Through the garden gate

Stepping through a garden gate is the first great moment in a visit to a garden: The gate swings closed behind you, and suddenly you’re an insider, cut off from the busy world.

Garden designers describe the garden gate as a critical element in a garden plan. A gate marks an important transition: like the front door of a house, it deserves special attention.

Gates restrict access, but they also awaken anticipation. They are physical, visual, and psychological thresholds.

“I like to create a point of constriction, a definite and distinct difference between the sidewalk and the front walk,” says Joe Hertzler, garden designer, he calls this spot a “pinch point,” but it doesn’t hurt — it directs the feet and the eyes, establishes a mood and helps define the spaces within a garden.

In Hertzler’s garden, the pinch point is an arbor, covered with a colourful native honeysuckle vine.

The arbor is one step up from the sidewalk, and the flower-covered structure and the change in level give you the impression of having arrived.

“A gate or an opening in a hedge does the same thing,” Hertzler says.

His colourful front-yard garden is surrounded by a picket fence, and the gate inspired by the tidy picket gates everywhere in Colonial Williamsburg, is drawn shut by the weight of a heavy iron ball suspended on a chain.

Since pretty gates prepare you for the garden within, the style and materials should match — or at any rate, complement — the character of the garden. An iron gate suits a city garden, but it doesn’t have to look like a security fence.

In Virginia Beach, a gardener painted her iron gate a jazzy magenta.

A gardener in Portland, Ore., turned an old pair of tall shutters into a gate that swings open like saloon doors.

Local traditions and materials often suggest the right style: New Orleans French Quarter gardens typically have iron gates, although if you’re strolling the streets of the Quarter you’ll see wooden gates with wrought-iron insets, too.

A garden gate is a terrific place to emphasize details. Decorative finials or a fancy set of hinges reveal the sensibilities of the gardener.

Here at the entrance to the garden is a good place to indulge yourself in dramatic and unusual paving materials, like a huge millstone, for example, or to lay an entree of bricks, bluestone or field stones in a pretty pattern.

The sturdy paving sharpens the effect of the transition, but such details also tend to slow observant visitors down, helping prepare them for the experience of your garden.

This is a place to add carefully chosen horticultural hints, too, like fragrant rosemary in a pot or planted in the ground, a pair of clipped yews or boxwoods, or anything that particularly captures the essence of your gardening style.

Inspiration starts at the garden gate. When you put some thought and effort into the entrance to your garden, you’re opening the door to a world of possibilities.