Garden thresholds can multiply your green spaces

Story and Photography by Helen Yoest

Whether it’s to a garden or life, thresholds symbolize new beginnings. For brides, being carried across the threshold of a new home marks the start of a new phase of life. For my own wedding in 1988, my husband and I were married on the banks of the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth, Virginia, on a dock that served as the threshold of our new life together. 

Asian garden design often incorporates thresholds. Slowing the walk by adding this portal makes it almost impossible to rush through garden. This portal slows visitors, encouraging them to fully take in their surroundings.

A threshold is where one moves from one space to the next – an arbor, a bridge, a gate, a break in the hedge, a set of dramatic steps leading to a level change or even a pair of columns – made of either shrubs or trees, or hardscape materials. They punctuate a space, alerting visitors they are about to experience a change in scenery. 

In the garden, thresholds serve the role of guiding friends and visitors towards a gathering place. Whether it’s one or two people moving from one area to another, or a group strolling through a garden, thresholds are a cue that something different lies ahead. It is not uncommon to reach a threshold and intuitively know to stop and observe.

Every journey begins with the first step. This is how I feel when I step up into my mixed border, where a bench beckons me forward.

I have one particular spot in my garden, Helen’s Haven, where I can count on hearing a visitor’s gasp upon seeing that particular garden for the first time. I’ve often wondered if the gardens they see are really that dramatic, or if it’s because I placed the threshold just right, creating the perfect view for maximum impact. In either case, it demonstrates the power of a threshold.

Thresholds can make a small garden feel bigger by subtly separating areas that serve different functions. They can also frame a view. Take a look around your property to see where you can take advantage of transitional spaces, and then decide what type of threshold would work best for that area. 

Any garden, large or small, has room for at least one arbor. Take a stroll around your property and look for areas you can divide and make more of the space. This is an idea known as multiplication by division -– expanding the space by dividing the area into smaller sections. Magically, the garden appears larger by breaking it up into smaller, distinct areas. 

A wide, bold arbor, painted to match the home’s trim, visually connects the house to the garden. It also serves as a threshold to the garden beyond.

Your arbor can serve as the “doorway” to a garden room by adding a low fence or hedge to create walls. Arbors also direct traffic through the garden, enticing visitors to come in. Adding paths and walls create transitional points for different rooms.

A simple arbor, softened by Clematis armandii, leads to a secret garden beyond.

Garden gates make a major statement about who you are as a gardener. Whether created from man-made materials, plants, or just an opening in a hedgerow, they are much more than utilitarian entryways. Passing through a garden gate surrounded by plants can make you feel like you’re entering a different world. 

A garden gate serves as a portal from one garden area to the next. When passing through a garden gate, we naturally want to stop and pause to take in the view.

In a way, garden gates complete a garden. They serve different functions, depending on whether or not they are open or closed. When open, they’re a warm welcome to the garden beyond. When closed, gates can create a feeling of privacy for those within the garden.

Changes in elevation in an otherwise flat garden offers the eyes different spots to pause and enjoy, rather than taking in the whole flat area at a glance. If you are adding a sunken garden or other design element that results in elevation change, you can use the excavated soil to build raised beds surrounding the newly created garden or elsewhere in the landscape. 

This threshold serves as a focal point. The bottom steps offer a different perspective than the one you’ll have when you reach
the top.

In any case, level changes should be part of the journey, not just a way to facilitate movement from one part of the garden to another. Evaluate your needs and the contour of your land to ensure you are gardening your level best. 

A level change can serve as the threshold for the garden above.

Once you’ve created your threshold, it’s time to make it part of the garden. Plant a trailing clematis or Carolina jessamine on your arbor to bring it to life in the summer months. Entice people to walk through your garden gate by installing a pathway to it with stepping-stones interplanted with soft green moss. Make the few stairs leading to your sunken garden even more inviting by planting sweet-smelling herbs to satisfy the sense of smell as you enter this new part of the landscape.

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