The lone voice of horticultural reason

Garden Gaffs

“Gaff” is a great word I learned during my tender years as a traveling pitchman on the state fair circuit. The gaff is the trick, sleight of hand, or otherwise unseen factor inherent either in the demonstration or the product itself that allows the demonstrator to make the product being shown perform so perfectly and effortlessly that at the conclusion of the pitch, you, the person watching, realize you’re darn lucky you stopped to watch the demonstration, and are a bit surprised you’ve led as fulfilling a life as you have so far without owning the product. So you buy two, especially since it makes a great gift. When you take the product home, it works, and in fact does an adequate job; it just never gives off that sort of mystical zing it so palpably emoted in the hands of the pitchman.

I never worked any products that involved a gaff. (Oh, maybe one, but the gaff was minor and fun, and in no way disparaged the truly fine product I sold by the absolute truckload.) Fact of the matter is, a majority of the products and pitches you’ll see at the State Fair or on TV don’t contain a gaff. But a few still do. The one for the knife sharpener is a beaut.

I do, however, use a lot of gaffs in the garden, which is where I’ve been trying to get all this to lead.

One can play tricks with perspective in your yard by the use of exaggeration, in both plant selection and design. Want to make a garden appear longer? Instead of a stone or brick path that retains the same width front to back, taper it, gradually, from four feet wide to three, or from three feet wide to two, as it travels 30 or 20 feet from start to finish. Place taller/larger shrubs at the start and decrease the height and size of shrubs as you move toward the back. (You can be dealing with as few as four or five shrubs.) Mix in a taller sculpture or larger pot at the start, and finish with a smaller version. Quite early on you’ll see the magic happen; then it’s just a question of experimenting and tweaking “the gaff” until it reaches the level of subtle illusion you desire.

Perhaps your side yard appears too long and narrow, as many suburban side yards do. Let’s say it’s ten feet or so wide by 30 or 40 long (remember that the eye starts the side yard before the start of the house, and extends it beyond). Break up the area into several rooms, through the midway use of a tall fence or trellis, stone or shrub wall that extends halfway out. Over a long stretch you can do this several times, extending tall structure partway out from the left, then partway out from the right farther down.

You’re creating a serpentine traffic pattern, with surprises, I trust, around each corner.

These are great fall gardening projects, which mean now is a perfect time to begin planning. Use a tape measure and measure accurately, then transfer the information to graph paper, including the footprint of your house, other existing structures, driveway, and trees. Make about twenty photocopies, so you can sketch boldly and without fear of mistakes. Then as you begin to recognize and trust the artist within you, go ahead and liven up this new friend’s personality with a bit of the traveling pitchman’s winks, one-liners and gaffs.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener