When you look at a garden, you may feel drawn to plants whose colours and shapes have been arranged in a particular way. A row of three repeated pots containing the same plants might catch your eye more than any other feature. Simple patterns, with their sense of order or neatness, draw attention and look satisfying—but why?
We all recognize pattern, but what exactly is it? On a basic level, a pattern is the rhythm and repetition of shape, line, or color—and, indeed, sound and touch—often, but not always, equally spaced. Pattern needs only to draw on one of these elements—for instance, entirely different shapes spaced equally, or a series of circles with spacing that doubles with each new circle. Some large-scale patterns might contain many smaller patterns, which can create something so complex that the individual patterns are only spotted when examined more closely. Then there’s abstract pattern, where repetition and equal spacing or size are thrown out the window. Instead, the common thread is a regularity in style or theme, such as color.
Essentially, a pattern, as opposed to a scene in a painting or photo, occurs when shapes or objects are positioned so they relate to one another, linked by repetition, rhythm, size, color, spacing, a matching style or combinations of any of these things. There’s a regularity between them. Such a pattern may grab attention, like the feathers on a peacock, or it may merge into its surroundings, such as a zebra’s stripes, which help the animal to blend in with its habitat. Understanding why and how pattern can have varying degrees of impact on a garden is often overlooked, but it’s as important as, say, color or texture—sometimes even more so when pattern is used as the underlying framework unifying all other elements.
Any shape can be used to create pattern, from simple geometric or curvilinear outlines to incredibly detailed images of nature, people, animals, and other objects. Pattern is often pictured in two dimensions, but, as you’ll see throughout this book, it appears in three dimensions as well, and nowhere more so than in gardens.
By opening our eyes to pattern, we find the entire natural world—in fact, the universe—consists of patterns and, in understanding their logic, we can make better sense of the space around us. Whether it’s the repeated shape of the leaves on a tree, the petals on a flower, honeycomb in a beehive, the prints on our fingers or a flock of geese in flight, pattern has a greater impact on our lives than we often realize.
One glance at the houseplants—cacti, succulents, and the like—in anyone’s home and you’ll notice that, however subconsciously, they have been chosen for their strong pattern. Something within human beings is unintentionally drawn to their shape and form. Animals are programed to recognize and read pattern and sometimes even make it. Pattern is ingrained in the human psyche, too. Not only do we admire patterns and love to create them, but we’re also particularly adept at doing so.
For humans, pattern is hardwired into our DNA—a hugely complex material which itself forms the most remarkable patterns. Humans evolved using pattern recognition to survive. They learned to read the pattern of the seasons as the days shorten, the Earth’s shadow on the moon changing through the month, the footprint trails of prey and the markings and leaf arrangements of particular plants that signaled whether they were edible or deadly—like the toxic red-capped fly agaric mushroom.
Words, sounds, playground equipment, computer code, even the text you are reading now, are all based on a complex series of patterns and our amazing ability to interpret them. We find these patterns comforting because they structure our world and help us to make sense of it. And we have also adapted to find pattern satisfying and attractive, reflected in the myriad patterns filling every high street fashion and homeware store.