Designing the Gardens

After the structure of your landscape is designed and with some style ideas in mind, there are still a few aspects of your property that need to be analyzed before finalizing design of planting areas, perennial beds, and finally choosing the plants.


The garden and landscape design principles already discussed will play a part in deciding what to plant where, and why.  They will help you to achieve harmony and balance throughout the property.  Most of us acquire some existing landscaping when we move into a home.  Look over what is already there from several vantage points, including from inside your home.  Think about how your needs and preferences will work with what is in place, and don’t feel bad about removing anything that will get in the way of your plans, even if it is a full grown tree.  If you plan to stay in the home a long time, you do not want to spend 20 years wishing you had taken down that tree.

Designing the planting areas for your landscape may involve planning annual beds, perennial borders and blooming accents.  But the majority of your planting areas will likely be mixed borders and beds, made of up trees, small ornamental trees, shrubs, as well as annuals, perennials and bulbs.  Mixed borders and beds will give you a pleasing variety and year round interest.  A few additional design principles will guide you in working with such a vast variety of available plants.  And don’t let all the “rules” get in the way of having fun with your project.  Consider the guidelines, but then do what pleases you.


Repetition plays a large part in achieving both harmony and balance.  The mind is better able to comprehend a design as a whole if an element is repeated, creating a sense of order.  Repeating plants and color throughout your landscape, as well as “repeating” similar accents or structures with related qualities or style will help to unify the design.  Unity can be achieved by repeating one or more elements, or creating a theme.  You may, for example, choose to use a plant group to repeat throughout the garden beds.  A variety of rose bushes or a single variety of flowering shrubs planted in groups throughout the sunny areas, and a few or even several varieties of hosta or other shade lovers planted in waves throughout the shady areas can create instant unity and balance.  Incorporating a few patches of perennials will add life and interest.  The principle of simplicity has also been instantly satisfied.  Simplicity can also be achieved with the use of color.  Selecting three colors (odd numbers in nearly all things related to design is generally most pleasing to the eye and the mind) and using one of those colors dominantly is simple, and again helps to achieve harmony.


Repetition of size will help to achieve balance.  Identical plants or structures are not necessary to achieve balance, unless you prefer a formal symmetrical balance.  Even the size itself need not be identical.  Items of similar size or height to balance either side of a structure or space might be a bird bath in a garden bed, an ornamental tree, a pillar frame with climbing vines, or a light post.  Consider not just the height of a plant or object, but the overall space it occupies (volume), allowing a small shrub to balance an ornamental tree.  Sometimes the balancing act is a little more difficult.  Large trees or evergreens planted on one side of your property for privacy, should be balanced on the other side.  An identical stand of trees would most likely look inappropriate, make your property feel closed in or crowded, and lack interest in an informal landscape.  Borrow a little balance from your neighbor if you can.  Any large trees or structures close to your property will add to the visual balance in your property.  Plant another large tree or evergreen to add to it, or incorporate some other large structure such as a shed, arbor or pergola, anchored with some shrubs for added “weight”.  These balance examples tend to be one-to-one, but in your landscape you will generally be balancing larger space elements or groupings. Don’t get too concerned about everything being “even”, an informal design is meant to be asymmetrical.  As always, design principles are guidelines.  Form follows function, so design the functional spaces, privacy elements or windbreaks, and provide shade needs first.  Then round them out with good design.


A theme can help to achieve both balance and harmony.  A theme could be a collection of garden accents artfully placed throughout the design.  Or perhaps a theme of foliage color and texture, using plants trees and shrubs with interesting variegations, fine feathery textures contrasting bold wrinkled leaves, and bright colored foliage like coleus against dull gray greens.  Color itself can be a theme, blue and white gardens being a beautiful choice, or all white night gardens lit with garden lights to reflect white blooms and silvery foliage.  Or simply use one dominant bloom color throughout the design, with or without complimentary colors.


Finally, consider proportion of elements in relation to each other.  A cozy little bench should not be overwhelmed by a very large tree.  Make gradual transitions from large elements to small when working with a large area by stepping down, or up, in plant heights.  Be sure to check mature size of your plant selections.


