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Garden Design Tips: Help for the Design-Challenged

If you’re an organized left-brain type, you know how to go about designing a garden. You get out the graph paper and the tape measure, and perhaps some garden-planning software and go through it step-by-step.

But what if the sight of a tape measure and graph paper makes you break out in hives? Can you still have a good garden if you like to act on impulse, or on the basis of what’s on sale at the garden center? Absolutely. After all, gardens never come out quite the way you plan them anyway and that’s half the fun. Here are some rules for making sure your spontaneity doesn’t turn into a total mess:

Planning Hardscaping for a New Garden

This is where you need to be at your most thoughtful. It’s easy to move plants, but you don’t want to have to move decks, patios, or walkways. Sketch your ideas on paper, and enlist the help of a designer or landscaper if necessary. Think in terms of garden rooms, dividing the outdoor space into areas to make it seem bigger and to make planning easier.

Buying Plants for a New Garden

Buying Plants for a New Garden
Buying Plants for a New Garden

Decide whether you want an all-season garden, with plants blooming off and on throughout spring, summer, and fall, or whether you want a garden designed for maximum impact in one particular season. Survey your space carefully to see how much light it gets at various times of the day and year. Take note of problems like competition from tree roots, excess heat from concrete patios, and so on. Correct any drainage problems or they will severely limit your choices.

Decide on a color scheme before you start. White-flowered plants and plants grown only for foliage can be added to almost any color scheme. It’s even possible to have different color schemes in different seasons, but this must be done with great care to avoid clashing colors.

Always buy less than you think you have time to plant. Nothing is worse than having to throw plants away because they died before you could get them in the ground. Start with the backbone plants. These are the large, architectural plants that anchor the garden and give it interest even when nothing’s in bloom. They should be long-lived perennials, look good at all seasons of the year, and be low maintenance.

Check out Perennial All-stars, by Jeff Cox (Rodale Books), for recommendations. Whenever possible, choose plants you’ve grown before or seen growing in neighbor’s yards under similar conditions. With the exception of dramatic ‘specimen’ plants, never buy less than 3 of any given plant, and always group them in odd numbers.

Planting a New Garden

Planting a New Garden
Planting a New Garden

Prepare the soil carefully, breaking up clumps, removing sticks, stones, and roots. Add compost and other desired soil amendments and dig them in thoroughly. Rake the surface smooth.

Plant the back of the garden first, or the center for circular gardens, putting the tallest plants there.

With smaller plants, groups of 5, 7, or even more may be necessary for impact. Plan the middle and front of your gardens using this rule. Use more than one grouping of the most attractive plants. Unless your garden is very formal, weave the groups in and out of one another, keeping taller plants to the back but avoiding a strict progression of height. Use curving lines rather than straight ones in all except formal schemes.

Think about how plants will look next to each other. Use feathery foliage next to rigid, spiky foliage, and juxtapose contrasting colors to add interest and visual impact. Repetition of elements will make your design more harmonious. This can be done not only by repeating the same plant in various places, but by repeating plants with very similar appearance.

Be sure to follow directions on spacing plants, either as listed on the tag or in a good garden guide such as the Time-Life series of gardening guides. (Time-Life Books, 1989) Plant the garden a little sparsely at first to leave room for expansion and for tucking in an extra element here or there. Once everything is planted, add an attractive and appropriate mulch.

Improving a Garden

Improving a Garden
Improving a Garden

After a year or two of growth, survey the results to see what works and what doesn’t. Remove and relocate any plants that refuse to stay in bounds or are otherwise unsatisfactory. Think about adding a birdbath, brightly painted chair or other design feature.

Once you’re happy with your results, think about adding a few annuals for an extra pop of color. If your garden is very informal, self-sowing annuals can attractively weave the garden together. Forget-me-not (mysotis) is an excellent choice for accomplishing this effect in a shade garden.

As the garden grows, you’ll need to lift and divide perennials occasionally. Peruse garden catalogs for new hybrids and more attractive alternatives to the plants already in place.

With a little experimentation, you can have a stunning garden without ever touching a piece of graph paper.

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