The Stopwatch Gardener

A gardening blog from Sheila M. Averbuch

Garden design for the clueless


Click for larger imageI’m not much more than an absolute beginner in gardening terms, and something I’ve hardly tackled yet is designing with plants — that business of attaining visual cohesion in different areas of the garden (and, hopefully, in the garden as a whole), with pleasing associations of colour and form. Just getting to know how plants work, and persuading them not to die, took so much time at first. In our old garden in Dublin, I planted an entire bag of daffodils upside down, and when we came to Scotland, I remember feeling annoyed when windowboxes I’d filled with red pelargoniums shriveled. (I had not watered them. At all.)

That was the year I resolved to stop growing flowers and start growing roots. I would prioritise the underground happiness of the plants, but I’d also start planning the garden around who I am, ie a neglector of containers. Except in winter, when a small pot of snowdrops sits by the back door to cheer us up, my only containers are huge ones which need just a little from me, and not very often.

Designing with plants has come so slowly, which is a major frustration, because all I’ve ever wanted from gardening is a live version of my first job at a florist’s: choosing the prettiest cut flowers and arranging them in bunches. I understand that developing a garden which looks abundant in every season can take a lifetime, but I’d like some abundance now — as well as visual cohesion. I visit gardens when I can, but mostly I’m gleaning design insights from books. Here are the top three most helpful design principles I’ve internalised:

  • Control the use of colour: flowers of similar colour tones planted together are restful and harmonious to the eye — like the restrained palatte in the picture above, showing our small main border. I no longer buy “mixed” colour tulips, pansies, seeds or anything else. A single contrasting pair of colours, like blue and orange, is also pleasing and looks lively to the eye as opposed to restful.
  • Foreshortened views suggest abundance: you don’t have to wait until your borders are overflowing like a botanic garden to get a feeling of abundance. Position garden seats (or your plants, if you’re starting from scratch) so that you have a foreshortened view down along the border, instead of across it. That way, to your eye, plants not located near each other will seem to come together, giving the impression of an overflowing garden, and bringing colours right up next to each other.
  • Hide parts of the garden from view: paradoxically, even a tiny garden feels bigger if you find ways to hide part of it from immediate view. The hedge or fence with a gap in it, a plant placed to partially obscure a view, a path that winds away from the eye so you can’t see its full length, or even a false door in a boundary wall that leads nowhere — all these suggest an undefined “something more”. Subconsciously your brain speculates and projects about what it could be, and the garden ends up feeling bigger.

Too many design books offer blueprints and drawings instead of what I really want: inspiring garden photography where the plants are all identified, and clear, contextual explanations of design principles. At the moment I’m in love with the practical and beautiful Fabulous Flowerbeds by Gisela Keil and Jurgen Becker. If you have a design must-read book, or a design golden rule you’d recommend to me, I’d love to hear them.

posted under Garden design, Gardening
15 Comments to

“Garden design for the clueless”

  1. On November 8th, 2009 at 4:02 pm Deborah at Kilbourne Grove Says:

    Those are three very good rules and ones that everyone should take into consideration. I always try to limit my colour palatte, I work in a flower shop and hate it when customers want a “tossed salad” of colour. One or two colours are much more sophisticated.
    My golden rule, is repetition. When I first started gardening, I had one of everything. I had to learn to limit my plant material and repeat it through out the garden.

  2. On November 8th, 2009 at 9:22 pm Cat Davidson Says:

    Great ideas, and a lovely website, i love your informal notebook layout, thanks for sharing, Cat

  3. On November 9th, 2009 at 1:54 am Sylvana Says:

    These are very good ideas. I use them in my own garden too. And like Deborah at Kilbourne, it took me awhile to start repeating. My early garden years were experimenting with plants to see what I like. Once I found something I liked, I propagated it or purchased more of it for repetition and swaths. That is something else I think can make a garden look bigger – large swaths of same/similar plants (this takes skill though, because just planting you whole garden with one type of plant isn’t necessarily going to make it look bigger!)

  4. On November 9th, 2009 at 10:15 pm Louise Says:

    “I’d also start planning the garden around who I am, ie a neglector of containers”
    ha ha!
    that sounds exactly like me 🙂
    Now to put the plan into action…

  5. On November 10th, 2009 at 3:08 am Les Says:

    I agree with you on the color palette, but I like to have lots of orange, purples, chartreuse and burgundy. I know that may not be to everyone’s taste, but I like bold and vibrant. My most important design tip would be to have lots of structure, especially where the gardener tends to put in a lot of differing plants.

