Design Ideas for Your Garden


     For a number of years, I wrote the design column for The American Horticulturist, the journal of the American Horticultural Society. During my tenure as Design Columnist, I wrote on a wide variety of topics, offering practical advise and elegant design solutions for homeowners developing thier own gardens.

The subjects of these columns ranged from understanding design principles and how to create garden spaces, to the placement and importance of garden structures and architecture. In my column, we walked along picturesque stone paths and woodland trails, thru old fashioned garden gates and into enchanting doors and dooryards. And of course, I shared my own and other gardener's experiences with designing and selecting plants of all sorts.

I would like to share some of these ideas with you, as you plan and develop your own gardens and landscapes. This area of the web site will change, so please check in to see what's new.

This Month: Garden Rooms

Some of the upcoming attractions for Design ideas for Your Garden.

Doors and Dooryards
Garden Plans
Garden Gates
Foliage Textures in Perennial Borders

Garden Rooms

  Whether laying out a new garden or renovating an old one, most gardeners are faced with the same basic questions: how to create spaces to accommodate the plants they want to grow, provide for privacy and quiet, and still create a scene with interest and vitality. In some landscapes, the natural terrain and the trees, hedges and paths of an existing garden can serve as a starting point for a garden's basic layout. But where does one begin if the site is a rectangle of grass, like that surrounding so many American homes !

"Work from the house outward," suggested one gardener I know, who began designing her garden by picturing her flat suburban backyard as a series of rooms. The first "room" built was a fieldstone terrace shaded by a pergola covered with Clematis paniculata. A step down from the French doors of the living room and one step up from the lawn, the terrace acts as a gradual transition from the house to the lawn and garden. In August and September, the clematis is a billowing mass of white, fragrant flowers that perfume both house and garden.

Surrounding the otherwise formal square lawn with a pleasant woodsiness that requires no pruning are shrub borders of Rhododendron vaseyi, Fothergilla major, Clethra alnifolia and various species of Viburnum. The shrubs are placed to outline the square lines of the lawn, while their varied natural forms prevent the effect from being too stiff. The succession of shrub bloom begins with the pink blooms of Rhododendron vaseyi and the cream-colored flowers of Fothergilla in April and May, followed by Viburnum in May and Clethra in July and August, all of which are brought to a dramatic crescendo of autumn foliage.

On the right side of the lawn, through a break in the shrub hedge, is another "room"- a utilitarian mix of laundry area, compost bins and herb garden. On the left side of the lawn, through a small wooden gate set into the shrubs, is an orchard of five dwarf apple trees, complete with a few rustic wooden benches. Directly across the lawn from the living room doors is a brick path that leads through the shrubs and bisects a large vegetable garden. At the end of the brick path is a stone fountain, with a single jet of water, set against a backdrop of Juniperus thurifera'Nana'. This line of Spanish or incense juniper - with its finely textured, gray-green foliage - runs along the entire length of the vegetable garden and screens the area from a neighbor's backyard. The vegetable garden cannot be seen from the living room and most of the lawn, and the brick path with its fountain becomes a visual extension of the more formal atmosphere of the lawn. When you step out onto the lawn, you see only glimpses of different garden areas just waiting to be explored.

"I stole the idea from Sissinghurst," the owner explained. "I wanted to have that sense of space and anticipation you feel when you step through the entrance at Sissinghurst onto the large lawn surrounded by walls covered with flowering vines, and all those doorways leading into different gardens.

"Certainly Sissinghurst is an excellent example of how garden "rooms" can divide and organize space effectively. Another is Hidcote in Gloucestershire, a major inspiration behind Sissinghurst. That these gardens are English is incidental; more important is that they both transform flat, relatively boring landscapes into compelling sequences of garden events.

Like the floor plan of a house, where a hallway or entry hall acts as a backbone or a central core for the arrangement of rooms, the separate gardens within Sissinghurst and Hidcote radiate from central points, varying from long corridors of tightly clipped hedges to evergreen rondels, each with exits that frame adjoining garden areas. For example, Hidcote has its Red Border and rooms with various themes. Similarly, at Sissinghurst many areas, such as the White Garden, are used to develop an idea or a plant association to the limit. It is, in large part, the logic and rhythm of the frameworks of these two gardens - with their borders and water gardens, rose and herb enclaves - that keep them from becoming a circus of unrelated plantings.

Divided into rooms, a smaller garden can be made to seem larger, and a large garden, more intimate. But not all garden rooms have to be surrounded by walls or hedges. In some gardens, an area can assume the feeling of a room simply by how it is used. For example, a bench set into a turn in a path makes that spot a goal and a place to pause. Or, in the most informal landscapes, a few chairs positioned in the shade of an apple tree or the breezy enclosure of an arbor or pergola can create a garden room's sense of place and separateness.