Every garden is different. Of course that is obvious but there are certain aspects that really set apart exceptional spaces. Things that form a picture in your minds eye that you retain or you wish you could emulate in your own garden. I talk gardens all day so I thought I would would share some tips on what makes them memorable. These are my opinions and we have to remember that opinions are just that and they are not right or wrong. Consensus, however, congeals around repetition and I’ll address that in my choices. There are certain things that make a garden sing.
It could be colors, it could be textures, it could be well placed beer cans, repetition is the soul of a garden. I say that because it actually does sooth the human soul. It imparts a sense of comfort by creating familiarity and simultaneously creates the illusion of continuous smooth transitions. Our minds naturally create relationships. A seamless sense of transition is what really sets a garden apart. I’m talking about things that are easily controlled and easy to achieve. As an example pick a color any color that you love and put it here and there in your garden. It should match surrounding hues and it should be deliberate. In my own garden I’ve chosen several elements to repeat and it has caused me unbelievable joy.
Build a consensus
In my back garden I have chosen to repeat the theme of the color chartreuse. Grasses, hedges, ground covers all combine for a simple cohesion. Sometimes its repeated distantly or it is interconnected. Both ways I can then use this as a backdrop for tones or contrast favorable to that color. Blue flowers, yellow flowers, pink, purple all form focal points against this bright canvas. You are not limited to color. You can repeat just about anything. Textures, patterns, even trees, shrubs, hedges as well as specific plants that appear in groups or solitary. Most importantly, follow your passion. If you really, really, love something why not plant a whole sweep? If there is a color that thrills you then by all means plant in a saturating mass. Sometimes, in this favored climate, our gardens can be repositories of one of everything. I call this the pawn shop look. Here, a little repetition can result in a more satisfying experience.
The Odd rule
One thing you might encounter down the garden path is what is known as the Rule of Three. That dictates that you always plant in groups of three. This exists for several reasons and it isn’t to get you to buy more plants. The first explanation is that this mysteriously echoes the great natural patterns of the wild. Well, that may or may not be true- I’ve seen plenty of solitary one off plants in the wild and I wouldn’t say the effect was wrong. The more believable scenario is that three (or more) creates the appearance of volume. As humans we react to more. It gets us excited. Volume creates continuity where a single plant could appear lonely or simply disjunct. You actually get better contrast in groups of plants because there is more to compare. So when shopping for plants it seems that more satisfaction comes in groups of three and more. This rule is purely contingent on personal aesthetics but I’m surprised again and again where the results prove superior.
A garden is by every definition a deliberate act. There is untold effort to make gardens appear natural. Well, thats deliberate too. So why not just go with it. I know from observations that people react most favorably to deliberate gardens. When a garden looks organized- even if it is planned disorganization that influence subconsciously interacts with your garden brain. Look around you- sometimes you can force the aesthetic to deliver a better effect. Choose the high drama of large tropical plants OR plant one distinctive tree in a focal point- you have the power of influence. In my garden I have four boxwoods arranged in a line spaced equidistant. Right in the middle of the garden and it really does work. It may seem superfluous but I know that it imparts structure and anchors the whole scene.
Hedges have edges
Hedges are one thing that modern gardeners (in the PNW) shy away from. I’ve heard it all, too much work, too rigid, unnatural, well there is a reason people return from Europe besotted with ancient gardens. And its almost always a use of hedges. I’m not talking about anal retentively hewn boxwood chess pieces. I’m referring to plants that can deliberately be repeated in lines, crescents, curves and then pruned either a lot or a little. As humans we seek control over nature- even if you yourself don’t picture it that way I’m here to tell you that primal fear of out of control things unnerves us. Hedges can be comforting then. One thing I’ve found by planting hedges is that the onerous task of pruning is not that big of a deal. My boxwood which I at first thought would lead to slavery actually only require one light pruning a year. And that is just to remove errant growth. Its important to consider that pruning is stunting. That is to say it forces a change in plant growth that lasts. Boxwood react dramatically to just a light clip by branching like mad and becoming dense. Many, many shrubs do this. So an informal hedge can produce surprisingly uniform results; try Choisya, Daphne, Myrica (Morella), Abelia, with one or two yearly snips- and lightly at that. And the results can last a whole season if not into the next. Take your time, use your gardeners eye of balance and nature- you control the shears. Remember that gardens are deliberate and the amount of influence you have over them is a choice not a sentence.
Take a cue from the theatre
Picture your garden as a stage. In theatre the stage is strictly controlled to impart mood, focus, and dramatic crescendo. I’m not talking about getting a huge curtain- but think of the backdrop, the edges, even the mood, and lighting. You have complete control over this and it really is fun to see just how much you can manipulate your space. In my garden I’ve interrupted the view off of the center. A row of Crape Myrtles (‘Pecos) with multi-trunks is fronted by the four boxwood and underplanted with a continuous ground cover of shocking yellow ‘Angelina’ sedum. To the side it frames my lawn whose focal point from the view of the house is a large Albizia (Mimosa) ‘Summer Chocolate’. Around the outside of the garden I have layered shrubs and vines to block and eliminate views of a chainlink fence that surrounds the garden and which I was not able to remove. Framing a central section- creating a focal point and layering shrubs have all created a garden where I feel enclosed in my own personal space. From the neighbors aspect it is just a haze of trees and shrubs. As the seasons change the colors come and go and the sun angle shifts but the central elements remain the same. I’ve even introduced high quality solar powered spot lights to amp up the drama at night. In this play the gardener is the director.
A simpler task
Garden making represents a HUGE spectrum of results. Let your passion be your guide and accept some simple tips to create EXACTLY what you want. For those recently initiated the combination of plant culture, in concert with plant design can seem like an insolvable mystery. But time, experimentation even a determination to learn something new is certainly surmountable and you will find that your own knowledge of your garden will grow and once unthought of details will become familiar. Most of all trust your own sense of aesthetics. Don’t accept anything less than you expect and use a nursery of high quality to guide you in your decisions. Visit gardens for ideas. Garden with a buddy to bounce ideas and decrease the labor. Stick with your vision- and I guarantee you will never have a dull garden.