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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

October 19, 2003

Let's continue with a look at perennials with a refresher on design and a "how-to" bit of advice for starting gardeners.

Designing is where a spot of deliberate thinking will result in a tenfold dividend. Good gardens are nice and well maintained; great gardens are a thematic expression of their creator. You can follow a specific discipline such as Japanese, Zen, English Country, Quebecois Potager, New American etc., or you can select your own theme. It is important that there is some thread winding its way through that holds the design together. Principles of design are line, form, texture and colour.

Easy to describe, a little less easy to achieve. Lines draw the eye in the direction you want it to go. Form is the shape of the objects along that line: it could be the pyramidal formality of a clipped cone yew, the graceful lines of an Aphrodite statue, or the disappearing curve of walkway. Texture, which we think of as rough or smooth, is really used here to evoke an emotional response. The dancing leaves of the trembling aspen have a soft, silvery grey quality that lightens the spirit. Colour is perhaps the easiest to understand and perhaps the most difficult to “get right.” Generally bright colours bring things closer, gets the adrenalin going, makes big splashy statements. The softer shades tone down the response, moves things further away, draws you into the garden with whispers, not shouts. White is the first and last colour you see in the morning and evening.

Elements of design, which complement the principles, are variety, emphasis, repetition, balance, sequence and scale. These are fairly simple to understand, just difficult to remember. Of this lot, scale is probably the most important. When you are done, your garden should fit your bit of this good earth. This is significant if you have a mixed herbaceous border- mixed with shrubs, trees etc. Next is balance. It doesn’t have to be the rigid formality of exactness; two smaller plantings of different flowers can be equal in volume or mass to one large bed.

The next bit is modified from Jeff Ball’s Yardening videos. They are some of the most comprehensive intelligible bits of gardening advice that you can find.

Use 120 sq ft as our garden size. This is just right to make a good visual statement yet require minimal amounts of installation work and maintenance. There’s a formula to follow. Here it is:

6 perennials + 9 annuals + 9 bulbs= the quintessential herbaceous perennial garden.

Why the annuals? They will fill in the spaces while your perennials grow. Why the bulbs? Because they’re nice. Really, in the spring, how could you not have some crocus or snowdrops peaking out through the snow? Why not a colchicum (looks like a big fat crocus) in the fall to close out the season? Did you know that cannas, callas, and dahlias fit in here too?

Here’s how to pick them.

Divide your garden into 3 zones- short, medium and tall. Circular gardens get tall in the centre; borders get tall in the back. But don’t be a slave to this regimentation. Bend this rule and the interest component goes up considerably.

Of the 6 perennials, 2 are short, 2 are medium, and 2 are tall.

Of the 6 perennials, 2 bloom early, 2 bloom in mid summer and 2 bloom in the fall.

Of the 9 annuals, 3 are short, 3 are medium, and 3 are tall.

Of the 9 annuals, 3 (if possible) bloom early, 3 bloom etc.

Annuals generally will bloom all season until the frost gets them. Bulbs (diggers and leavers) are used to fill in the gaps. They can also be used to change the colour schemes. Try a mixture of blues (hyacinth, muscari, squilla) and yellows (daffodils, tulips, early phlox) giving way to the delicate pink and whites of astilbe, dicentra, lungwort and hostas later in the year. By the way, don’t forget to look at ornamental grasses, herbs and vegetables.

That’s it. Take that 120 sq ft as your base and adjust the ratios accordingly to the actual size of your garden.

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