Documents: Latest From: Dan Clost:

Designing A New Garden #3
by Dan Clost
by Dan Clost


First serious garden earned 25 cents from the Kemptville Horticultural Society when I was 12. Have been poor in horticulture ever since but rich in spirit.

Went to work writing the Good Earth column (over 500 articles published in newspaper, magazine, website and journal.) and learned that what was printed wasn't what I wanted to say and certainly not what Gentle Reader understood me to say. Subsequently have developed a certain clarity and economy of words.

Day job- nursery and production manager for a large nursery/garden centre
Side job- Garden restoration and renovations, design consultations, remedial pruning.
Night job- garden writer and communicator (overnight success in another 20 years)

Dan gardens in Canadian Zone 5b

April 15, 2001

We are into the third of a continuing series on starting a new garden. We've determined a budget, selected plants and we know the environment for the new bed. We're ready to design our garden.
Design has the following considerations: balance, variety, repetition, stress, sequence, emphasis, line, form, texture, and colour. If you try to satisfy all ten of these elements at the same time, I can guarantee that you will never get around to planting. Position the plants wherever you like and then do the fiddley bits. You will be surprised at how many of those considerations were resolved as a result of your assessment of neighbourhood gardens. You subconsciously catalogued your likes and dislikes, performed a cerebral distillation and unbeknownst to your creative muse, designed a very pleasing and workable garden. [And you thought gardeners could not wax eloquent, huh!] 
Know that the precisely measured distances on a piece of paper will be thrown askew by boulders just under the surface, an unexpected bit of shade or, as you place the new sprout in its measured position, it just won't feel right. Unless you're designing an exceptionally formal bit of garden don't be overly concerned. Besides, with boulders and shade, the plant will actually move itself over the course of a year or two. 
Two main concerns are balance and scale. Scale can mean the classic "stepped" progression of tall in the rear and small in the front. This is good to remember but don't get out there with a measuring stick and, please, don't rely overmuch on the heights given in the plant's "bio". They are the average and the variations are considerable. Remember what you saw in your neighbour's yard- that will be a better indicator. Don't be afraid to experiment. A tall plant placed near the front can create a natural break in a long, narrow bed. 
Scale also associates plant size relative to a building, fence or other structures. A stand of weeping hemlock will dwarf a one-storey cottage while an office building will tower ridiculously over an impatiens bed. 
Balance and scale are sometimes interchangeable. An example of this would include the roof line, or pitch, on a house. When stepping a border, consider this slope. The eye will be drawn from the geometrically pure downward line into the more relaxed tumbling margin of the plants.
Balance however is more often thought of in numbers and the overall area of plantings. Plant in odd numbers- threes, fives and sevens. Even numbered plantings aren't taboo, it's just they seem to require a mathematical precision that most plants don't want to provide. The next little bit about balance looks at the overall picture using a simple shade garden. Those three hostas don't have to be together, space them out over the length. If you add a similar triangle of ferns and yet another of impatiens, in groups of five or seven, several things will happen. The triangles will seem to disappear yet they will give the bed a cohesive quality. Balance will be achieved through the geometric patterns, variety will be satisfied with the different plants, repetition is taken care of with the triads while emphasis can be resolved by careful selection of each component. Within each species there is an astonishing variety of size and colour. Use a mix of New Guinea, Balsam, and Elfin White impatiens, a range of ferns from the majestic Ostrich to the diminutive and colourful Japanese painted ferns and a trio of different hostas. My favourite garden plant, hostas come in gold, blue, light and dark green and a plethora of sizes. 
Draw your triangles and outline the shapes of the plants. Remember to draw the garden three years into the future. If you are using shrubs or larger clumps of perennials, ie summer phlox, you might consider a five-year depiction.
Show your squiggles to the professionals at your favourite nursery or garden centre. The good folk there will be glad to help you out- they talk squiggle.

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row