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Garden Design

How to create a garden that works for you

Skilled designers combine plants and hardscape (stone, fencing and decorations), to create a beautiful garden.

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, 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 perfectly, 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. What you have is 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 garden design.

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 to help you with your site plan? 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 design 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 can be difficult to gracefully accommodate lots of different garden styles in one garden. 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 elements.

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 apple 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 an ornamental grass or the velvety gray of lavender or santolina. 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.

Plants as Design Elements

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 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 can create visual confusion. Trees and shrubs often 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. You can 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.

Getting Inspired

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 achieve.

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 styles.

Some garden design books include complete planting plans that are theme-oriented, or are specific to a certain type of site. They usually provide 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 to you.

Creative gardeners read garden design books the way creative cooks read recipe books. Don't feel compelled to follow the garden design verbatim. You can lift ideas here and there, and 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.

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