Planning Your Garden


by The English Lady

With the temperature teasing at 50 degrees the other day I wandered about my still snow covered garden. With notebook in hand I attempted to visualize the Daffodils, crocus, snowdrops and the thickening buds of Witch hazel and Forsythia, all eager to emerge. I swept and dried the periwinkle blue bench against my red milk shed and thought about what I want to do differently in the garden this year. What worked for me, what I will not try again, and at this more mature age how much energy do I have for the tasks in the garden? I use the same approach with my garden as I do when designing for clients.

I am happy with the knowledge of how fortunate I am, like all of us ‘mud and wellington boots’ folk who are garden artists that my creation will never be a done deal. I can always tweak, remove, and experiment with my own garden. It continues to evolve as I do. At the same time taking into account that Mother Nature has a large hand in the creation of a garden, and determined that this year’s planting will not be subject to the whims and fads of whatever is thought to be the fashion of the day. Also keeping in mind something my grandmother said to me as she imparted her wisdom of how to tend the garden. She always said tend rather than work the garden because tending involves love as well as work. She said it was to know when moderation or gentle guidance was needed in the garden but mainly when not to interfere with it and just let it be.

In was in the sixties, when I first arrived in the United States, that I observed that just about everyone had some semblance of a rose garden, and at least one border of herbaceous perennials. Today around many a pool and patio, the fashion seems to often be for tree ferns, cannas, and elephant ears emulating a tropical setting. In many cases lawns have become quite passé as gardeners are now clamoring for enough ornamental grasses to feed a herd of wildebeest; ideally arching gracefully over each other.

Last May with paint brush in hand and a can of periwinkle blue no VOC paint I descended upon the structures in my garden and chose three to accent with this lovely blue hue. A long garden bench against the red milk shed, the stone pagoda lamphouse near my Shadblow which is peeking through with buds, and a large 4’ diameter iron ring that leans against my natural stone chimney; all looking bright and cheerful in their new periwinkle suit. I think perhaps this year my color will be deep mustard yellow, but I still have some time to decide before I can safely do any painting outside.

We can always change the color of garden structures, but the principles of good planting remain constant. Plants have not changed their essential characteristics in thousands of years, despite adventurous hybridizers tweaking flower sizes and colors like the trends of art going forwards and backwards. Whatever ones opinion, its function remains the same; it stimulates our emotions and touches nerves that can relax us, excite us, or even make us melancholy. Some who happily experience all sixteen hours of Wagner’s Ring Cycle regard it as genius, I am very content with ten minutes of Miles Davis; however, the general effect of the music is the same. It creates emotions in us that we don’t readily access.

Creative planting is as true an art form as is music, but nevertheless the inspired border of one gardener may well bore another to tears. The most important elements in any artistic planting is the structure, the “bones” of a garden. This comes partly from structures like pergolas, arbors, arches, and from essential features like walls, walks, patios and fences or from the shape of a stream and pond or a simple Japanese Holly hedge to serve as the background canvas.

I think that the most pleasing structure comes from the outline plants; these are primarily trees and shrubs, both evergreen and deciduous, selected for their individual profiles, textures and colors and placed to create a desired effect.

This might be formal, as in the carefully clipped boxwood, yew or beech hedge enclosing a small parterre, or informal with a mixed border or even a single specimen tree in a lawn. Trees present the strongest profile in most natural landscapes and frequently stand out as the anchor above a second layer of shrubs or smaller trees. Fill-in groundcover planting creates the rest of the picture, linking the “bones” and outline plants into a cohesive whole. A scene such as this provides continual pleasure with its sometimes subtle shifts in mood and texture.

My favorite fill-in is Myrtle with its blue flowers in April and glossy evergreen leaves keeping color throughout the year. On the shoreline a good choice for salt air is Bearberry, a petite groundcover that enjoys sandy soil, has dark green foliage turning reddish bronze in fall and copious red berries adding winter interest. Another benefit of groundcover is that when it has grown in you don’t have to mulch that planting bed anymore.

I find that color arouses stronger emotion among gardeners, than almost anything else. Flower colors are usually (but not always) stronger than foliage hues, although on a visit to a nursery last season, I was quite blown away by the brilliant burgundy foliage of Heuchera “Palace Purple.” I don’t use strong color opposites too close together but when spaced properly they create pleasing contrasts. A gentle combination I enjoy at a friend’s home is pale mauve wisteria next to a climbing butter colored rose. Harmony is also achieved when similar shades of purple combine in a lilac purple theme. All my gardens have at least one shot of white color to pop the other colors of the garden. A favorite is Shasta Daisy and Phlox David.

Plants chosen for their foliage can create strong textural contrasts or provide a soft neutral background. The mark of a balanced garden is one that garners year round interest. Any garden can look good in June but to sustain beauty throughout the year requires planning. Remember there is no right or wrong way to plan your garden except of course the soil conditions, sun & water requirements. Read the tags on the plants and it will tell you exactly what the plant needs and be sure to use plenty of manure to amend the soil. The following three maxims sum up my personal concept of creative planting: 1-Plant what you like 2-Disregard fashion and ignore style experts and 3-Plant what likes you and your soil. Happy planning (not planting) and I look forward to seeing you again in your garden.

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