Design Like a Pro: Thresholds & Passages

Gates, arbors, and steps are the transitional spaces between garden rooms, guiding visitors on a journey of discovery.

June 22, 2011

Thresholds are those important places in a garden where you leave one area to enter another. When you walk out of the herb garden and into the vegetable garden, for example, you cross a threshold. When you walk through an opening in a stone wall, hedge, or fence, you are crossing a threshold. These transition points make a garden feel bigger by gently separating areas that play different roles.

The first threshold visitors are likely to encounter in any garden is the point where they step off the street or driveway and onto the more private path to the front door. Marking the beginning of the walkway with a pair of planted pots, a lamppost, or even a pair of small trees helps define that space as a threshold—a place of transition. This subtle demarcation reinforces the feeling that visitors are leaving an area designed as a more public space and entering a welcoming path for people. Plants can sweep up either side of the path to provide guests with a garden to walk through on their way to the front door.

The next and perhaps most important threshold is the area around the front door. It deserves a design that is truly special to signal a warm welcome. Broaden the existing brick or stone path into an entry landing as much as 10 feet wide and deep so there is room for a bench or chair, planted pots, or a garden ornament that hints at the life you live inside. Perhaps you could enclose this generous landing with a boxwood hedge to embrace your family and guests.

With these ideas in mind, look for other thresholds in your landscape, particularly at the beginning of paths. One might exist where you transition from sunny lawn to shady woodland, or where you leave the main lawn to enter a perennial or herb garden. Then decide which thresholds would benefit from clearer demarcation—an undertaking that often means removing lawn, putting down a different material on which to walk, and planting more purposefully. For continuity, choose a paving material employed elsewhere in the garden—brick, stone, or gravel. Decide what shrubs, trees, or perennials to plant on each side of the threshold to draw attention to this entry point.

Here’s an example of how I took up lawn in my garden to establish a threshold. After years of having a 4-foot-wide turfgrass path between a woodland garden and a richly planted perennial border, I dug up the now-shaded lawn. I replaced it with 3 inches of crushed gravel and topped it with 1 inch of 1/4-inch peastone to bring the surface back up to grade. I marked the beginning of the peastone path with a wide, flat stone. To add height and call attention to the path, I planted a dwarf Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris ‘Nana’) on the left of the entry and a purplebloom maple (Acer pseudosieboldianum) on the right.

The word threshold implies a surface to be walked upon, but it also points to a change in surroundings as one moves from one garden room to the next. Examine your property to see where you can take advantage of these transitional spaces: up or down steps, under the arch of an arbor, between a pair of urns, through a gate, and into a vegetable garden. Artfully mark thresholds with materials and plants, and your garden will feel more compelling.


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