flower before they disappear beneath the glamour of those fronds.

In my view it's right to be careful about what you plant with ferns.  They need complementing with compliments.  Hostas don't cut it for me, see what you think.

To me, the big simple leaves defeat the structured frilly laciness, especially when they're coloured.  Asarum, ajugas, small green hostas and ivies seem more successful.   Here's another, matteuccia strutheropteris, with a comparison.

And here's one where they just look at home.

I've swamped you with photographs; and of course you need a bit of damp and shade to grow most ferns successfully.  And time.  We all need time.

I'm turning to my song now, the ferns are calming me, but I need more.  Today we're listening to When The Deal Goes Down on the album Modern Times.

Imagine you're a stately old couple gently waltzing together in a dim polished hall, or perhaps it's a parlour.  The song is a promise of sustainment in times of trouble, even the worst of troubles.  So many possibilities about who or what is the sustainer to whom, some of them multiplying as the song unfolds.  It's slow and sedate, the difficulties of life that the singer alludes to seem greater because the music is so gentle, though a bit maudlin, and the voice is so fragile.

I have to admit, one of the qualities I value in Dylan's voice is the tremendous humanity; the failings and the warmth combine in a way I find, oh what's the word, yes, comforting.  It's a comfort to feel that someone else feels the same and in this song, that's exactly what I hear for "We all wear the same thorny crown."  We're all in the same boat, we'll all be there "when the deal goes down", the singer too.  How comforting is that? A real question perhaps.

The singer does not mention tidying up a garden as way of dealing with fear and anxiety.  It's likely that a more spiritual solution is closer.  Extraordinarily, he does point out that his prayers rise up like clouds in the air - the very clouds I've been longing to see, in the frost I've been longing to feel.  He regrets words he has said and hurts he has committed.  He comments on transient joys and their ultimate valuelessness.  Maybe excessive plant love comes under the heading of transient joys; he mentions a rose that pokes through his clothes, but we all know what roses mean.

Whereas I really mean plants of course.  And there are a few more vegetable loves to mention at this time, especially if the spring is to continue rushing headlong at us, breaking flowers untimely through the ground.
So on to hellebores and epimediums.

The pictures above show a fern and a hellebore before and after being readied for spring.  I do the same thing to epimediums always removing the old leaves before the flowers come through. 

If you've ever seen hellebores smitten by that black spotty fungus, which makes them pointless and ugly, you would accept the need for this, because it genuinely helps clean them up.  Just cut the leaf stems to the ground, leaving  the flowers ready to come through in good condition.  Epimediums don't get the spots, but if you are to enjoy the flowers and attractive leaves throughout the rest of the year, you should cut the old batch off before the fragile flowers stems lengthen.  It's very difficult to sort them out once those delicate heads are rising. You can leave them, feel free, but they'll look tired and tarnished from the get-go, as they do in the first picture on the lower right.

And the tenderness of those unfurling flowers brings me back to the song.  Dylan gives us a lovely phrase

                                       "More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours
                                        that keep us so tightly bound"

The hesitant melody slightly confuses the sense, which needs to reverse - these precious hours are more frailer than the flowers.  And we are tightly bound to that doubly intensified frailty: it is such a true contradiction, for we cannot argue with time and it passes like dropping petals.  Like these precocious camellias, which will pass early, as they have opened early. 

Were there a bargain to be had I would sacrifice my camellias to some real winter, without regret.  But the deals with the earth have been done, stored carbon rises in the air.   I seek comfort, but not at the expense of knowing that the deal is indeed going down.

But let's lift our hearts together and end with an exquisite fern, taken at Rosemoor, a magnificent paradise of plants in North Devon UK, an RHS garden of delights.  It's pteris wallichiana and was new to me.  I don't long for it, it would not survive here, but it's a triumph of elegance.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Round and Round - Eternal Circle

A simple shape, the circle, and I'm not about to go into one of those new-age frenzies about magic and power.  But the shape of  the space we are in surely affects the way we feel; strolling past or plumping ourselves right down inside there.

Garden-making is an opportunity to draw shapes on the ground and in the air; what a pleasure it is to fashion mass and space as you carve excess from shrubs and trees.  Even mowing the grass is a form of sculpture and creating a round of green laid flat is far from artless.  But there are many meanings to such a circular space and only some of them are what we really want.