    I would like to thank you for stopping by my blog. Have a great day!

  6. On November 12th, 2009 at 8:59 pm The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    Deborah, Sylvana — excellent advice thank you. I’m finding myself more and more deeply in love with my astrantia, but not too sure how to propagate it, since it doesn’t set usable seed. Not sure if I should go for division or root cuttings? I’ve never succeeded with the latter.

    Les — I would love to see your garden! I guess I was trying to make the point in the post that it’s a limited palette that works rather than what’s on the palate. Yours sounds a lot more lively than mine but beautiful. I really struggled with the point you make about structure. The border I’ve shown in this picture has no permanent structure in it, and things I have tried there look wrong. Do you use evergreens, or built structures? Thanks again for posting those camellia pictures on your blog, very inspiring.

    Cat, Louise — thank you for the visit and comments!

  7. On November 15th, 2009 at 11:53 am Liisa Says:

    “…inspiring garden photography where the plants are all identified, and clear, contextual explanations of design principles”. You took the words right out of my mouth. I am a beginner myself, and I learned the hard way when it comes to planting in groups of 3, 5, or 7. I fell in love with so many plants, that my garden became a patch of “onesies” and totally lacked in direction or flow. I have found the concept of design principles to be difficult when it comes to making my own garden. I believe I have a better grasp on the subject, but we’ll see come next spring, when I edit yet again.

  8. On November 15th, 2009 at 8:55 pm The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    Thanks for that Liisa — dunno about you, but the language of design at first meant nothing to me and in fact felt alienating…including direction and flow, as you mention. It’s only with several seasons of thinking about it and reading about garden design that I start to see what they mean and can appreciate the meaning behind these words. I can really recommend that German book I mentioned. Very short, great pics, clear explanations. Good luck with your garden & hope you see fab things next spring!

  9. On November 17th, 2009 at 1:04 pm LisaG Says:

    I used to “design” my garden layouts on grid paper and plant accordingly. I had tidy spaces of color and size, leaf contrast etc. It looked like a “designed” garden. My approach now is more artistic. Plant what I love mixed together and plunk in more as it grows. Plants are wonderfully forgiving (most) and can be moved if needed. I find now that my garden is more an expression of me and less an expression of someone else’s ideals.

  10. On November 19th, 2009 at 9:13 am The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    Lisa G. — it’s funny you should mention that, because yesterday I was wondering what the results would look like if I dedicated a small part of the garden to a design “recipe” from one of my books. It might be a good experiment, but I’m not too sure it would feel satisfying. I think I’d rather struggle to implement the design principles myself rather than do a paint-by-number job.

  11. On January 10th, 2010 at 2:56 am Allan Becker Says:

    My inspiration for flowerbed design comes from the book titled “Best Borders” by Tony Lord.

  12. On February 9th, 2010 at 5:13 pm Susan Bertkau Says:

    Although I am a Landscape Architect I don’t know as much about plants and designing with them as I would like to. Neither in Germany nor here are enough plant related subjects during studies to get the hang of it. Now I am trying to expand my knowledge whereever I can – visiting botanical gardens and taking pictures of plants and plant combinations that work well and are labelled.
    I agree – I too wish there was a book showing well working combinations with plant names and design principles. One book I have come across is ‘Take two Plants’ but unfortunately it has a very limited palette… Still might be worth a look.

    Great blog 🙂

  13. On February 10th, 2010 at 8:50 am The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    Thanks Susan for your comments! Allan Becker has recommended “Best Borders” by Tony Lord and I also really value that book. It has excellent photographs and some good ideas on plant combinations. Not sure if it is available in Germany, but probably you could get it.

    One of the most disappointing things I ever bought on plant combinations was a magazine in America, dedicated to this very subject. The ideas were awful and the combinations very lacklustre!

  14. On February 10th, 2010 at 3:40 pm The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    One more thing Susan – Allan has just told me he’s recently updated a top 12 list of his most highly recommended books on flower gardening…and in addition to Tony Lord’s, you’ll find some other great titles. If you go here and look in the right hand margin you can see Allan’s list.

  15. On May 22nd, 2012 at 10:20 pm Gareth Says:

    The one place I would visit for inspiration would be chatsworth and any work by Joseph Paxton .

Email will not be published

Website example

Your Comment: