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“I never before knew the full value of trees. My house is entirely embosomed in high plane-trees, with good grass below; and under them I breakfast, dine, write, read, and receive my company”
– Thomas Jefferson, 1793
Due to staying home with the pandemic the past six months, I have done some major work in the garden. I had not realized how some plants needed a good pruning and a few plants had even outgrown their space and needed to be moved. I had shrubs with a lot of dead wood that needed to be taken out and I could not believe I did not notice this before. I got out old photos of areas in the garden and was amazed at how the garden had slowly changed.
As I have been working, I would have to remind myself to follow some basic principles of design that have helped me over the years. I started out as a collector and realized years ago, I needed order to my garden and to have some “bones” or structure in some places where things were lacking.
Some of the things I try to remember are not to make it too much of a “hodge-podge” of plant material. Variety is important, but do not overdo it. Balance, proportion and unity are important. You need to think about a garden as an extension of your home and think about how you decorate a room. You use some of these same ideas when making a room in the garden.
You need different shapes, sizes, texture and form. If the entire yard were all the same, it would not be very interesting. It is good to balance things in the garden. If you have something on one side of a path, repeat it to give some balance on the other side.
If you are starting from scratch to landscape an area or just making some little changes, you start with trees. This could be trees that are in place now or the trees that you want to consider adding. They could also be borrowed trees that overhang your property from a neighbor’s garden. Trees are the main landscaping feature. Start with letting the trees you have or are considering planting be the first thing to guide your landscape.
Trees set the stage and give you different options when planning. You can use them to have dappled shade, woodland shade or have deep shade if you want to create a woodland garden. Trees can help you divide areas into rooms.
The second thing to consider is the “bones” of the garden. Good gardens have good bones and winter is a good time to see this. The greenery that catches your eye or architectural elements like walls, fences, patios, pathways or arbors are the solid elements of a garden. Make sure you have enough greenery to give your garden an attractive look in the winter months.
The third thing is to make sure your garden has some unity, consistency and repetition. The garden needs to flow or have some cohesive factor to hold it together. If you have azaleas in one garden area or room, put another one here or there to tie the garden together. Repetition helps keep the garden pulled together. Repeat plants, colors, shapes and textures in different areas.
If color is going to be used, make sure the colors work together. Color adds a dimension of life and interest to the landscape. I believe artists create some of the most beautiful gardens because they understand color. They know how to use different hues and shades together. Whether you are considering creating a garden with just shades of green or with a mass of color, it is important to use color in a harmonizing way.
I have a bad habit of buying a plant in a garden center that catches my eye and then trying to find a spot for it. You should think about what you need and then buy a plant. Have a reason for purchasing the item for your garden. Is the color right? Bright colors like reds, oranges and yellows make objects seem closer to you whereas cooler colors like greens, blues and pastels seem to move away from you or seem farther away.
Be sure not to forget green. You can have a wonderful all green garden. Green is calming and gives you time to pause and rest. You can create an area of all green using different textures and shapes and sizes. Many Japanese gardens are mainly green with just a touch of color during each season.
Think about edging or borders. These are functional elements as well as decorative. They give the garden some definition. It keeps plants from encroaching and it lets you know which way to go. Brick, cobblestone, boxwood and split bamboo are some of the edgings you can use. You can just use mulch to tie the garden together and make a neat edge for the plants. This helps define your space and let visitors know which way to go.
Designing a garden can take time. You can plant trees first and then work on the different shrubs you want to plant next. Everything does not have to be done at once. Plants can be expensive, especially if you plant larger sizes. Take your time and you will get the feel you want. Be sure to take photographs too. I often print photos of an area on copy paper and draw on them. Trying to see what needs to go where.
Create a garden that fits your lifestyle and your needs at the time. Remember, you can always change things as your needs change. Today you might need places for children to play and later you might want a place to entertain and relax. You can plant that tree now that you will want to have as shade later when you have more time to relax and enjoy the garden.
Betty Montgomery is a master gardener and author of “Hydrangeas: How To Grow, Cultivate & Enjoy,” and “A Four-Season Southern Garden.” She can be reached at [email protected]