Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Thirsty Gardener: Keep in Mind Good Garden Design


Landscape architects have many trade secrets when it comes to the basics of garden design. It's hard for them to keep those secrets , though, when the results are always on display. Were they to spill the beans entirely, here's what a landscape designer might whisper in your ear.

Repeat It

Think of repetition as dramatic punctuation.

Colors, forms and textures offered over and over again bring harmony and balance to home gardens. If you have a pot with a red geranium, repeat red geraniums in other spots around the yard.  Your eye will pick up the red accents as you take in the whole yard. With just that simple trick, a sense of purpose and design will emerge. 

Artemisia 'Powis Castle' is a favorite  ground cover in my garden. I use it as background in many of my small flower beds.  Seeming the same, silver-sage color and lacy texture against the varied colors of other perennials lends continuity. It even feels comforting. Wherever you look, there's that stalwart Artemisia  backing up the other plants. 

Don't be afraid to repeat whole groupings of plants. Do you like the way a blue-green Hosta looks beside a purple-leafed Heuchera edged with a few pink-flowering annuals? By all means, use the same combination in other shady pockets around your yard.

Curve It

Throw your design plans a curve now and then. A path that winds, creating mystery, is much more fun to follow than one we can see along from start to finish. Rounded focal points in the middle of otherwise oblong herb gardens have been used for hundreds of years. And not all raised beds have to rectangular.

Containers, too, can help you make a curvy impact on a sharp corner. Group a few planted pots in a semicircle, obscuring a corner and creating a billowy, abundant effect.  A wine half-cask or whiskey barrel placed at the end of a fence or tucked into a corner will leave a softer impression, too.

Use curves on your gates, fences and walls. Wavy shapes instead of straight ones, circular openings instead of squares and semicircular motifs all add to a feeling of flow rather than containment.

Climb It

So many gardens come up short. Their plants hug the ground and rarely venture up a convenient fence post or trellis. These vertically challenged plots lack an essential element of basic design - height variation.

Trees and shrubs are the backbone of a garden and can provide height with just one plant.  Design a garden around a small tree or shrub or use them as accents and backdrops to show off your fronting plants.

A sturdy tree can also act as a support for many "tall" plants like vines and climbing roses. Flowering vines add color and texture to walls and fences and lead the eye upward. Readily available supports for vines like trellises and tuteurs alone can give height to a garden. When winter steals the scene, rusty iron stands in for perennials that die back to the ground.

Surround It

Fences, walls, hedges, pathways and edging define spaces in a garden and lend structure to your entire yard. Without physical boundaries, recreation areas fade into utility areas and gardens can look as if they're just dotted here and there.  Boundaries can make a minimalist planting look more purposeful and emphasize your design. Even a profuse cottage garden looks even more abundant with its blooms bursting over a white picket fence.Even a neat edge on a flower or vegetable bed improves a less-than-perfect appearance. Edging doesn't have to be hardscape, like metal or wood -  just use low-growing plants to delineate a pocket or garden bed. In fact, in a small garden an organic edging can blur the boundaries and expand the look of the space.

Diversify It

Plant a garden with nothing but roses and you've just invited a plague of aphids and thrips and powdery mildew into your yard.Why wouldn't an aphid on his way to somebody else's garden settle in yours instead? You've just provided him with a half-acre of his favorite food. But if you have just a few rosebushes among the other plants, he'll probably keep on going. Create diversity in your garden by planting hardy species beside delicate ones.

Recreate (Steal!) It 

Landscape designers love to imitate the designs that inspire them. Classic and contemporary gardens are continually being recreated and renewed  by the home gardener, too. 

Running dry on inspiration? Visit a public space, like the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden and Zoo.  Well-designed public spaces are treasure troves of ideas; there is an attractive vignette everywhere you look.   Notice how these parks recognize the human need for connection with nature. Sit on a bench and see how sun and shade can co-exist. Keep going back in different seasons to observe how the plantings change. A family membership for two adults and four children is $99 at

Snap a few photos while you're there and peruse them to incite your desire to make beautiful home gardens.

Stephanie Hainsfurther is the author of  Pocket Gardening for Your Outdoor Living Spaces (Hobby House Press, 2004).


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