Just as you evaluate your landscape site, it’s important to evaluate your gardening goals and preferences.
How much time do you want to spend on maintenance? Tracy DiSabato-Aust, author of “The Well Designed Mixed Garden,” encourages homeowners to make that one of the first considerations in garden design. This can help determine the size and style of the border as well as how many “high maintenance” plants to include.
“Select at least 70 percent low maintenance plants,” said DiSabato-Aust, who spoke at the North Central Wisconsin Master Gardeners’ Garden Vision seminar in January. “It’s OK to have a couple prima donnas,” she said, such as delphinium. But unless you have unlimited time or money to contract for maintenance, lower maintenance plants keep your borders from feeling like chores.
Low maintenance plants should have at least four of these traits, she said: long-lived; insect and disease resistant or tolerant; noninvasive; minimal pruning requirements; minimal division and staking requirements; and minimal fertilizer requirements. If you want even lower maintenance, choose 75 percent or more plants with these traits.
The style of your border should reflect your style and the mood you want to create. Do you prefer a formal or informal style? Strong rectangular lines are formal; undulating curves have an informal flow.
Often landscaping is formal close to the house and progressively less formal away from the home or in the back yard. Large masses of fewer plants work well in large spaces or borders some distance from a house. They may be out of scale or boring in small spaces.
“Every site has energy associated with it,” DiSabato-Aust said. Rather than rushing to complete a garden, live in the space for a time. Observe the lighting and shadows, the style of your home, inside or out.
When determining a border’s size and shape, outline it with a garden hose or outdoor extension cord. Walk through the area, consider paths, seating areas, how it fits with the surroundings. Examine the proposed location from various angles and times of day.
Several design principles can help and are listed below. A helpful guide is to keep asking: Does it fit?
Keep scale and proportion in mind to create balance. Scale is the relative size of an element or area. Scale can be set by many things, including your house, an arbor, other structure or existing trees.
Proportion is the relationship of the elements’ sizes to each other, such as the length of a border compared to its width. A rule of proportion common in nature and taught in art schools is this ratio: 1 to 1.618. It is known as the golden mean. Using it, a bed that is 13 feet long should be about eight feet wide. This width is the minimum DiSabato-Aust recommends for a mixed border.
The golden mean can also help with placement of structural elements, such as a tree or art. Place it one-third of the way in from one end.
If building a freestanding island or raised bed, make it three times as long as it is wide, she advises. For good proportion, keep the tallest plant in this bed one-half the width of the bed. If your island bed is 10 feet wide, for example, it would be 30 feet long, and the tallest plant would be about five feet. DiSabato-Aust recommends island beds no wider than six feet so you can reach in to maintain plants without compacting the soil.
Garden design embraces three basic principles: order, unity and rhythm.
Order is the visual structure of a design. It can be achieved by symmetry, asymmetry and mass planting. Balance is the feeling that different elements of the design fit together well. Symmetry establishes balance – think of two identical trees or shrubs on either side of a front door. Balance can also be created by repeating similar colors and plant materials.
Asymmetrical balance is created by proper placement and proportion. Because a bold texture carries more weight than fine-textured plants, more fine texture is needed for balance. One large tree can be balanced by a large garden space. With colors, balance one-third intense color such as red with two-thirds lower-tone color, such as blue.
Unity is the design element that brings everything together. When unity is achieved, all elements of a composition are working in harmony.
Unity is created with a certain theme, such as color, type and size of garden bed, or materials. Using only a few colors is an easy way to provide strong unity. Consistency in lines throughout the garden and simplicity in detail add to unity.
To enhance unity, consider one dominant element as a focal point.
Repetition can unite a garden border. This may include repeating a botanical group, such as ornamental grasses or dwarf conifers or a favorite perennial through the landscape. Too often, we behave more like plant collectors than designers, creating a botanical museum. Limiting the number of different types of plants used unifies the design.
“You can still be a plant collector and designer. Plant in drifts,” DiSabato-Aust said. Grouping plants in masses or drifts creates greater impact and order. Planting in groups of three (or five or seven) or another odd number is recommended for unity.
When elements of a design are physically linked together, the eye moves from one element to another. Plants and paving materials linking planting areas together establish this interconnection.
Rhythm is time and movement in the garden. Spacing and timing of elements create patterns for movement. It can be established by repeating plants or forms. Repeating a vertical form, such as fence posts, at close intervals speeds movement. Widely spaced repeating shapes have slower rhythm. You can also alternate different repeating elements by size, shape or color.
A gradual change in one or more elements also establishes rhythm. An example is transitioning from cool to warm colors, fine to coarse texture, from low to tall forms.
Next: Color, texture and form.