Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Design Inspiration - The Lure of an Allée

The impressive pleached allee in the Boboli Gardens
Florence, Italy. Carefully trained to form a verdant
tunnel, one can feel the almost magnetic pull to enter
and explore.

There is something magical about walking along a tree lined avenue or allée. The straight route emphasizes a sense of purpose, directing the feet and framing an ultimate destination such as a sculpture or fountain. The trees planted on either side are of the same type, creating uniformity along its length and visual strength.
How do we translate this to the garden landscape, especially smaller spaces and what sort of trees could be used?

There are several questions to consider when selecting trees for such a feature;
  • What is the ultimate height you require?
  • Do you want a natural look or a more formal style such as pleaching described below?
  • Will the tree branches be allowed to grow to the ground or will they be limbed up, and if so to what height?
  • Does the tree need to be evergreen or deciduous?
Trees with ornamental bark such as the
Crepe Myrtle lend themselves well to
lining an elegant palisade.
My photo

With those factors addressed, look for trees with a natural upright growth habit, either columnar or vase shaped  such as the 'Chanticleer' ornamental pear (Pyrus), crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia), Liquidambar, 'Blue Arrow' juniper or Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens). It will take some research to narrow down your selection, checking hardiness ratings and mature size but half of the fun is the treasure hunt!

Few of us have room for an allee of sixty trees, but even six specimens planted in two parallel lines of three can make a statement. See the photo below of just six bald cypress trees (Taxodium) which have been used to focus the eye on an outdoor patio. Where space is particularly tight look for columnar varieties of trees such as 'Amanogowa' cherry tree or the columnar Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris 'Fastigiata')

My interest in this living architecture was piqued when I noticed a long, straight driveway flanked on either side by cherry trees. In spring it gave the effect of an endless confetti strewn promenade, waiting patiently for the entrance of the bride and groom. The effect changed but was not lost during the other seasons, as the burgundy leaves of summer gave way to fiery hues in fall. Even bare the silhouettes of the branches against the wintery skies clearly marked the intended route.

The branches of lime trees are braided together to
create this allee at Sissinghurst Castle, UK

A variation of this design is the pleached allée - a technique that weaves branches together to form a raised hedge. It is a method of adding structure in the garden without the use of arbors, pergolas or trellises to create a living, leafy tunnel. Not every tree can be trained this way. Lime trees (Tilia - known as linden trees in the USA) hornbeams (Carpinus sp.), beech (Fagus sp.), sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and apple trees are all suitable, but as with the traditional allée, only one tree species should be selected. Maintenance of pleached trees can be high due to the need for constant pruning but for those with time or manpower it makes a memorable and dramatic feature. For more information on pleaching see this link.

A short allee of bald cypress trees remind
the homeowners of their childhood home.
By keeping the trees limbed up, the path
is not obstructed and the destination
clearly visible.
Photo credit; Pam Penick
So often we are encouraged to design meandering paths in order to create interest. Indeed that is an invaluable design technique to make a small garden seem larger and to provide partially obscured ‘garden moments’  along the way. There are times, however, when a direct pathway is needed or perhaps inherited. The temptation is to flank this with an odd assortment of plant material as space dictates. If this path leads to somewhere important – even your front door, this may be an opportunity for an allée. Perhaps you have a direct route from the home to a secondary building such as a studio or garage? An allée could connect the two, adding importance to the ancillary structure. What about linking the home to your kitchen garden or a rose garden? This would be especially effective if these were designed in a more formal style such as a boxwood framed knot garden, perhaps with an attractive bench at the far end.

An avenue of white barked birch trees lead the eye to
an outdoor dining area. Note how the columns of the
dining pergola beautifully continue the theme.
Photo and design credit; Blueline Landscape 

What is the difference between an allee and a hedge? A hedge is a solid barrier whereas although the canopy of an allee may be dense, especially if the trees have been pleached, the spacing of the tree trunks is such that meandering in and out of the allee is possible. An allee therefore encourages direction whereas a hedge determines it.

So give it some thought. Stand back and view your home and garden from a distance. Is there an area which would benefit from stronger lines, a sense of geometry? Is there a special feature that you would like to enhance or draw attention to? Does there need to be a clearer sense of direction? Remember an allée is a type of promenade and that very word means to walk. This should be a memorable journey to somewhere or something important; not a mad dash to the garbage cans!

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