A Sheetcake Garden

Egren 7-07 (9)My idea of sheetcake has nothing to do with cooking batter in a pan.  It has everything to do with the idea of planting shrubs in masses.  There are those times and places where planting out in rows has its place.  Field rows of corn, asparagus, peonies or cutting flowers can be an astonishing sight.  Many years ago I designed just such a garden for a client who tithed the use of the land surrounding his house to his church. This, the intersection of agriculture and landscape.  Some years later I dicovered the work of the Spanish landscape architect, Fernando Caruncho.  His gardens explore the idea of agrarian based landscape design on a grand scale. His landscape, Mas De Les Voltes, I admire as much as any landscape I have ever seen. But my intent with the above pictured landscape was to suggest that a drivecourt had been carved out of a mass of taxus.  Though most of the mass is actually drivecourt, the suggestion of great mass remains.  Shrubs planted formally en mass-I call this a sheetcake.

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Caruncho had designed a garden in Madrid, La Florida, in which four giant rectangles of escallonia macrantha have been formally pruned into flat “tables” twenty inches high. I have never forgotten this gesture.  There is another way to conceptualize this; the shrub is actually a a very tall groundcover. Describing the effect of such a planting as a sheetcake enables anyone to visualize exactly what it looks like. The now large English oaks set in squares of pachysandra rain leaves onto the yew sheetcakes in the fall.  Weather working on the landscape provides something new to look at almost every day.

2007 Henderson 7-07 (5)Very small urban properties can be sheetcaked to good success.  One has to choose as few gestures from many possibilities, given a small space.   Too much going on in a small space dilutes the impact of the landscape. In this case saying less truly is more.

2007 Henderson 7-07 (6)A very flat piece of land achieves a change of level with the interaction of two plant materials of different heights. 

2008 Henderson, Leah 10-24-08 (3)The dusting of fall leaves provides another dimension as the limelights are fading.

Aug 17 028A sheetcake garden is an effective way to showcase abrupt changes in grade. I am all for celebrating any unusual  characteristic of the land.  One client had a low lying front yard, and an active artesian spring.  I dug the ground deeper, and created a pond. The sidewalk to the front door was actually a boardwalk over the pond; you get the idea. The artesian spring was treated as an asset, rather than a nuisance.  Accommodating nature helps produce a successful project.

Aug 16a 024A tree inset into a sheetcake provides another layer of interest.  I have talked about the spent magnolia petals on these boxwood in the spring-it is a sight for my gardening eyes. 

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A sheetcake garden; it sounds good, doesn’t it?


  1. Lovely idea. Never heard the expression sheetcake gardening before, but really like the looks of them.

    Thanks for the education.

  2. Deborah, so much food for thought in this post and Sunday’s. I googled Fernando Caruncho, who has a most elegant website, and am smitten. Dare I hope for a post one day where you actually photograph the book spines in your vast horticultural library? My horticultural library doesn’t contain a single book that holds a candle to your blog…

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Denise-Thank you so much for your comment-wow! I will be happy to oblige your request for pictures of my books-what a great idea. Thanks again, Deborah

  3. It does sound good and I tell you I may never look at a sheetcake again without seeing shrubs:)

  4. I love love love this concept. It’s clean, relaxing and simple. If you don’t mind, I’ll link to it from my blog.

    Parenthetically, I also love your blog and read it regularly.

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