Victor’s Design Insight: Atmospheric Gardens

Creating a Garden Full of Atmosphere & Ambience

A garden is a place to go to for many different reasons. Some people like to work and potter about in a garden, some like to simply walk through their garden and take in the sights and sounds, some like to simply look at their garden from the inside, treating it as a visual just like a picture on the wall, some like to sit and relax, and others like to socialise and invite all their friends or family round, celebrating the outdoors. Whatever you do in your garden there is no doubt that the garden needs to be a place full of atmosphere. Whether or not you enjoy your outside space largely comes down to how you feel in the space and whether or not you would like to spend time in your garden. Gardens can affect your mood, therefore creating the right atmosphere can be wonderful for your wellbeing.

Peter Zumthor talks about the importance of atmospheres created in design in his book ‘Atmospheres’. He talks about it through the design of buildings, but the atmosphere in a garden is just as important and mind-blowing. In the outside space, we have seasonal change and weather- how we use this to our advantage can explode our emotional attachment and envelopment within with a garden.

On my drive to work, I pass through a small bending country road in Yorkletts, Kent, not far from Whitstable Bay. I experience this stretch of road in all seasons and although I am simply driving through, I am always stunned and blown away by the emotion I feel by the change of atmosphere, and how this stretch presents such strong and contrasting atmosphere from season to season.

The natural meadow style planting along the verge changes from fresh new green and white achilleas, Leucanthemum and Rushes in the spring and summer, to the simple layers of browning herbaceous plants against the tall, almost yellow, Rushes. On a hot Summer day, you feel as though you are driving through a meadow prairie land from a Laura Ingils story. Then in the Winter, as the frost falls and the sun lays low in the morning sky, watching those sunbeams catch the tops of the frosted rushes, the atmosphere is incredible. I strive to recreate these atmospheres in the garden by planting tall Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Forester’ to act like Rushes and Leucanthemum with white acheliea in front, planted in large block or strips. Stipa gigantea can also create the same atmospheres -when the sunlight shines through its tall fronds and the little seed heads catch the light beams. Stunning.


Wordless Wednesday : Hanging by a Thread

“Thinking about daylight and artificial light I have to admit that daylight, the light on things, is so moving to me that I feel it almost as a spiritual quality. When the sun comes up in the morning — which I always find so marvellous, absolutely fantastic the way it comes back every morning — and casts its light on things, it doesn’t feel as if it quite belongs in this world. I don’t understand light. It gives me the feeling there’s something beyond me, something beyond all understanding. And I am very glad, very grateful that there is such a thing. And I have that feeling here too; I’ll have it later when we go outside. For an architect that light is a thousand times better than artificial light.”

– Peter Zumthor, from Atmospheres (2006)

Bruder Klaus Field Chapel / Peter Zumthor

Peter Zumthor creates atmospheres through light and water, as seen in previous blogs where I mentioned the Thermal Baths. Luis Barragan uses both water and light, as seen below, but creates a very different atmosphere. The vivid colours of Mexico used in his architecture alone lift the atmosphere from deeply emotional, to light and cheerful, but his use of water to create drama and excitement make for a feeling of fun.

Luis Barragan’s ‘Shooting Fountains’

In the domestic garden, we can’t always use water to create the same scale and dramatic atmosphere as Luis Barragan’s ‘Shooting Fountains’, but we can take influence from his examples of serenity.

This garden in Wrotham, sitting between the M26 and M20, was designed by Oakleigh Manor in 2019. We have used water in the same way as Barragan to create a calm and serene atmosphere. The sound of the nearby motorway can be heard from the garden, so the visual of movement and sound of water falling transports you to a whole different place and the atmosphere is completely changed. The water feature is built out of Corten steel and the evergreen planting, when mature, will cover the view of the retaining sleepers and run flush with the water feature- giving it a really crisp finish.


Oakleigh Manor Pool Garden Design, Surrey – day vs night

In my previous blog about simplicity, patterns and repetition I added images of this swimming pool Oakleigh Manor designed in Surrey. I briefly mentioned Peter Zumthor and touched on the title atmospheres where I commented ‘calming patterns, added light, praising the shadows and simple layouts create such a strong atmosphere’. The lighting adds an incredible atmosphere as the evening falls.

Although these images are full of powerful atmosphere, some of our gardens are far more subtle in their approach to creating an atmosphere. In my garden design in Hoath Kent, the design was all about designing a space to unify with a new orangery built onto the existing house to create a calm and tranquil environment.


With this beautiful new orangery and a simplistic landscape design, an amazing calming atmosphere was created. By combining beautifully soft flower strap leaf plants with gentle butterfly-like flowers, and weeping plants with harmonious hard landscaping, you felt as though you were in a movie set of an old English period drama. Even though you could feel the regal power of the cascading steps as you walked through the space, the weeping planting pouring over the edges and the cottage style border pulled it all together -creating that perfect balance of hard and soft materials. This space was a joy to design and to walk through and experience once it was complete. The atmosphere makes you want to stop and settle for afternoon tea and scones with lashings of cream and homemade strawberry jam.

Oakleigh Manor Garden Design & Build in Whitstable, Kent

In the garden, we can also use hidden defused lighting to create an atmosphere. In the image above you can see the use of spike lights hidden amongst the foliage, out of sight. The lights illuminate the foliage and stem but largely stay hidden. This type of lighting is often used to define borders and can also be used to highlight driveway edges by illuminating planting, rather than recessed lights glaring in your eyes. In a garden such as this, the choice of lighting is not simply for functionality, but to create an atmosphere. If we needed light as a function we could’ve installed a simple spotlight, but just look at how the soft and subtle lighting creates such a calming atmosphere. This space, because of the light treatment, invites you to sit back and enjoy the warm late summer evenings of Whitstable.

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