Create You Dream Garden
Article from gardeners.com
To plan or not to plan
Experienced gardeners have no problem deciding when to plant their
peas, how deep to put their tulip bulbs, or how much to water their
geraniums. But when it comes to garden design, even the most seasoned
gardeners begin to sweat. We can spend weeks trying to find the
perfect spot for a new shrub; spend an entire winter sketching plans
for a new perennial garden; and agonize for years about how to reconfigure
the front walk. Why do we find these decisions so paralyzing?
One reason may be that garden design is perceived as the work of
experts: landscape architects, landscape designers, garden designers,
and landscape contractors. Yet some of the most beautiful gardens
in the world were not designed by experts. Sissinghurst, the home
and gardens of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, is a perfect
example. So, too, are the gardens of Tasha Tudor and Thomas Jefferson.
These gardens are the result of an attentive eye, a sensitive hand,
and many years of experimentation - skills that are not the exclusive
property of design professionals. Our goal in this article is to
help you overcome the garden design jitters, and give you the confidence
to finally remove that hedge of overgrown yews, install a flagstone
path to your garden, or decide where to put a water garden.
Some gardeners wouldn't dream of planting anything without having
a comprehensive design and planting plan for their entire yard.
Others don't think about "designing" their gardens until
several years down the road. And still other gardeners never develop
a long-range or a short-range plan. They do their planning in the
moment, poised with a shovel and a couple of homeless plants.
Which approach is right for you? It depends entirely on who you
are and what you are comfortable with. If you have the confidence
to forge ahead and follow your intuition, do so! If you feel the
need to get some professional advice, then that's the best alternative
for you. Both approaches are equally valid.
It is good to remember that there is no ultimate garden design
for your property. There are as many different designs as there
are gardeners. And even if you had a detailed plan that you executed
to the "T", tomorrow would bring a new interest, a new
challenge, and a whole new set of design decisions. The trees will
mature and turn your sunny meadow into a shady glade. The weeping
cherry that anchored your spring bulb garden will die and need to
be replaced. You will tire of the cottage garden and develop a passion
for dwarf conifers. In garden design there are no "right"
decisions. It's a delightful (though sometimes unnerving) opportunity
to express yourself. The hardest part may be trusting your own intuition,
and allowing yourself to experiment as you evolve your own unique
The Site Plan
One of the most valuable design tools is a site plan, or bird's-eye
view of your yard. Seeing your garden on paper makes it much easier
to identify underlying design elements such as traffic patterns,
scale, and symmetry. A professional designer will give you a site
plan that is precisely drawn to scale, but your own rough sketch
or a survey map will be adequate for all but the most complex landscape
designs. Once you have a plan to work from, you can start to indicate
the positive and negative features of your yard (trees, shrubs,
fences, outbuildings, pathways, views) and natural environmental
factors such as light conditions and soil or drainage problems.
Pathways and garden areas can be sketched right on the plan. If
you enlarge sections of the plan, you can also use it to create
your planting map.
Should you hire a professional landscaper or garden designer? If
you have the means and desire to do so, it will probably be money
well spent. Professional advice will always give you a valuable
new perspective on your yard and gardens. You may follow their recommendations
to the letter, or select only the elements that you find most appealing
or most manageable. It is not necessary to contract for a full-scale
site plan. Most designers will be very willing to focus their attention
on a particular area (like the entryway). One well-conceived and
well-executed feature may go a long way toward identifying a style
that you can then carry forward yourself.
Garden design basics
What follows is a list of design principles that are common to all
the creative arts, whether it be painting, music, literature, or
garden design. Don't let them intimidate you. Just use them as tools
to help you see.
Style: Every garden has a style or personality to it.
Unless you have a very large yard that is divided into distinct
areas or "rooms," it will be hard to gracefully accommodate
lots of different garden styles. Begin by thinking about whether
you want your garden to have a formal or informal look. Consider
your site, the style of your home, and your own personality. Though
you don't have to be too rigorous about striving for a consistent
style, you'll want to avoid a jumble of diverse and unrelated
Flow: A garden is more pleasing if there is a logical
progression from one area to the next. Think about how you would
like someone to view and move through your garden. Paths are one
way to connect some of the various parts to achieve a sense of
order and cohesiveness. Focal points, such as a piece of sculpture,
a distinctive tree, or a captivating view, can be used to draw
the eye and pull us forward into a new space.
