Pick The Plants, Perfect The Garden

Once you’ve decided on the overall style of your garden–whether formal, semiformal, or naturalistic–define, divide, and conquer should be your design mantra. Following these three principal steps of landscape design will make the process of laying out a garden, which can seem overwhelming at first approach, much more manageable, successful, and enjoyable.

Step 1

ptp“Frame” your garden by defining the landscape’s outer boundaries. Any landscape, no matter its size, needs concise definition to be visually effective. A landscape without a boundary is like a painting without a frame: Even the most exquisite canvas looks better with the proper border around it. Lack of boundaries is rarely a problem on small lots, especially urban ones, where living in proximity to neighbors demands that gardeners define and defend boundaries with a fence, hedge, shrubs, trees, or some other device. Where space constraints and privacy are less of an issue, however, we tend to neglect this delineating concept- often to the general detriment of the landscape’s overall cohesiveness and usefulness.

Without exterior boundaries, an open lot will look exposed and unfinished. With the simple placement of some plantings along the perimeter, the landscape begins to take shape, and the various design possibilities of individual areas become much more evident. The need for defining your garden’s perimeter, however, doesn’t necessarily mean total enclosure. Unless privacy or unattractive views on all sides are a factor, or unless you need to keep wildlife at bay, wall-like hedges or massed plantings can produce a less-desirable effect than a lighter planting consisting of trees and shrubs of various textures, sizes, and densities. This is especially true if an attractive vista or some other interesting prospect exists outside the garden’s immediate borders. In that case, it’s best to frame the view with plantings so as to be able to peer past the foreground into the distance, as though through a large picture window.

Step 2

Create interior divisions, or “garden rooms,” throughout your landscape.

In the same way that individual rooms add function to your house, to get the most out of your landscape, your garden should have “rooms” as well. Historically, American gardens were always separated into different areas by their use or function (see “Getting Started,” right). Pleasure grounds were distinct from work areas, carriage yards set apart from vegetable gardens, and so on. Obviously, there were practical aspects to this arrangement, especially in terms of keeping unwanted animals, sights, and smells away from the more recreational areas of the landscape. But there was more to this separation than day-to-day necessity: Outside spaces simply look better when their various components are delineated in some way.

As in a house, each garden room will serve a distinct function and take the shape that best suits it. Closest to a house, for example, you will often find a small oval lawn or terrace for games and other outdoor entertainment, or perhaps an herb or kitchen garden. Adjoining it, sometimes separated by a short flight of steps, may be a flower garden area with a summerhouse or other outbuilding. And the vegetable or cutting garden may lie behind the garage, screened off from the rest of the yard by an arbor and a hedge. Each space has a logical definition and purpose. Obviously, the choices made reflect the wont and habits of the owners: A swimming pool could easily have been substituted for the vegetable garden, for example. A small sundial garden off the oval lawn would work equally well as a terrace and outdoor sitting area. Some families choose tennis courts or small putting greens. Your family’s needs will ultimately determine the form and function your landscape will follow

There are many different ways to divide a property into logical rooms. Rows of trees, perennial borders, fences, walls, or changes in ground level (such as descending terraces) are all appropriate means of subdividing and defining space. The key is to choose a method that is appropriate to the feel and look of your home. Also, you should consider the degree of separation or privacy you require. For example, a formal six-foot brick wall will provide a much greater degree of enclosure than a low, friendly row of hedge shrubs such as boxwoods.

Step 3

Know when enough is enough. A landscape divided too much ceases to function as a cohesive whole.

As important as it is to divide and arrange your garden space logically, be careful not to overdo it or you’ll risk making so many divisions that your yard becomes a series of chopped-up spaces that cease to function as a whole. Each division should be justifiable and, most importantly, should seek to maximize the internal space available in each area. If you are lucky enough to have an outlying field or open space adjoining the landscape nearest your home, for example, don’t subdivide the latter into three or four little sections unless there is a very good reason for doing so. Instead, use the open area to provide a dramatic backdrop for a series of more intimate garden spaces arranged around the house. Similarly, in very small gardens, a good rule of green thumbs is to fortify the exterior boundaries and maximize interior space wherever possible, sometimes forgoing internal divisions entirely.

Remember: Once you’ve defined the style of your garden and set its exterior boundaries, divide and conquer should be your mantra. Then comes the pleasure of “furnishing” the garden rooms you have created with plants, architectural elements, tools, toys, and ornaments that bring out the best elements of the garden you’ve designed. Follow these simple steps and you will find that you’ll have created a much more useful. pleasant, and rewarding environment in your garden.

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