Those of us who love plants often eventually find ourselves in a bit of a dilemma. We have so many plants, and maybe we’ve placed them haphazardly over the years. Maybe we’ve made sure that they were in the perfect spot, but after years of doing this, our gardens look like a bit of a mess. Our gardens don’t have the serene, cohesive feel we would like. Believe it or not, we can replace chaos with order, and it won’t be as hard as you think. Just follow a few simple design principles, and get ready to do some digging.
Elements of Design
This is the one you may think you’ll have the most trouble with, because if (like me) you fall in love with a plant at a nursery and bring it home on a whim, you most likely don’t have many of the same plant to repeat. But repetition is more than just repeating a single plant, such as a row of marigolds or a border of perfectly spaced arborvitae. Repetition also means repeating general plant shapes or colors. Some plants are round and bushy, while some are tall and columnar, and there is every form in between. If you repeat the general form in your garden, it will look a lot more organized. Let’s say you have a red twig dogwood, a pussy willow, and a large Pennisetum ornamental grass. Nothing in common, right? Except that they all have the same general, upright almost vase-shaped habit. So by putting them all in the same bed instead of scattered around, you have instant repetition.
Color is another way to have repetition. For example, if you have a clump of yellow Stella d’Oro daylilies, a clump of coreopsis, and a clump of bright yellow marigolds, putting them in a bed with other plants will give the bed instant organization, because those colors will repeat and draw the eye through the bed.
Contrast is what makes a garden interesting. Think of your typical suburban front yard. What do you most commonly see? A row of yew bushes planted next to the porch, making a solid mass of green. Maybe in front of it there is a row of pink impatiens, and then there is the lawn. It is neat and clean, for sure, but it’s also BORING! If this describes your front yard, don’t despair. It’s actually not that hard to fix it. If you are determined to keep the yews because they offer color all year, go right ahead. But then make that bed bigger by going further out into the lawn (you’ll reduce your mowing time, never a bad thing) and start planting different plants in front of those yews, using them as a backdrop instead of a focal point. Maybe a few ornamental grasses, some shrubs with totally different foliage colors, such as barberries or variegated euonymus, and a few perennials and annuals. Now, what was a very ordinary bed is full of color and contrast, and you didn’t have to rip out those yews to do it! Contrast can be achieved by looking at different foliage types, such as contrasting the narrow, smooth foliage of Siberian irises with the bold, round foliage of hostas, or the serrated, fine foliage of Japanese maples. You can also contrast colors, for example, by using the pale yellow of a threadleaf coreopsis with the deep purple of a Purple Wave Petunia. Be careful here, though, not to use too many colors, or you will end up where we began, with a disorganized garden!
Color is usually the first thing we think of when we picture a garden. And we know when it’s used well, because everything just seems to fit. We also know when it’s used badly, because it doesn’t draw our eye, or something doesn’t fit, and glares out at us like a disobedient teenager.
Color conundrums can be solved by using constraint in your color choices. For some of us, that’s easy. We have definite ideas about what our favorite colors are, and we only use those. For others, we have a new favorite color every couple of weeks, depending on our mood. Keep in mind, no colors are bad. You will read some design books where it is obvious that the author abhors yellows or oranges, and tells you that pastels are the way to go. Any color can work. But if you like both hot colors (yellow, orange and red) and cool colors (pink, purple, blue) it is best if you plant them in separate areas so that they don’t clash. The exception to this is when you want to add a punch of interest. For example, in my front beds this year, I am planning on using hot colors. I’m planting Early Sunrise coreopsis, Empress of India nasturtium, Scarlet Scarlet marigolds, and Cosmic Orange cosmos, along with the preexisting orange and red daylilies. But to give the design a bit of a punch, I’m including a few Blue Bedder salvia and Grandpa Ott morning glories climbing up the porch. The key is not to use too much of your contrast color, or there won’t be any, because you will end up with about the same amount of both hot colors and your accent. An accent needs to be used sparingly, just like seasoning in cooking.
Texture is not something you always think about when considering garden design, but it is very important. It adds interest, and makes you pause and really look at things. Texture can mean foliage textures, as mentioned above. It can mean the texture on the bark of your trees and shrubs. Some bark is smooth and clean looking, and others are rough, or exfoliating. You don’t need to go overboard on this, but a few plants with interesting texture will add a ton of interest to your landscape. River birches, crabapples, ninebarks, and sycamores all have really interesting bark. Evergreens can add a lot of texture to a garden as well. Think of the short, spiky needles on a spruce, or the long, feathery needles on a white pine or the lacy broad needle texture of arborvitaes. Just adding a couple of these plants will give your garden all the texture it needs. And, as a bonus, when you plant evergreens or plants with interesting bark, you automatically get winter interest. It’s a winning proposition all around.
The last principle I want to discuss is focal point. This is probably the main thing that can help you organize your garden. You will know where to focus your planting if you know where you want the eye to go. For example, in the front yard, the entrance to your home is an automatic focal point. Use your plantings to draw the eye toward the entrance. In the backyard, maybe you have a pond, or a fountain, or a patio that you want as a focal point. Use your plantings to highlight these, drawing the eye away from less attractive areas.
As an example, let’s say we have a really pretty fountain in a corner of our back yard. Let’s also say that it’s just kind of sitting there by itself surrounded by grass, because we want people to see it. And let’s also say that on the other side of the yard, we have a really pretty perennial bed. Well, guess what? When your garden is growing, no one is looking at your beautiful fountain because the flowers are taking all of their attention. Does this mean tear out the flowers so people will look at the fountain? Of course not. But it does mean that you should bring some of that same color over to the area where the fountain is. Maybe you start a small, round bed surrounding the fountain, and fill it with the same perennials that are in that other bed. Now what you’ve done is drawn the eye back to that corner, because whoever is looking at your yard is following the color of the flowers through the yard, and landing right at your beautiful fountain. It takes a little bit of thought, but once you develop and highlight your focal point, your garden will automatically flow better and be more organized.
If you already have a yard full of plants screaming for organization, start digging! You can transplant perennials and even smaller shrubs so they fit better into your design. And, by dividing your perennials when you dig them up, you have even more plants to spread around. Maybe you have one Black Eyed Susan in this bed, another over in that bed, and maybe another in the front yard. Well, how about digging all three up and either planting them together in one big clump, or at least putting all three in the same bed so that they repeat each other? Doing small things like this will get your garden into shape without a ton of work. And when you’re buying plants, try to think: what colors or forms do I already have that I need to repeat? What do I have too much of? Don’t buy any more pink phlox if you already have way, way too much pink in your garden. (Unless you’re going monochromatic, which is a really pretty look too.)
I hope these ideas help you get your landscape in order. An organized garden will bring you peace, serenity, and relaxation. . . until you start thinking about the next chore you need to take care of!