I would no more try to tell anyone how to design a garden than I would try to teach a person how to write a poem, compose a sonata, or weave a tapestry. Finding your own aesthetic—what you consider beautiful—is part of the pleasure of gardening.
However, I can give five principles to guide you toward making a garden composition that works and has some coherence.
If you were setting out to weave a tapestry, you would spend a half-hour or more thinking about how you were planning to depict the Battle of Hastings, or some freehand scene, and what kind of wool or silk to buy. Before you embark on planting your garden, take a little time to think about two basic things. First, the function of your yard. A place to eat? To grill? To play? Second, to avoid the tragedy of massive plant death, match plants to the site—sun lovers in the sun, shade lovers in the shade, bog plants in the bog.
Wait, you may say, I’m not a designer. Face it—you are a de facto designer. Even if you have only a little square vegetable garden and a bed of petunias, you have created a composition. You might as well be in charge and control the effect.
So here are the five things I wish I’d known before I began putting in gardens—public, private, and my own. Keep these in mind as you and your credit card go to the nursery this weekend.
- Be bold. In fact, be 25 percent more bold than you thought you could be. Garden designer Patrick Thevenard, to whom I was an apprentice, once said, “By being bold, you may go wrong, but by being cautious and hesitant, you will definitely go wrong.” I began my garden-designing life by timidly tucking things in corners and crevices and making sweet vignettes. (“Pretty posies,” Patrick observed in the scornful tone of a Russian ballet master.)
One common mistake of the cautious is to make the planting beds too narrow. This makes the planting look like a parking-lot strip and, paradoxically, makes the garden feel small. Make big curves; you’re looking for a feeling of flow. It’s fine to start small, with one manageable space, but keep the big picture in mind.
Go ahead and plant a tree, to me the best expression of the audacity of hope. Verify that its ultimate height is OK for the site. Plant the tree now so that you, or the person who buys your house for a high price because of its gorgeous landscaping, can one day walk under it.
- Don’t plant in straight lines, unless that is truly your intention. Be aware that straight lines give your garden a highly managed look. Make sure that an orderly pattern is your choice and not a reflex—that you really intend to re-create Versailles. Volunteers in parks always have to be restrained from planting daffodil bulbs in military formation precisely six inches apart. Please don’t alternate one little red geranium and one little white geranium in a row unless you really mean it.
- Ring-around-the-tree is almost always a mistake. Trees are the fiercest competitors for sunlight, water, and nutrients. Even more important, that cute little circle looks like something from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—not a desirable effect if you want your plants to retain some dignity. Do surround the tree with a circle of wood chips to remind whoever is mowing the lawn not to nick the bark.
- Don’t buy just one of anything (except your major tree: the dogwood, cherry, Japanese maple, palm, or whatever). Think greater numbers, fewer different kinds of plant. You can space them out (with other plants in between)—say a group of three, a group of five, and then another group of three. The repetition gives your planting bed some rhythm, leading the eye. There’s nothing wrong with even numbers, but if you plant two things, one on either side of a gate for example, you’ve created symmetry reminiscent of the Age of Enlightenment rather than the Romantic Era.
- Don’t fear simple green. Push yourself to appreciate the different textures and shapes of leaves and the overall shapes of shrubs and trees. My early impulse was to buy all flowering shrubs, many of which are uninteresting blobs when they’re not in bloom; now I think in overall forms more than flowers, which design teachers were begging me to do two decades ago.
A final thought: The enemy of design coherence is impulse and desire. (And who is not vulnerable to those forces?) I have six rose bushes, all different, sitting on the porch waiting to be planted who-knows-where. These purchases are the result of a combination of pure greed and susceptibility to descriptions of color and fragrance, all of which struck me while reading a rose catalog in January.
“It’s pretty; I want it,” is going to strike every gardener, beginner or pro. Not even just pretty. For some of us, odd or strange or even silly is hard to resist. Last year, I acquired a day-lily cultivar called “O Joy, O Rapture” without having any idea of how big the plant would get or what color the flower would be. If there were a day lily called “Question Mark and the Mysterians,” I would probably order it.
Happy chance, as well as climactic disaster and insect plague, plays a part in disrupting plans. I’m figuring out how to incorporate a cream-colored iris my friend Kathryn brought from her grandmother’s garden in Kentucky.
Whether by direction or impulse or chance, any garden will evolve, no matter what, and so will the gardener. Make the garden yours and remember to water. Lest I become excessively permissive, though, let me add these crucial commandments: If you need a fence, put it in first. Never plant more than two zucchini plants. Don’t use red-dyed mulch. Also really important, and pretty low-physical-effort: Get a shoebox and keep all your plant tags in it for easy reference. This will ensure that you don’t stick them in the ground next to the plants, where they look like tombstones for mice.