Using lessons learned from the past, it’s easy to create an easy-care garden that will inspire you year-round.
SCRIM PLANTS, like tall, slim grass spikes or willowy sunflowers, create mystery by partially obscuring parts of the garden. They can be as effective at drawing you along the garden path as a walkway that curves just enough to hide its final destination.
Such tricks, along with placing unplanted, oversized pots as focal points and planting in masses (even if that means in groups of three, five or seven plants in smaller gardens), are visual illusions used by good designers to create rich and satisfying garden experiences.
Garden design has been called the slowest of the performing arts. And it does require patience. Creating gardens is about so much more than how plants grow (or don’t) over time. How about functional concerns, like drainage and where to stash the compost bins?
I’ve been lucky enough to hang out in a wide variety of gardens over all these years of writing about them. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing designers, and hearing from gardeners what they love best about the spaces they tend.
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Here’s a smattering of what I’ve learned, from smart planning to design tips, while spending time in other people’s gardens:
• Try not to focus on nursery pot or seed packet in hand, but rather look ahead to what you want the garden to look like five years from now. Most of us plant for near-instant effect, which means that in a few years you’ve got a jungle. Remember how fast plants grow in our nurturing climate, and don’t be taken in by an innocent-looking little conifer in a gallon pot, unless you covet a garden that’ll soon enough be shrouded in deep shade.
• Designers look beyond what’s right in front of them to consider what is overhead and underfoot. This means putting a lid on parts of the garden; pergolas, arbors and tree canopies create human scale as well as patterns of sun and shade. With shelter above and variety in paving or ground covers underfoot, you’re well on your way to a garden that’s a delight not only to look at but also to walk through at all times of the year.
• Not everything needs to be planted. Beds filled with black stones or river rock are effective, especially when used under the eaves, or in flowing rivers to direct drainage or provide visual relief from intensely planted areas.
• Like scent and sound, color creates an atmosphere or mood, and defines your experience of place and time. Some colors are soothing, others invigorating, while still others stir strong memories or emotions. Color is immensely personal and very fun to play around with. Good designers look beyond flowers and foliage to use color in infrastructure, containers and art so as to continue the color play through the seasons.
• Which brings us to colorful and textural foliage, the foundation of an easier-care, year-round garden. Contrast big-leafed, floppy plants near finely textured conifers, spiky plants next to ones with rounded leaves. Gray and golden foliage plants play off each other; even more dramatic are purple or black leaves mixed with chartreuse foliage.
While designer tips and tricks add to the pleasures of gardening, the only way to have a truly satisfying garden, one well worth all the work, is to express your own taste and vision. The rest is nothing but details.