The example above, set in the Welsh border counties, a garden called The Nurtons, seems almost like perfection.  It draws you down, holding you connected to those murkey hills, but doing so kindly.  That's what gardens should be about, cultivation hovering on the edge of the wilderness, holding humans in balance, not teetering, but dancing, or resting. 

There's often a feeling of a stage  in a circular space.  The hills and the trees are the audience, we're looking out from the circle, not inwards to nothing. 

The next photo is a very poor representation of Sticky Wicket, a garden in Dorset, UK, sadly now closed to the public, but revolutionary and influential in its time.  A garden that is returning to wildness, beautifully and naturally.  Its centrepiece was a huge planted circle, flatter in the centre, where a stone rippled outwards in waves of planting, all encircled by further ripples of grasses, shrubs and wildflowers.  Perhaps you could not dance comfortably there, but some could sing.  I look through my photographs of this garden and I could weep for the beauty of what they show, the huge soft complexity and the blessed unity.  I so wish this one was better but I'm trying to make a point here.

Circles higher than yourself, closer to you, have a very different feel.  The strength of the shape intensifies towards the dark perimeter, the centre is a vacuum. In the example below, that accounts for the terracotta umbilicus, which holds it all in place. 

 If you cannot look out easily, you might feel like a frightened rat, such as I once found in my tall round compost heap.  It (the heap) had plastic snap-together uprights as walls.  I had indeed snapped a lot of these uprights together, creating a small arena.  I was in there with the rat, to our mutual surprise, doing a little light clearing and turning.  It raced round and round the perimeter and I eventually threw myself over the top to freedom, equally desperate to leave - it was like one of us was the toreador, we just didn't know which.

This structure could make one feel the same way, that relentless sense of enclosure is apparent, amplified by the height and circularity.  It's all about focus of course, whirling round and round in here would make anyone panic.  Such structures are supposed to act as breathing spaces in packed gardens, but you'll find very few people standing around in them breathing.

The photograph above is of Sissinghurst, with its own famous circular pivot-point, connecting different garden rooms.  You see it on the right-hand side, hedged with yew.  You cannot see out, except along the escape routes.  You don't panic, but you could feel a moment of tedium as you pass quickly through.

Over to Dylan.  An unfamiliar song, simple to understand but densely apposite to our subject; it's Eternal Circle on the The Bootleg Series vols. 1 - 3.  Now in this song, the singer does an interesting thing, he speaks of himself, as the singer, of this very song, in the very act of singing.  We find ourselves standing with him, on a stage, really quite circular, like the passing of time as he sings.  His eyes "dance a circle", round the perimeter and a woman catches his eye.

There's a to and fro in the next few verses, an unspoken calling back and forth between them.  But he gamely continues almost trudging round his song, which is long, telling us how far he's got through it, how long there is to go.  And at the end, he can no longer find her, so starts the next song; the circle of time begins again.  From that to the circle in space, to the circle in time, to the circle in space and so on.

What matters though is the detail.  The singer is alert, observant and self-aware.  He knows exactly what the woman is doing, even to how she is breathing.  He takes us though his own thoughts and movements.  From the round space, his heightened perception becomes our own, we're in the centre of the circle of his consciousness with him. 

If you successfully place a circle in your garden I think you can get the same feeling; focussed from the centre of your own self, you relate more strongly to details beyond the perimeter.  The above example, taken at Burrow Farm Garden in Devon, shows that even a low semi-circle of hedge can draw things together and throw individual elements into relief.

And I don't think you even need to be inside the circle to get this feeling.  And it doesn't even need to be a complete circle.

Perhaps we can even do away with the hedge.  I wonder if a pot, well-placed and in scale, can give the same sense.  I'll excude the one in the photograph above, which doesn't seem quite right.  Have a look at this one though.  From the same garden.  Does it work in the same way?

And while we're in the smaller scale, here's a garden I work in, where the circle pulls the details round it into focus.  I could almost imagine one of the plants on the far side was ready to give me a wave.  The circle was here when I started the replanting, but it's a pleasure to work within such a framework, as it must have been for Dylan to compose such a clever, careful  "artless" song.