In this series of blogs, we have been looking at a different approach to designing your garden. Forget about drawing plans, and work instead right on the ground, thinking out your garden right in the garden, and laying it out directly on the ground. The great thing about this approach is you don’t need to learn the skills of drawing plans and using fancy software systems. By being outside you won’t make the kinds of obvious errors that working on paper can produce, especially if you don’t have much (or any) gardening experience.
We set out this approach in steps, starting with the existing assets you have, like trees or mature shrubs and hedges. Preserving these gives a new garden a flying start. Then we organized basic functional areas – one for your children to play, another for relaxing around the barbeque, another perhaps for growing some fruit or vegetables. Always include a garden work area, for compost and storage of materials, perhaps with a tool shed or a greenhouse. You put in hedges, for screening, but also to define the areas you want, and to make your garden more interesting, with separate ‘rooms’. Then you put down pathways and lawns, and planted specimen trees and features.
Now, in this final piece, we will look at choosing those shrubs and flowering plants that are going to make your garden whole and complete.
Go for Easy
Tough, reliable plants should form the bulk of your garden. Keep that special something for an accent, a specimen, or a focal point. This is one of the most common mistakes. You avoid all those boring plants that are in everyone else’s garden, and instead decide to fill yours with unique and special items no one has ever seen before. Think again. There are only three reasons why some plants are rare and exotic, and others are common. The first is that they are hard to reproduce, so most nurseries don’t bother, and they remain available only through dedicated specialist growers. The second, much more common reason is that they are very choosy about soil and climate, and they grow well only in a few selected areas. Finally, they are just difficult to grow, or very slow, or perform well one year, and then languish and do nothing the next.
So don’t be afraid of ordinary, tough and reliable plants. There will still be plenty of room for special things. There is one thing though. Look for selected, named varieties of common plants, not just the basic species. These will usually have some special feature, such as being more compact, or more upright, or with better flower colors, and they almost always make a better choice. As well, you only have so much time available for your garden, so easy plants that look after themselves will do just that, and leave you free for the special things you love.
Vary the Shapes
Most shrubs are basically rounded, and a garden of round plants is boring. When choosing bushes to fill your beds, look for some tall, narrow, accent plants to break up the space and create focal points. An exclamation mark at the end of your garden will draw the eye, and the space will look larger. Use broad, spreading plants, and low-growing ones, in the front of your beds to fill out the spaces. Foreground plants need to be low and spreading, so they don’t block the depth of your bed – its common sense, but not always done.
Consider the sizes of leaves as well. You can make a bed look deeper, and a corner more dramatic, by putting plants with larger leaves in the front, and ones with smaller leaves further back. This accentuates the visual depth, and makes the space look simultaneously bigger and more eye-catching.
Plan for the Seasons
The ideal garden always has something happening in it. So look for and grow plants that bloom or are attractive earlier or later in the year than most. In warmer areas, with limited or no snow and cold, winter blooming plants are especially cherished. Flowers in January and February are wonderful to see, so try to include some, and plant then near an entrance, or seen from a window, as you won’t be exploring around the garden so much during cooler weather.
In every area, look for and include in your garden plants that bloom in early spring and late summer, as well as plants with berry crops in fall and early winter. Most plants bloom in spring and early summer, so you will fill that season without even thinking about it. This is why almost every garden looks great when the season kicks off, but it can then easily go blank for the rest of the year. Make sure this isn’t your garden, and instead create a ‘four-season’ garden for maximum interest. When looking for winter interest, don’t forget the color of evergreen foliage, and the shapes of plants, which always become more prominent in winter, and can be enough to make for more interest at that time.
Go for Foliage Color
Traditionally most of the color in our gardens comes from flowers. But these only last a couple of weeks, and even with lots of planning and care it can be hard to get continuous color all year round. If you like color, the easiest way to get it for the longest time is with colored leaves, not flowers. In recent years we have seen more and more plants being developed that have colored leaves, instead of plain green. Yellow, red or purple leaves make terrific accents, and they brighten your garden for months and months with no effort.
Just be careful not to get carried away. There is so much foliage color around that we can easily forget that green is a color too, and the most appropriate one in the garden. Keep an overall green look, and use those colored plants as accents, not as all your planting.
Don’t Plant ‘One of Everything’
If one is good, three, five or seven are better. Groups of plants have more impact, especially when working with small plants under 3 feet tall. Accent plants too often look better in a group of three than as a single plant. Use multiple planting to create that ‘wow’ factor and do it with plants that have a long flowering season, or that have colored foliage, for maximum impact. Big clusters and groups make your garden flow.
Repetition Ties the Garden Together
As well as planting in groups, don’t be afraid to repeat the same plants – alone or in groups – around the garden. Repetition creates unity and ties everything together. Especially in the front of beds, big, bold clusters calm everything down, and they make your garden flow. Choose a few plants you love, and that are easy to grow, attractive and reliable. Use them to fill spots all over your garden and make them your ‘signature’. Your garden will be truly special, and uniquely yours.