Garden design takes planning, but you can do it

Richard Bogren, Gill, Daniel J.  |  7/28/2009 12:37:12 AM

For Release On Or After 08/15/09

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

Designing a garden is one of the more intimidating things gardeners expect of themselves. It’s challenging enough to learn all you need to know to select, plant and care for landscape plants successfully. But design is not just learning how to plant and water. It requires an expression of something from inside.

Still, that does not mean you have to throw your creativity out there like a child simply jumping into a pool to learn to swim. You would likely splash around just like the child. There are more effective ways to teach a child to swim, and there are helpful ways you can organize your thoughts and have a more effective design process.

The design process can be organized in many different ways, as you will find in any book on landscaping. I have the challenge of wanting to grow every type of plant I can get my hands on, but that has to be balanced with my desire to have a well-designed landscape. My plan ended up depending on how much emphasis I placed on controlled design and how much on the natural development of the plantings.

This is how I decided.

I considered the planting design on three levels. The first – the structural level – forms the basic framework of the garden by establishing trees, large shrubs, focal points, structures (pergolas, arbors, sheds) and outlines. The second level provides the bulk of the garden planting and includes massed shrubs and some larger herbaceous material. Finally, the third level – the decorative planting – is set against the other two.

Many people make the common error of concentrating mainly on the decorative flowering plants, throwing in the occasional shrubs and allowing the bulk of the planting to emerge piecemeal. What worked best for me was to do just the opposite.

The first stage of planting should establish the “bones” of the garden. Just as the skeleton of an animal determines its shape and function, these plants play an important role in establishing the garden’s foundation. Selecting and placing of these plants should be done first and should involve careful thought and consideration.

Planting at the second level has the most functional role to fulfill. It must fill in or separate spaces, creating bulk in the planted areas as well as providing wind shelter and screening where necessary. It will form the major structure of the landscape and provide the background for the smaller, decorative plants but also should be visually pleasing in itself.

Second-level plants give the garden its stability and should generally be evergreen, although the use of a few deciduous – leaf-dropping – shrubs such as hydrangeas and flowering quince can add interest and reflect seasonal changes.

When it came to the last category of plants – the decorative level – my adherence to a carefully thought-out plan broke down completely. It’s not that I don’t do any planning at this level. I carefully think about color schemes, placement of plants and other considerations. But the decorative beds are constantly changing. Plants are frequently coming and going, as annuals die or plants are moved to different spots where they will grow and look best or are given to friends to make room for new plants I want to grow.

At this level, plants are put in at on a whim, and designs are often spur-of-the-moment inspirations. Here the horticulturist in me dominates – controlled by my inner garden designer just enough not to create a garden riot.

I can get away with this because the rest of the garden and landscape – including structures, walkways, patio fences, trees and shrubs – were carefully thought out and placed. If I make a mistake at the decorative level, it is temporary or easily corrected. Putting a patio or major tree in the wrong spot, however, is not dealt with so easily.

When choosing plant material for a landscape, size is of the utmost importance – not just how big it is when you buy it, but how big it will ultimately get and how fast. Overplanting and overgrown plants can ruin the most carefully planned garden. What we need to keep in mind is scale. Scale deals with the concept of using plants and features that are appropriately sized to fit comfortably into the size of the garden and with each other. You should tend to favor dwarf and slow-growing plant materials when smaller shrubs are desired.

You can enrich your use of plant materials in two interesting ways.

When space at ground level is limited – go up! Use fences, arbors and trellises to grow colorful vines. Use hanging baskets and wall-mounted planters and pots. You can greatly increase the number of plants you grow by using the space above the ground.

Another technique is to make use of containerized plants. Growing plants in pots or containers gives them great versatility and mobility, allowing you to change the look of the garden almost on a whim.

Potted plants can, for instance, be grouped on a patio or deck area to add interest and make it look more attractive and less empty. When the space is needed for entertaining, the pots can be moved somewhere else to provide the needed room.

A well-planned landscape is a delight both for its beauty and in how well it provides for the needs of the family that uses it. Whether you are creating a new landscape or improving on an existing one, don’t forget that thinking things through and making well-considered decisions is far better than jumping into the water before you learn how to swim.

Rick Bogren

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