Design in Balance: Diversity and Simplicity

Hello there again! It is time for another weekly installment from your Main Street gardener; a time where I bedazzle your imagination and smudge your cognition with my hip, non-hipster horticulture tips.

I knew I would one day get the question, and yes, it finally happened! Someone wanted to know what I was going to do about the “jungle” or “weed patch” (cannot remember the exact phrase used) exploding out of the entrance to the Children’s Garden, the area we call the prairie. In this area, the plant material seasonally matures to fairly tall stature, as is the nature of tall grass prairies once typical of western Indiana and Illinois. As the plants have gone dormant, they have flopped out over the paths.

There are two organizing design principles the concepts of diversity and simplicity affect: Order and Unity. Order is the overall organization or framework of a design, while unity is the way everything hangs together on the framework. Diversity and simplicity are utilized by designers to create order and unity within a garden space.

As a designer myself, I am forever looking to strike that balance. I look at diversity and simplicity as opposite ends of a continuum. I want enough diversity, enough different elements, that the design is interesting; too much diversity, and the design loses cohesion and becomes chaotic and confusing. Without enough diversity, a design becomes boring and monotonous. The effect the design aims to achieve determines where on the continuum one lands the design. The newly completed Island Garden, and our Children’s Garden, are great illustrations of how each principle is maximized toward a design goal.

In many ways, the Island and Children’s garden spaces are very different. Whereas the Children’s Garden prairie alone is extremely diverse, with over thirty native species present, the Island Garden’s composition is simple – arrangements of rock, plants and water – by design. Each garden’s design is meant to evoke different things. The Island Garden leans more towards the simple side to evoke a sense of tranquility and calm. Simplicity is achieved, for example, by limiting the number of types of items in the design, limiting the plant list, and by severely limiting the color palette. Diversity is found in changing elevation, size and organization of stone (and other items) and changes in plant height, texture and form.

We took a risk when designing the prairie element of the Children’s Garden. We wanted kids to see the diversity of the prairie, but knew the risk was we would overdo it on diversity and overwhelm the simplicity. We wanted to evoke the sense of different habitat types (prairie, wetland and woodland), to help introduce children to a wide variety of native plants, and to generate wonder at it all. Simplicity is introduced in the design in a number of ways, one being in how it is organized. By keeping the prairie to one area, the woodland to another and the wetland to another, the eye can sense some order. In the prairie specifically, there are two main elements: plants and concrete paths, nothing else to distract the eye or for the brain to process. Diversity is found in the number of different species, as well as some slight changes in elevation from one side of the promenade to the other. While the prairie looks chaotic and confusing at certain times of year (it is cut back each spring), it will gain in simplicity over time through attrition. Some species will not make it, and others, such as the tall grass species, will spread and multiply, thus reducing the species count. Nature will find its own balance on the continuum in time. 

The next time you visit, step into each of these spaces and see if you notice these differences, or just look out your own back door and see if you can identify where the diversity and simplicity of your own space exists.

Josh Steffen, Horticulture and Facilities Manager

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