Folly architecture adds mystique to garden

4 design elements that stimulate more than just the eye

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4 design elements that stimulate more than just the eye

Arrol Gellner
Inman News®

How about an obelisk in your garden? Or a sun temple? Or a dripping, moss-covered grotto?

The garden of one famous English estate boasted all of these features and more. It was called Stourhead, and these architectural elements, called follies, were artfully placed along a meandering circular path nearly two miles long. The garden and its follies were designed in 1744 by an amateur landscape designer with the unenviable name of Henry Hoare.

A folly is an architectural structure in the landscape that exists for no reason other than to add interest. Follies were all the rage in English gardens of the late 1700s, when they were an integral part of an architecture and landscape design movement known as the picturesque. The movement espoused pretty much what you might guess -- designs were meant to be artfully composed and, well, pretty as a picture. Stourhead was, in fact, literally based upon a landscape painting by Claude Lorrain done a century earlier.

Alas, most gardens don't have room for Stourhead's highly creative follies. But a folly doesn't need a lot of room to be effective. The same design elements that worked for Hoare and others during the golden age of English landscape design can still be used to lend picturesque elements to your own garden.

1. Gazebos are a time-honored garden folly. Whether square, octagonal or round, they make a fine endpoint for a garden path.

Try looking beyond the usual four-by-four-and-latticework construction -- the more exotic the design, the better. Gazebo designs of a century ago featured everything from unpeeled logs to river rock to iron columns and onion domes. In fact, the whole point of a folly is to go a little nuts.

2. A bridge can form the centerpiece of a garden with suitable terrain. It can cross either a dry rockbed or actual water. The scale needn't be large; look at some of the diminutive bridges found in Japanese landscape architecture. It's just the act of crossing from one side to the other that engages people's interest.

Do make sure that the bridge actually crosses something (not just flat ground). Even more important, make sure that there's something worth reaching on the other side -- another folly, perhaps, or just a bench on which to sit and enjoy the surroundings.

3. Small fountains or pools can add immeasurably to the pleasure of a garden. Besides mere appearance, the soothing sound, cool touch, and refreshing smell of water are a banquet for the senses. For this reason, famed gardens such as Stourhead contained whole networks of artificial ponds and creeks. But a tiny garden can benefit from water as well. You don't need a torrent -- something as simple as a small basin fed by a trickle of water can transform a garden into an oasis of tranquility.

4. Other follies are limited only by your imagination -- Stourhead's obelisk, for example, was a scaled-down version of a monumental Egyptian form. Locate follies at natural stopping points in the garden where they reveal a vista or a favorite plant. Even something as simple as a bench, bird bath or sundial can effectively add an unexpected element to the landscape.

Read Arrol Gellner's blog at, or follow him on Twitter: @ArrolGellner.

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