The esteemed editor of this magazine and I have debated the issue of proper scale in the garden and all it implies. On one thing we are agreed: there isn't enough of it.
From the Latin scala, meaning “ladder,” scale is about the dimensional harmony among objects. It suggests an ideal relationship of parts to the whole or of one part to another, as represented by Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci's famous study of proportions depicting the perfect male body with arms outstretched in a span equal to his height.
And yet, scale is a concept more easily understood in the negative than the positive; we are comfortable saying that something is out of proportion, but it's much more difficult to come up with a useful definition of what an appropriate scale might be in a given setting.
Notions of an ideal anything tend to be very subjective—what I think appropriate, you might find jarring—but it is possible to come up with some guiding principles for rightness of scale, or proportion, in the garden.
It's fundamental to understand that, large or small, a garden's frame of reference is the great outdoors, where the ceiling is as high as the sky and the walls may be as distant as the horizon. Thus, everything in a garden needs to be larger, more generous and bolder than its indoor equivalent. Constricted pathways, narrow steps, flimsy fences and diminutive furnishings are not only impractical and unpleasant to use, but they also make a garden feel mean and pinched.
By contrast, generously proportioned elements set up grand expectations. Wide steps with good, chunky treads; a fence with sturdy posts; and large containers with confident plantings all suggest strength and substance, and lend a sense of permanence and luxury.
While the diminutive distracts the eye and intrudes upon the tranquility of the scene, boldness of scale is calming and fosters an appreciation of the big picture and of views beyond the garden.
Not all small things are bad, however. Paving bricks, for example, are clearly smaller than stone paving slabs, but they can work well in the garden because they're part of a larger entity—a path or terrace—just as a large area rug made up of different colours and patterns is still perceived as a unified whole.
The same is true of small ornaments. Small containers, for example, pack more punch grouped together in a single tableau; even the oft-mocked garden gnome could become a statement of high kitsch when arranged with a dozen confreres.
The message, then, is not that bigger is always better, rather that outdoor spaces require a generosity of scale and that all the elements of a garden must work in harmony with this expansiveness. Resisting clutter, staying with a clear vision of what you want your garden to be and preserving unity of scale achieves proportions of which even the old masters would approve.