A couple of evenings ago, I attended a round-table discussion about the creative process. One of the themes was to open the mind to all the possibilities first, no matter how outlandish or unlikely. Then whittle the options down to a final plan.
I realize I do that when I design a garden. I first go through lists of plants and write down every one that I think might work in the space. Then I look at my list and decide what goes where. Any plant that doesn’t find a spot is eliminated from possibilities.
A good way to design a garden for you is to do the same thing. On days that it is too cold, or too wet, or you’re too tired, browse through garden books and catalogs and make lists of every plant that you like and might fit your space. Go to public gardens in your area for inspiration. Surf the web and learn all you can about plants. Then custom design a garden that you will like. Not every plant you like will fit in your garden. That’s okay. But you will find that you will enjoy your garden the same. Also remember that a garden is never done. Plants grow and change shape. As some plants grow taller, they open up at the bottom creating more space for other plants to grow in their shade. Keep that in mind as you have your lists. A plant that does not have a space right now, may at a future date.
So first, dream about all the possibilities. Then plant the main plants that give your garden structure and define the space. You will find that a plant that you thought you must have, later doesn’t hold it’s appeal that you once thought it had. Or you might find a better alternative. That’s okay too. Plants can be dug up and given to friends and neighbors. Gardens are always changing and developing. As the garden grows, you can refine along the way. Do your homework and start planting. It’s not as daunting as trying to figure it all out at once.
When you talk to many people and when you read gardening books, there is a lot of emphasis on flowers. Of course flowers are an important part of the garden. However, most plants only bloom for a short period of time and the rest of the year, you have to just see the plant as it is. Plants should be selected first based on their form and eventual size. Plants are also selected based on their function in the garden. We have already talked about the skeletons in the garden that give the garden it’s basic plan and the focals’ job of drawing your eyes in and leading you through the garden. These plants may or may not have showy flowers. Think of the flowers as a bonus. The yoshino cherry is wonderful in bloom but it is in flower no more than 2 weeks out of 52. The rest of the time, the purpose of the tree is to provide shade or to screen a view. For that reason, a yoshino cherry would not be considered a focal plant in most cases. A weeping cherry could be a focal because of it’s sculptural shape even when not in flower.
Many people love the azaleas they see on tv when they watch The Masters. The golf tournament is scheduled to take advantage of the bloom season of the azaleas. However, most azaleas only bloom for about two weeks. Do you think The Masters would be the same show say during July? Not likely. That is my point about not worrying about the flowers first when thinking about garden design. Many public display gardens plant very nice displays of flowering annuals for each season. However, if you look closer, you will notice that the garden has a basic structure that is year round. A good example is the Sarah Duke Gardens on the Duke University campus. Many weddings take place under the gazebo at the top of The Terraces. The terraces are planted with a lot of bulbs and annuals. However, the stone and symmetry of the terraces themselves create the structure of the garden and actually act as a frame for the flowers.
Another tendency for gardeners is to worry about what flowers go together. I have noticed that when a garden is planted in zones as I have stated before and if the zones also have a theme, then usually whatever is planted together works well together when in bloom. An example would be to think of the pastel colors of spring. They usually all seem to work together. Shade plants usually all have complimentary colors as well. I’m sure there may be a rare exception but for the most part it is true. This also brings up another point. When you are thinking about flower colors, realize that the two plants may not even be in bloom at the same time. All your worry would be for nothing.
The point I am trying to make is that flowers are down the list when trying to design a nice garden. They are a very important part of the garden but remember that the garden wont work if it doesn’t follow some good design elements, no matter how many flowers it has.