The days of longingly looking out the window, wishing we were in the garden and not gazing at it from behind glass panes, are nearly behind us.Many of us have grand plans in our head about how we’ll change a garden, create a new landscape, and create our living masterpieces large and small. I find the challenge of garden design daunting. Others can do it with ease, and many learn about garden design simply from reading, observation, questioning and in the classroom.
As a professional horticulturist, many people whom I encounter—be it a neighbor, acquaintance or potential client—think that because I work with plants there is some reason why I should be able to design gardens.
I tell them that, and more often than not they react as if I have this magical skill that I simply won’t share with them or sell to them. Yes, I did take two college courses in landscape and garden design, but it’s not something that is innate to me, and my lack of intrinsic artistic skill makes me honest and forthright about my reluctance and refusal to design. My own gardens at my house may appear to be designed, but it’s a ruse. It’s happened by accident and not by plan.
Nonetheless, you can’t work with plants all your life and not pick up a few design skills and tricks. There is a certain assimilation that takes place when you work close to garden designers and landscape architects that are at the top of their profession. And it’s pretty obvious to me that, in a flower or mixed garden, the taller plants should go toward the back of the garden, and the shorter ones toward the front. I also know from my reading that certain color combinations work and others don’t, but I still need a color wheel as a guide. A talented designer or landscape architect with a broad knowledge of plant materials can easily blend and mix annuals, perennials and shrubs. I can’t. Ah, but I can grow them.
So, what does one do if you want to learn about garden design and be more effective in planning and executing your own gardens?
There are a number of places to start, and a number of ways to learn, and one of the best ways to start is to read—and to read the classical masters. Some to consider could be Gertrude Jekyl, Capability Brown, Rosemary Verey, Russell Page and many others There also are a few magazines that cater to garden design topics, and those are good for ideas and leads that can take you to other sources and get the gray matter working.
The Brooklyn and New York (Bronx) botanical gardens are always offering a selection of courses on the topic, and you can also stay in touch with local garden clubs and horticultural organizations, as they often have speakers and programs about general garden design and on specialty subjects relating to design. You might also find a course at Suffolk County Community College and several design courses at SUNY in Farmingdale.
Another avenue is the garden tour circuit. From May through the fall, local garden clubs, libraries and other groups organize tours and open houses featuring gardens throughout the East End and the North Fork. These tours give you an opportunity to see a multitude of gardens, each of which will be different and, hopefully, designed by different designers, and in some cases by the garden owner. Don’t be shy, though, and if you go on one of these tours, listen to the conversations of the other visitors and even seek out the garden manager, designer or owner for insights and to ask questions.
The Garden Conservancy (gardenconservancy.org) also has a nationwide program of “open days,” when you can visit gardens that they have chosen for special merit. You can see the full list and get a guide to the entire list of nationwide gardens on their website.
Locally, these tours are scheduled on the East End for May 6 and 13, June 3 and 25, and July 8 and 30. There also are open days in Nassau County, Westchester and up through the Hudson Valley. They also have open days in 18 other states, so even when traveling you should try to visit gardens. Visiting gardens when you’re on the road or on vacation can be instructive and inspirational, because you can get exposure to other gardening styles and plant material that may not be used out here in our somewhat provincial atmosphere.
But if you want to start slow or just wing it, I have a few thoughts and suggestions that you might want to consider.
For the true beginner who doesn’t want to read too much, study too much or work too much, you can buy pre-planned (designed) gardens that arrive in a box. Many catalog nurseries offer these, including the White Flower Farm and Bluestone Perennials. You can see renderings of these gardens in their catalogs or on their web pages, and essentially they are selling you a simple plan along with the plants to accomplish that plan.
In most cases, these are perennial gardens, but some may include shrubs as well. Most are themed, and you can find a butterfly garden, pollinator garden, cutting garden, deer resistant garden, moon (white) garden and others. The sizes of these gardens begin at about 20 square feet and range to 100 square feet, and from $150 up to more than $400. Most can be expanded, and once you have the starter plants, you can improvise and expand.
Some specific pointers:
Always consider color relationships and size relationships. Remember that most plants have flowers, but they also have foliage, and that foliage color can change as the season progresses, and foliage texture can come into play as well. This is where your knowledge of the plants will be critical and why reading is important in this process.
We always are told that taller plants need to go toward the back of the garden—but don’t be too rigid and be ready to break the rules.
Consider perspective. Where will the garden be viewed from? Will you be looking from the edge of the border, or from a hundred feet away? Smaller features tend to disappear in the distance, but you can compensate for this by massing the smaller plants instead of planting them individually.
Will the garden be solely viewed from level ground, or from higher or lower areas? What will the effect of the seasons and the movement of the sun have on your design? A good example here might be with the use of sunflowers. Planted in the wrong spot, the sun-following heads of these plants might never be seen if viewed from the wrong spot. The flowers will always want to lean toward the sun, so viewing from the north side won’t show the flowers when they are blooming.
How will the shadow of a tree or a building affect the garden? A magnificently perfumed Oriental lily blooming too close to a screen porch or patio could easily be overwhelming, but just 15 feet farther away it will still be a magnificent plant but less overpowering to the sensitive nose.
And one thing that one of my favorite designers taught me years ago was the element of surprise. He was the ultimate plantsman as well as a designer, and he would plant annual vines that would stealthily climb up hedges and trees then pop into bloom unexpectedly. He also would plant pumpkin and gourd seeds throughout the garden, and when other plants began to die back in late summer and through the fall, the gardens would reveal hanging gourds of every type being exposed, and pumpkins showing up in the most unlikely but delightful places.
So, read, visit, travel, experiment, listen, watch and learn. In the end, it’s your garden, and you need to love it more than anyone else.