Wednesday, January 11, 2012

From Here to There

Every step, every turn reveals a new chapter in the story of this garden
A wooden bridge, painted red, suggests an opportunity to pause.
Design by Jim Guthrie

I am naturally drawn to bridges. They invite exploration and the promise of a fresh perspective. Why are they there? What do they span?  A trickling stream? A waterfall? A dry gulley? What is on the other side?

Remember the story of Winnie-the-Pooh and how he invented the game of Poohsticks? Crossing the bridge, Winnie-the-Pooh stopped to lie on his tummy and watch the river slipping slowly away beneath him, the lazy current taking his fir cones and sticks on a mesmerizing journey. This conjures up such a peaceful, dreamy picture that I almost wish for a warm sunny day to do the same!

Designing adventures into your garden makes it more interesting. When a garden is experienced rather than observed it becomes memorable, something which lingers in the mind long after the visit is over.

In an earlier four part post on garden design I suggested ideas for entrances, pathways, ‘garden moments’ and finally destinations. A bridge could be incorporated in any of the first three elements and provide us with the opportunity to add something unique.

Bridges are structures which are intended to span an obstacle, allowing passage from one side to the other. The very first bridges were created by Nature as logs fell across a stream or large stones tumbled into the water conveniently providing dry passage. A related feature is the boardwalk, commonly used in sensitive areas to traverse a wetland or coastal dunes. There are several ways to incorporate either of these structures into even a small garden.

Dappled sunlight, majestic Japanese maples and mossy paths all 
combine to create a perfect woodland glade.Yet it is this blue 
bridge which transforms the scene from delightful to truly memorable.
Design and photo credits; Deborah Elliott
Perhaps the most popular style of garden bridge is a gentle arched structure. Traditionally made of cedar these are now also built using composite materials. Often associated with Asian design, these may be painted red in Chinese gardens or left to weather naturally. However this style can also be adapted beautifully to a woodland setting. I love the image of Deborah Elliott’s blue bridge in her delightful woodland garden. The unexpected color catches our attention, inviting us to explore further. Deborah has a true artist’s eye and has repeated blue hues in other garden accents such as a weathered birdhouse and a secluded bench. This ‘places’ the bridge in the garden while still being its focal point.

A word on safety – I have seen several arched bridges with a very steep incline. Personally I prefer to stroll rather than hike and I don’t see the purpose of such a gradient unless a yacht has to sail underneath! A gentler slope is more relaxing and still serves the purpose. Wet leaves and winter moss can leave these surfaces slippery, however, so be sure to clean them off regularly or add non-slip treads. Handrails may also be necessary – check your local ordinances for regulations and recommendation.

Understated, yet this simple bridge is  still an important element
in this woodland garden design.
My design
In one of our previous gardens we added a simple rustic bridge over a small stream. The span was short enough one could have simply stepped across the stream, yet assumed a greater importance by adding a simple, level, planked structure. By changing the material underfoot from the hazelnut shell pathway to cedar boards the journey became more interesting and suggested it was worth stopping to watch the water as it tumbled over mossy rocks and around lush ferns as it made its way to the pond below.

A raised boardwalk meanders through the jungle-like
 foliage of a wetland.
Bloedel Reserve, WA

Bridges don’t need to be straight and this is perhaps where boardwalks really come into their own. Zigzag paths slow us down as we need to watch where we are walking! In Zen philosophy and teachings, they are used to focus the walker's attention to the mindfulness of the current place and time moment - "being here, now".

Floating stepping stones are the highlight of this design as they 
bridge the two patios, fording a small pool midway.

A contemporary twist on this theme which I especially like is the use of floating stepping stones. These are less intrusive than a raised bridge or boardwalk and are suitable to span still or very gently moving water which is less than a foot deep. Stones are set with mortar onto large piers of brick or concrete which in turn are set upon a concrete base for stability. These piers will be completely hidden beneath the stepping stones.

What would work best in your garden? First consider the function; do you need to cross a seasonal stream or to provide firm footing over a dry river bed for example. Then determine the style that would work best – rustic, formal, Asian or contemporary. What would blend with the surrounding landscape and homes architecture? The final design will be determined by taking these factors into account as well as structural considerations such as the physical distance the bridge has to span.

Finally stand back and watch visitors young and old being drawn irresistibly towards your bridge. Poohsticks anyone?


  1. Hi Karen, Great inspiration! I hope that one day soon we will have a bridge, stream and pond.

  2. Hi Karen, thanks so much for featuring my blue bridge and for your kind comments about my garden! The other photos are inspirational, and I am honored that you place my little squirrel crossing in such good company. I loved your sentence about designing adventures into the garden. I hadn't thought about it in those terms, but that is exactly what I try to do. Your design posts have been informative and filled with great ideas, well worth studying and bookmarking for future reference.

    1. Deb I absolutely love that bridge of yours! I visit many gardens online and in person so it takes something special to stand out in my mind. This bridge has a magical quality to it and I know others will be as inspired as I have been. Thanks for letting me share it.

  3. Karen, I read this post and the ones on entrances, etc. while I was at work the other day (ahem...) and then was interrupted before I could comment. What a great series--the kind of thing that makes you think and look at your garden with fresh eyes. Like Deb, I love what you say about designing adventures into the garden. In one of your other posts you mention that adventures and "moments" can slow people down, which is perfect for a small space. After all, even without a water feature, we want the garden to be a Pooh-sticks kind of place.

    1. Your last sentence sums it up perfectly Stacy - a Pooh-sticks kind of place. Time to meander, talk with friends, watch the water slipping slowly by and enjoy the simple gift of 'being'.

  4. Paths and bridges in a garden lead you somewhere. You can get away for awhile, even in your own garden, and hopefully discover something new.

    1. So true. Even a short garden walk can offer a sense of discovery.


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