A bit of cheating again! My seventh object in this series about the essence of gardening is really at least two objects with a common name- compass or compasses. For me these two objects symbolise the importance of design in gardening- the conscious act of choosing and positioning what plants and other garden elements are used and where.

This can be as simple as thinking about where to place different plants or elements in the garden; by knowing where the prevailing weather patterns are coming from (wind and rain), as well as the direction and strength of light and heat from the sun. For this a magnetic compass is a very useful to back up to observation and wider knowledge.

Picture by Bios-commonswiki

Picture by Bios-commonswiki

And nature has it’s own ‘compasses’, too. The plant  Silphium laciniatum, has a common name of ‘Compass plant’  inspired by the “compass orientation” of its leaves. The large leaves are held vertically with the tips pointing north or south and the upper and lower surfaces of the blades facing east or west. A newly emerging leaf grows in a random direction, but within two or three weeks it twists on its petiole clockwise or counterclockwise into a vertical position. Studies indicate that the sun’s position in the early morning hours influences the twisting orientation. This orientation reduces the amount of solar radiation hitting the leaf surface. Vertical leaves facing east-west have higher water use efficiency than horizontal or north-south-facing blades. Early settlers on the Great Plains of the North America could make their way in the dark by feeling of the leaves.

Silphium laciniatum- 'Compass plant'

Silphium laciniatum- ‘Compass plant’

Equally, garden design can involve recording your current plot and devising new elements and patterns for your garden (borders, paths, specimen plants, hard landscaping features). For this, a pair of compasses is a vital tool in plotting key elements in your existing garden (through the technique of triangulation) and also in drawing circles or arcs in a new design (and then setting these out on the ground).

Dividers and compasses are drawing instruments that have been used since antiquity to measure distances, transfer lengths from one drawing to another, and draw circles. The Greek mathematician, Euclid, limited the constructions in his Elements of Geometry to those that could be done with an unmarked straight edge and rudimentary compass. Ancient Roman dividers survive in the collections of the British Museum. Before the 18th century, when one leg was modified to take a pen or pencil point, compasses had two sharp points, like dividers. The user scratched the writing surface in the shape of a circle and then inked the scratches.


 Old School Gardener