Scale: Scale is about proportions - how the sizes and
shapes of things relate to each other. A three-foot-by-six-foot
island bed floating in a half-acre sea of lawn will be seriously
out of scale. The same will be true of a dwarf cherry tree located
in front of a two-story colonial house. Most scale problems are
due to skimpiness, such as beds and paths that are too narrow,
or plantings that are too small and tentative. If in doubt, err
on the side of boldness and generosity.
Rhythm: By repeating plants and materials, you can produce
a sense of rhythm, order, and predictability. Too much repetition
is monotonous, but, as in music, variations on a theme are pleasing.
You may want to repeat certain distinctive plant materials, such
as the spearlike foliage of Siberian iris, or the eye-soothing
grey of lamb's-ears (Stachys byzantina). Repeating splashes of
color will also establish a rhythm in the garden and help to guide
the eye. But don't be a slave to repetition. The best gardens
always leave room for the unexpected - a giant pot of agapanthus,
a whimsical birdhouse in a tangle of morning glories, or a blood-red
rose tumbling over a stone wall.
Symmetry and Balance: Humans seem to be naturally attracted
to symmetry - toward creating perfectly balanced features. Our
bodies are symmetrical, as are the cars we drive, the arrangement
of windows in our homes, and often the shrubs that flank the front
door. Used judiciously, perfect symmetry can be a powerfully appealing
design technique. But when overused it can become stiff and boring.
The natural landscape, which we also find visually pleasing, is
not governed by symmetry. In nature, something more subtle is
at work, something artists and designers refer to as balance.
Balance is an essential factor in garden design. It refers to
visual weight: a birch clump balanced by a large bed of hosta;
a brick pathway balanced by a wide swath of lawn; orange Oriental
poppies balanced by deep blue lupines. In these examples, the
two elements are not identical in size, shape, or color, but there
is a response from each side that balances the other. Successful
garden design incorporates both symmetry and balance.
Walls, roofs and paths One thing great gardens share is a sense
of place. Entering them is like entering a home - you are wrapped
in a particular environment that is very different from the world
outside. As in a home, the walls, roof, and floor help give a
garden its unique character. When designing your own garden, you
can use these aspects to create "rooms" in which plants
are arranged in a context rather than floating in space. Walls.
English flower borders almost always have a background behind
them. In England, this is usually a tall stone or brick wall or
an evergreen hedge. The backdrop serves to stop your eye from
roving and allows you to focus on the intended view. Most American
gardeners don't make use of this very effective technique, and
our gardens often get lost in the larger scene. Whenever possible,
anchor your garden by placing something behind it: a structure,
a fence, or a planting of shrubs. Remember to keep it simple.
The objective is to direct the eye to the foreground, not create
a competing element. Roofs. Though there are plenty of very successful
gardens that are totally exposed to the sky, most of us are naturally
attracted to more sheltered, intimate spaces: a garden that's
been carved out of a woodland or is nestled beneath an ancient
apple tree. We are, for the same reason, drawn to arbors, bowers,
allees, and pergolas. The roof need not cover your entire garden.
Including the experience of enclosure somewhere in your garden
- it can be as simple as an arbor at the entrance - will help
to create that sense of being in a special environment set apart
from the rest of the world.
Paths: Paths lead us through a garden and link one area
to another. Paths in themselves are an age-old comfort, showing
us the way we are to travel, assuring us of a progression that
is safe and intentional. The paving material and the way the paths
are laid out can help define the style of the garden. A meandering
pathway made of flat stones spaced several inches apart will have
an intimate, informal feel; a wide brick path suggests neatness
and order; a broad path of closely mown lawn conveys grandeur
and expansiveness. Paths also create edges that suggest where
new plants or even entire gardens could be located.
