Watching Light

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I often spend time in a friend’s garden and watch the movement of light. This garden is designed for light. It slopes gently upwards and there are large ash trees to the rear and on the left-hand side.  Even on a sunny day the plants in the garden move continually between shade and light as the sun passes across the sky. The view is a stage set and is centred on a superb specimen of Stipa gigantea with support from other grasses. The passage of light lifts the plants into sparkling relief. The sun moves, and the plants are flattened and diminished. The effect of light is almost hypnotic, the colours so intense, the whole, so ephemeral. It appears slightly different each time the light plays.

I have watched sunsets in Utah where there is big drama in the movement of light on mountains. Even on the scale of a small domestic garden the movement of light is a significant event.

Everyone goes for scent but the choice of plants for their effect when seen against sunlight is a bigger hit than fragrance for me. Stipa gigantea has seed-heads that spangle and shift endlessly. However still the air, when caught by light they burn golden and shimmer in continual movement. In this garden the leaves of the ash trees provide fascinating patterns as they dance in the air.

In my garden I look for the glow of bare–stemmed dogwoods during winter. In the morning my giant Cotinus has leaves that glow in the morning light, but the colour becomes flat and cowpat-toned in the full sunshine of summer.

In order to achieve the best light effects, the plants must be separated from the complexity of foliage. The light has to work on plants that are observed as simple silhouettes. Careful planning is clearly needed, especially in my busy garden.

Susan A. Tindall

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