With these principles and guidelines in mind, it is time to start thinking about the plants.  Start with the bones, the larger trees and evergreens that are permanent in your design.  Consider where you need more shade, privacy, windbreak or a “specimen” to build a focal point around or provide a special backdrop for a planting area.  Don’t forget to consider how current shade, and shade you will add, will affect the plant selection of surrounding areas.  A tree that reaches a 60 foot mature height, and foliage spread of 40 feet, will cast a substantial patch of shade on your property.  That shade will move across the yard throughout the day, and be positioned differently in spring, summer and fall.  Shade from a single tree will generally move across a planting bed quickly enough that plants requiring 6 or more hours of sun will do fine.  But a stand of trees will cast shade on certain areas for a longer period of time.  A planting area between trees may be shaded in the morning by one tree and the afternoon by the other.  The more time you take to watch and consider the sun patterns, the easier it will be to select plants that will thrive.  Smaller plants, perennials, shrubs and even small trees, can be moved if you make a mistake.  Your large skeletal bones of the garden generally cannot.


The next step is to fill in with mid range plants.  These will provide transition from your large elements, not just trees but your home or tall fences or walls, to the smaller elements of the landscape.  They will also help you create balance, unity and interest.  But they will also create the backdrop for your colorful plantings.  A background (shrubs, fence, wall) for flower beds will prevent the eye from wandering from one colorful element to the next.  It “frames” the flower bed, allowing you to focus on it.  Consider whether that backdrop should be flowering, evergreens of deep emerald or bright gold-greens, shrubs with maroon foliage, or more neutral grayed greens or blue greens.  Don’t worry about making final decision right now, you have lots of time to change your mind through the process.

Selection of small plants can continue to include small shrubs, ornamental trees, and small evergreens to add interest and variety to annual and perennials beds and borders.  Annuals and perennials can also be tucked into small spaces in small groups, or fill in larger spaces in drifts, to liven up shrub borders.  Have some fun with these plants, try flowers and colors you love.  If it doesn’t work out they are easy to change, move and add to.  Even the most experienced gardeners don’t get it right the first time.  A garden is always a work in process.

Now get your graph plans out to start penciling in plant placement that will help you figure out how many plants to buy.  Put your major trees in first, just like you will when you plant, then shrubs.  Pencil in circles as large as the mature size of the plant, which will take several seasons but will go by faster than you think.  For trees, use a small circle for the trunk, a dotted line circle for the full width of the foliage.  Then add the small shrubs, perennials and bulbs, and do also note any annuals you have planned.  Annuals can be easily added, changed and deleted every year.  Allow room to access the plants for pruning, fertilizing and deadheading.  Most likely your original plan layout and the plant ideas you have won’t work together perfectly at first.  Adjusting your plans with an eraser is much better than having to move or waste plants, edging, or pavers.  You may have to either expand some planting areas or eliminate some plants.  But try to give your favorite things a reserved and prominent placement in the plan, adjusting the supporting plants.  When you are happy with the design and layout, go out and mark everything out in the landscape.  If you are landscaping a large area, don’t feel you need to do it all at once.  Break the job down to manageable parts and work on it at your leisure.  Measure and check to make sure you are transferring fairly accurately.  There are a few ways of marking your property.  Straight lines should be marked using stakes at the corners and angles, the tie string between them.  Curving lines are easiest to lay out using a garden hose that will flex and curve any way you need it to.  You will also want a can of marking spray paint (check at your garden store) to paint your curves into the grass or dirt when you are satisfied.  Then spray circles in just like you penciled in on your plan.  The transferring process will probably reveal some flaws, correcting them now is easy.  Correcting midway through edging installation or planting is very frustrating.


The single most important thing to consider when selecting the individual plants in SUN and SOIL.  If you do not select plants that will grow well with the available sun and unchangeable soil conditions, you will be starting over.  Most flowering plants need full sun, which is 6 or more hours of direct sunlight between 9 am and 4 pm.  Partial sun means 3-4 hours, and full shade is little or no direct sun.  Many plants will also do well in between those categories, and their light requirements may be referred to as part shade; full to part shade; part sun to sun; or sun to full sun.  Nearly all plants will thrive in moderately moist, well drained soil.  Not many of us are lucky enough to have a property with soil that is naturally ideal.  Sandy soil will not hold moisture, and clay soil take a very long time to dry out after rain, often remaining downright soggy.  Although amending your soil is certainly possible, making a dramatic change, especially to large planting areas, is extremely labor intensive and costly.  I absolutely recommend amending your soil in small areas, for example for a bed of roses, a vegetable garden, or for special plants.  But it is best, even with amendments, to select plants that will grow well in the natural soil condition of your property.

Sharon DwyerComment