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Clueless in the Garden: Excerpt from Chapter 8

Color Your World: Planning a Flower Garden
by Yvonne Cunnington
by Yvonne Cunnington

I am a garden writer and photographer living near Hamilton, Ont. My articles have appeared in Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Canadian Gardening and Gardening Life magazines. My book for beginner gardeners, Clueless in the Garden: A Guide for the Horticulturally Helpless (Key Porter Books) was published in 2003.

My husband and I tend a large country garden, which has been featured on TV’s Gardeners Journal and in Gardening Life magazine. We have had numerous bus tours visit our garden.

Visit her website at

May 11, 2003

2002_foxtail_lilies_web_2.jpg (79044 bytes)
My garden last June 2002 with Eremurus in flower

How do you start the flower garden you've been dreaming of? Aren't there some rules you can follow? Well, yes, there are, and once you're a little more comfortable with the business of growing things, you can break some of them if you want. After all, the person you're trying to please is yourself.

Any flower garden will benefit from advance planning. Before getting started, ask yourself:

What style do I like best? Do you prefer straight lines or curves? Casual flowers tumbling over each other or a more formal look? Your house may provide a starting point. For example, symmetrical, formal designs often suit traditional homes, while a house with gingerbread trim looks romantic surrounded by a colorful cottage garden profusion of flowers. On the other hand, a contemporary home may call for a hint of restraint, say in the style of a Japanese garden or bold plants in large groups.

How much space do I have? Beginners tend to make their beds too narrow because they're intimidated by the task of filling them. (Believe me, that'll be the least of your problems-plants grow, and soon you'll be moaning about the ones you don't have space for.) Aim for a bed that can accommodate three layers-front, middle, and back. Anything narrower than 5' feet (1.5 meters) won't allow for the layering that gives the lush look you're aiming for. I prefer beds that are even wider-at least 6' to 10' (1.8 to 3 meters).

Island bed or border? As the name implies, island beds are islands of flowers planted in a sea of grass. They can look wonderful with taller plants in the middle and others arranged so they'll look good from all sides-or they can resemble blobs of color washed up on the lawn. When they don't look great, it's usually because they're out of proportion, generally too small for a big yard-and sometimes raised so high, they resemble a burial mound-or they're set smack dab in the middle of an otherwise empty yard. A flower border, on the other hand, is usually set against a backdrop, which might be the fence between you and your neighbor, the wall of a house or garage, a hedge, or the edge of a patio. Borders are easier to get right than islands.

What's my season? Do you want a garden that's colorful all season long or just in certain periods? If you routinely go away in midsummer, for example, consider a garden that bursts with color from spring bulbs, early perennials, and flowering shrubs but is low-maintenance in midsummer. It can have another peak of bloom in late summer, and some shrubs and trees that give fall color. If you only have time to be in your garden after work, think evening-scented plants, light-colored flowers, and garden lighting.

How much sun does my garden get? If your garden only gets a couple of hours of direct sunlight a day or basks in dappled shade most of the time, choose plants that can take shade or part-shade conditions. Most flowering plants love full sun, which means they need at least six hours of direct sunlight a day. Many yards have areas of sun and shade, so keep that in mind when you're choosing plants. For gardens that hover between sun and shade, there are many plants that thrive in less light. Some favorites include Siberian iris, cranesbills (the hardy perennial geraniums), hostas, and coral-bells.

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