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A Lesson In Garden Design
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

February 20, 2011

Most gardeners have a major thing for plants, and that's what gets them into trouble design-wise. Too many gardeners start out by buying plants rather than defining their space first. It's helpful to divide garden planning into two parts, first structuring your space and then deciding on the plants. That way you can avoid running around the garden with newly acquired nursery pots racking your brains wondering where the plants could go.

Garden design is a bit like interior decorating - but you are furnishing your outdoor space by deciding on structural features or the bones of the garden - the lines of beds, lawn areas, paths and built elements such as patios, fences, trellises, pools or ponds and so on - and then dressing the space up with plants.

Do your groundwork first. It's tempting to skimp on the basics in a rush to get to the fun stuff. Spend some time on the following steps:

  • Improve your soil by adding humus (compost and manure) if necessary and looking after any drainage problems.
  • Consider environmental factors that will influence your garden design. Your choices should be based on both aesthetic and horticultural principles. Ignore horticultural principles and the design will fail even if the aesthetic is fabulous. So match plants to the soil and light conditions and not vice versa. Check soil conditions-sandy or clayey, moist or dry, acidic or alkaline-and prevailing winds. Figure out the exposure of your garden (where north, south, east, and west are situated in relation to your house) and factor in the impact of existing large trees. This is crucial when it comes how much sun your garden gets. Light levels aren't carved in stone: you can change things by thinning or cutting a tree down, or you can plant trees or build structures that will give you more shade.
  • Take control of the view. Remember to screen out stuff you'd rather not see - ugly sheds, garages, a neighbor's untidy play area, compost piles and utilities such as air conditioners. Or if you've got a great view - it could be onto water, a neighboring golf course or attractive mature neighborhood trees - capitalize on it by incorporating it into your garden backdrop. Look at your garden from inside the house to see if the view is pleasing there too.
  • Plan for the mature size of your plants. Remember that plants grow. Unless, it's a dwarf cultivar, that cute Christmas tree-sized blue spruce could quickly grow into a behemoth that blocks light from your house and garden. British design guru John Brookes advises layering plants by size and importance: first, decide where major trees go (these he calls the "specials"). Next add the "skeletons," evergreens for year-round structure and then the "decoratives," flowering shrubs or tall grasses. Finally, you get to the "pretties"-perennials and fillers, such as bulbs, annuals or biennials. The reason many gardens fail to satisfy is simple: they lack structure because they started with the "pretties."

Decide on a look

Climate, geography and light will determine what plants will be happy in your garden, but you need to decide on a garden style. Will it be casual country, urban sophisticate, elegant modern, spare Japanese inspired or exuberant cottage style? There are about as many garden styles as décor styles.

Don't forgot visual context - the style of your house and surrounding neighborhood - your garden style should complement them.

More design tips:

  • Color: When starting out, most of us see gardening as a way to get color into our yards. But most experienced gardeners will tell you that flower color is overrated: form, texture and year-round structure are more important. If you focus on flowers first, it's a bit like arranging lamps, accessories, and pictures before the walls even built.
  • Scale: Landscaping is expensive when you get to elements such as patios, stonework and woodwork. Too often gardeners skimp and build too small or use inferior materials, and so the design fails. One solution is to spread the work and the cost over several seasons.
  • Line: Never underestimate the power of a good line. Good gardens are set apart by a sense of definition. A smooth sweeping curve or a clean straight line makes a more elegant statement than a wavy pattern snaking around the garden. And don't just think of a lawn as the best way to fill up empty spaces. Instead of automatically grassing big swathes, you're better off to plan the shape of your lawn - whether square, rectangular, curved, or round - and then arrange the feature plants - trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials - in beds around it.
  • Natural materials: Elegant garden accents or well-chosen feature plants make eye-catching focal points. Save up for a really good pair of garden urns in the proper scale than to buy a whole bunch of cheap little pots. Natural materials are usually better than man made. Found or reused materials can be wonderful. Go for edgings in stone or brick, not plastic; invest in wood, metal or wicker furniture, not plastic or resin; choose pots and containers of natural materials, or choose fakes that so cleverly designed that it's hard to tell the difference.
  • Time: Like Rome, a great garden isn't built in a season. Make a long-term plan, and create the elements as time and budget allow. Concentrate on one section at a time, you'll gain the confidence to apply what you've learned to the rest of your garden.
  • Consider design help: Designing a garden from scratch is daunting, especially for a new gardeners. Landscape designers and landscape architects can help you structure your outdoor spaces to enhance the good and minimize the bad. Designers solve problems every day that you might only come up against once or twice in a lifetime - that's why their advice is usually well worth the cost. A landscape or garden designer knows plants and landscape construction and can provide drawings, construction details, and lists of suppliers and plants. Landscape architects generally do higher-end residential or larger projects; they have a degree and belong to a licensed professional association. No matter who you consult, consult the pros well in advance of when you want to get your project done. Everyone in the landscape business is run off their feet in spring, but call them the previous fall or over the winter - and you'll have their full attention.

This article was adapted from "Exterior decorating" by Yvonne Cunnington, Gardening Life, May


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