When I walk our dog Owen, I play a game of design on the fly. I pick a garden we see on our stroll and come up with impromptu design changes. I suppose it keeps my mind limber. It reminds me of gesture drawing in art school when we only had a few minutes to complete a sketch before we had to move on to another. This left no time to edit yourself as editing can be inhibitive.
That said, there is a reason it’s called garden design. Unlike purely artistic pursuits where there should be no rules other than what the artist creates, design implies parameters, objectives and planning. It is within these constraints that we create. I prefer to work within a structure, which is why I fall on the design side of the art/design equation.
There are basic principles to garden design such as scale, repetition, emphasis, texture and color and I’ve developed some practical rules to implement these principles. Every site and client is different, but it seems that some variation always applies.
First – forget the plants – I am frequently asked for plant suggestions to resolve design issues, when I can see clearly that the solution is not a plant. A garden should stand on its own without plants, the structure beautiful unadorned. The layout needs to be functional as well as attractive, elements should be the correct scale, the use of materials thoughtful and there should be ample interest above and beyond plants. If this is accomplished, then the plants only add to the garden’s beauty, rather than being used to mask design limitations.
Learn from failures - Every garden has plants that do not work. Usually the gardener blames him or herself, but the reality is that the growing conditions are the culprit in any plant failure. However, the gardener may have failed to notice the warning signs or fully understand their garden’s conditions. This is where learning from failures becomes valuable. Take time to understand why a plant did not survive – too much water, not enough water, too much sun, not enough sun, poor soil or even soil too rich. Over time, this will help you to make needed adjustments in the garden. I look closely at plants in a garden before I begin work to see what is and is not working and assess why. This helps me to gain a better understanding of site conditions.
Repeat what works – Embrace right plant, right place. After all, a healthy garden is a beautiful garden so we want to populate our gardens with plants that will thrive in the conditions we can offer. Some plants will love your site, some will hate it. Figuring out what works can be a process of trial and error. This process can be accelerated by a designer who will read the site and make appropriate plant suggestions and recommendations for improving the site conditions. Either way, once you have a palette of plants that thrives, repeat them and use their cultural needs as a guide for selecting other plants. This also helps to attain visual harmony in the garden. I select signature plants for each design that are repeated throughout the garden to weave the space together.
Mass, drift, group - Whatever you want to call it, it is the same thing. Plants look better in masses. For smaller plants or longer vistas, use larger numbers so you can read the group from a distance. Once you have identified the plants that work for your site – go big. The recommended “threes” is rarely enough.
Triangulate - Think in offset triangles when placing plants and other natural objects, either in masses or as repeated accents in a space. Nature does not plant in rows or perfect symmetry. While there is a place for symmetry in formal gardens, most spaces are suited to naturalistic plantings.
Less is more - Limiting the plant palette to a few site appropriate plants that are repeated through the garden en masse means you automatically reduce clutter. This does not necessarily mean a modern minimalist garden, I have seen successful naturalistic gardens that have limited palettes. If there is less clutter in the basic plant palette, there is more room for the focal plants and objects to shine and the garden will become soothing rather than jarring.
If you build it – you must maintain it – I have lived the large, high maintenance garden and believe me, it is no picnic. In every design, I seek out opportunities to reduce maintenance for clients because I know that if it is not reasonable to take care of, the care won’t happen. Design decisions like massing low maintenance plants and balancing bed space with hardscape reduce maintenance, but the main factor is garden size. Here on Bainbridge, the properties are often an acre or larger and there is no reason to landscape all of that space. Whatever your property size, stick to the high impact areas around the house and entrance, and leave the rest as groomed native.
You are in my personal space - One of the most frequent mistakes I see (and have made) is not giving plants enough room to grow. It always frustrates me to see gorgeous and completely full gardens that have just been installed where clearly the place will be an impassable jungle in two to three years. Desire for a garden to be “perfect” out the gate drives these decisions. Perfection will quickly turn to difficult decisions, like trees that ultimately have to be addressed with a chain saw. Perennials and ornamental grasses are one thing. For immediate density, it is fine to plump up the planting knowing you will be plucking some out in a few years. However, trees and shrubs should be sited for permanence .
Ribbons of interest - Here in the Pacific Northwest, winters can mean a lackluster garden. Much of the garden goes to sleep, but unlike other parts of the country, there is no lovely blanket of snow to cover the slumbering mess. All season interest is absolutely necessary. The longer I live here, the more I value my winter garden choices over any other seasonal interest. Beauty abounds in spring, summer and fall. Winter? Not so much. Winter interest must be designed in and thoughtfully planned for the areas of greatest impact such as the front entrance and views from the house. This also includes winter fragrance. While I may enjoy a passing fragrance on a warm summer day, I inhale it in late January. With the way folks gush about the nondescript little shrub Sarcococca at this time of year (which wafts waves of spiced honey fragrance), I know I am not the only one.
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