Designing a garden is one of the more intimidating things gardeners expect of themselves. It's challenging enough to learn all that you need to know in order to select, plant and care for landscape plants successfully. But design is not just learning how to plant and water. I it requires an expression of something from inside of us.
Still, that does not mean you have to throw your creativity out there like a kid just jumping into a pool to learn to swim. Your mind would likely splash around just like the kid. There are more effective ways to teach a child to swim, and there are helpful ways you can organize your thoughts and have a more effective design process.
There are many different ways to organize the design process, as you will find any book on landscaping. I have the challenge of wanting to grow every type of plant I can get my hands on, and that had to be balanced with my desire to have a well-designed landscape. It ended up depending on how much emphasis I placed on controlled design and how much on the natural development of the plantings. This is how I decided.
You can consider the planting design on three levels. The first, the structural level, forms the basic framework of the garden establishing trees, large shrubs, focal points, structures (pergolas, arbors, sheds) and outlines. The second level provides the bulk of the garden planting and includes massed shrubs and some larger herbaceous material. Finally, the third level, the decorative planting, is set against the other two.
A common error is to concentrate mainly on the decorative flowering plants, throw in the occasional shrubs and allow the bulk of the planting to emerge piecemeal. What worked best for me was to do just the opposite.
The first stage of planting should establish the bones of the garden. Just as the skeleton of an animal determines its shape and function, so will these plants play an important role in establishing the foundation of the garden. The selection and placement of these plants should be done first and should involve careful though and consideration.
Planting at the second level has the most functional role to fulfill. It must fill in or separate spaces, creating bulk in the planted areas as well as providing wind shelter and screening where necessary. It will form the major structure of the landscape and provide the background for the smaller decorative plants, but should also be visually pleasing in itself.
These plants give the garden its stability and should mostly be evergreen, although the use of a few deciduous shrubs such as hydrangeas and flowering quince can add interest and indicate seasonal changes.
When it came to the last category of plants, the decorative level, my adherence to a carefully thought-out plan broke down completely. It's not that I don't do any planning at this level. I carefully think about color schemes, placement of plants and other considerations. But the decorative beds are constantly changing. Plants are frequently coming and going, as annuals die or plants are moved to different spots where they will grow and look best or are given to friends to make room for new plants I want to grow.
At this level, plants are put in at a whim and designs are often spur-of-the-moment inspiration. Here the horticulturist in me dominates – controlled by the garden designer just enough not to create a garden riot.
I can get away with this because the rest of the garden and landscape including structures, walkways, patio fences, trees and shrubs were carefully thought out and placed. If I make a mistake at the decorative level, it is temporary or easily corrected. Putting a patio or major tree in the wrong spot, however, is not so easily dealt with.
When choosing plant material for a landscape, size is of the utmost importance. Not just how big it is when you buy it, but how big it will ultimately get and how fast. Over planting and overgrown plants can ruin the most carefully planned garden. What we need to keep in mind is scale. Scale deals with the concept of using plants and features that are appropriately sized to fit comfortably into the size of the garden and with each other. You should tend to favor dwarf and slow growing plant materials when smaller shrubs are desired.
A well planned landscape is a delight both for its beauty and in how well it provides for the needs of the family that uses it. Whether you are creating a new landscape or improving on an existing one, don't forget that thinking things through and making well considered decisions is far better than jumping into the water before you learn how to swim.