Designing a Garden
by Leonard Perry
by Leonard Perry


In extension I serve as an advisor and consultant to the greenhouse and nursery industry, primarily in Vermont but throughout the region and beyond as well.

I give presentations on my research to the industry, and to home groups. In Research, my focus is "herbaceous perennial production systems".

His website is at  Leonards zone of gardening: home with my trials, generally USDA 4a. Campus in Burlington is 5.

July 25, 2004

So you want to design a garden, but faced with thousands of plant choices, and a blank space or sheet of paper, where do you begin? Follow a few simple steps, and you can turn this overwhelming task into a manageable and fun project.

Begin with a sheet of graph paper, drawing your garden space to scale. For instance one quarter inch, or a square, on the graph paper might represent a foot in the garden. Place existing objects such as house, paths, and even such items as views.

Next, to make your plant choices a bit easier, narrow them. Make a list of your favorite plants you'd like to use. Include all types if this is your plan, a "mixed garden", from shrubs and trees to flowers-- annuals, perennials, and even spring bulbs. To help in your design, next to them list such traits as color, time of bloom, and height. You can get ideas from books, the internet, touring gardens, and of course visiting your local garden centers at various times during the season. Start your list during the summer when you can get such ideas, if you plan to create your design on paper over the winter for next season's garden.

You're now ready to begin the plan. First place the larger structural elements in the garden. This would include trees, shrubs (smaller in the front to middle, larger in the back), accessories (art such as birdbath, sundials, or statues), and other "hard" elements (such as benches, walls, or paths).

You can then add the other flowers from your list as shapes on your graph paper (pencil is easier to erase!). There are many ways to begin filling these in. You might start from the front and work to the back of the bed or border. You might work from one end to the other. Or you might start from the structural elements above, and work outward. If you want color through the season, start with plants for spring and work your way through the season.

If designing by month or season, for each time period, place some plants from your list along the bed or border. This way you will have some color throughout the bed, and throughout the season, rather than having all the spring flowers in one area, all the fall ones in another.

For example, you might have several groups of spring-blooming lungworts or primroses scattered along the front. Place spring-flowering bulbs in middles of beds, so you can plant summer perennials or flowers in front and around them to cover their unsightly foliage after bloom. Work through your list of favorite plants, by season, in a similar manner.

Even if not designing by season, you can place similar groupings of plants through the border by their design qualities-- similar colors, textures, or forms (habits, such as upright). This will add design qualities of rhythm to the design, and provide unity and variety so your garden isn't boring.

Most gardens will tend to be informal, so use odd numbers of plants, and in irregular groupings. If plants are smaller, or you really like them, you may use more such as 9, 15, 25. If larger plants, choice specimens, or more expensive or rare, you may just use a grouping of three for instance.

A variation on this grouping idea is to use different cultivars (cultivated varieties) of a plant. So instead of using a grouping of say seven plants of one cultivar of daylily or garden phlox, you could use seven different cultivars and still get a pleasing effect even if different colors. They'll all have the same plant habit and flower type. When placing plants next to each other, keep in mind their design qualities such as texture and color.

Finally, remember when putting your design on paper to allow proper spacing for plants. It is so easy to put them too close on paper, or when bought as small plants, only to run out of room when planted and they mature. This will result in more maintenance for division and replanting than would be needed otherwise.


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