Plant material as a design element
Plants themselves can be important design elements, though few gardeners
actually use them this way. The arching branches of a well-pruned
cherry tree can frame an entire garden. The repetition of soft,
grey-leaved plants or the spiky foliage of Japanese iris can be
used to unify a long border. If you take the time to notice and
experiment with the form, texture, and color of plants, you will
discover a whole new palette of design elements with which to work.
form. This is a three-dimensional consideration that takes into
account the shapes and volumes of the plants in your garden. A variety
of different forms makes a garden interesting, but too much diversity
creates visual confusion. Trees and shrubs have characteristic forms
that should be carefully combined to avoid clashing. Flowers, too,
have characteristic shapes: the rounded heads of alliums, verbena,
and globe thistle; the vertical spikes of delphinium, snapdragons,
and veronica; the diaphanous look of baby's-breath and Queen Anne's
lace; the strong architectural lines of a 5-foot martagon lily.
Experiment by grouping plants with the same form into a drift, or
by repeating a pleasing composition of different forms several times.
Texture: Plants have a tactile quality that can be used
as a valuable design tool. Think about how the glossy leaves of
holly, magnolia, and roses contrast with the suede-like foliage
of lamb's ears, heliotrope, and coleus. Or how the fat and fleshy
leaves of a sedum differ from the needle-like foliage of rosemary
or the quilted leaves of a blue-green hosta. Flowers also provide
textural interest. They can be rich and velvety like a rose, or
as thin and translucent as a poppy. Even tree bark contributes
textural interest - especially during the winter months.
Color: Entire books have been written about using color
as a design tool. You can approach color as a technician, using
the color wheel to create harmonious combinations, or you can
use your own eyes and emotions to guide you in creating the look
and feel you want. Combining colors in new and interesting ways
offers a lifetime of exciting possibilities.
As a general rule, red, orange and yellow are colors that jump
out at you. They are lively and stimulating, and give the impression
that they are closer to the eye than they actually are. If you
plant too many hot-colored flowers, and don't balance them with
cool-colored, less assertive plants, your garden will be a jumble
of blaring trumpets. Green, blue, and violet are cool colors.
In the garden these flowers create a more soothing, restful feeling,
and tend to recede into the distance.
Where to go for inspiration
Visiting other people's gardens may be the best source of design
inspiration. Take along a camera or sketch pad to capture features
that you find particularly successful or appealing. Notice when
some of the design techniques described above are being used. Don't
be afraid to ask questions about what the gardener was trying to
Glossy picture books of gardens run a close second for design inspiration.
They have the distinct advantage of being available for perusal
year-round. Use sticky notes to mark images that capture your attention,
then go back and review your choices to see where the similarities
lie. Comparing and contrasting different types of gardens can be
very useful in helping you decide what sort of look attracts you.
If you are gravitating toward a theme garden (colonial, Japanese,
Southwestern, English cottage), you'll find dozens of books that
illustrate the design features and techniques that distinguish these
Plan books are another good source of design ideas. Most ready-made
plans are theme-oriented, or are specific to a certain type of site.
They usually include a site plan, a planting list, and an elevation
drawing that shows what the garden will look like at eye level.
You can follow the plan, or pick and choose the elements that appeal
Creative gardeners read garden design books the way creative cooks
read recipe books. You don't need to follow the garden design verbatim,
but you can lift an idea here and there, and when you get back to
the garden, you can combine them into your own unique expression.
Decorating your garden
Some purists believe that ornamentation - trellises, furniture,
sculpture, and decorative planters - has no place in the garden.
Others fill their gardens with so many decorative elements that
it can be difficult to find the plants. Used judiciously, the furnishings
and decorative features that you incorporate in your garden help
give it style and character.
Decorative elements can be characterized as formal, informal, or
somewhere in between. This has something to do with what the piece
is (a whirligig versus a Japanese lantern), but also what the piece
is made of. Fanciful wooden birdhouses and split-rail fencing have
a casual, country feeling; whereas a bronze nude or a Grecian urn
are more elegant and formal. When choosing decorative elements for
your garden, the challenge is to select items that appeal to you,
and that will also fit harmoniously with the style you are trying
to achieve and any other decorative objects that you already own.