February 20, 2013

Garden design is not the same as interior design

Texture, color and form are all reconsidered in the 'off-season', when I revisit photos that I took in the previous growing season. Each winter, I can look and analyze my own plantings and make notes on what worked, and what didn't.

Snowy days in February are good for so many things - naturally, these long nights are intended for perusing seed and plant catalogs, for making infinite wish lists for the gardens, and of course, for hot chocolate ( the good kind - home made with dark Valrhona, cream and a touch of corn starch- liquid ganache, really - it can change ones life), but I digress.... My point here is that looking out of the window at the winter garden offers some great opportunities - the chance to dream (and plan) with an open mind. A photo of my garden from a warm July day suddenly doesn't look all that bad, it's so green and lush, but I can see the gaps, I can pick out the weak spots, areas where I could use more texture, and, I can see instantly why color when experienced in the garden, isn't just about the flower itself - it's more about the color-PLUS-all of that green, and that, my friends, is what this post is all about.

As we all dog ear and flip through catalogs making our wish lists, remember one thing - a close-up photo of a flower is rarely what it will look like once experienced in the garden environment. I learned this the hard way, and stopped snipping Pinterest-like clipping of flowers, taping them to a board to reimagine what my garden might looking. A garden is not a livingroom, and landscaping is not the same as interior design. But there are some similarities that might surprise you.

I start planning my summer projects early - in December, long before any catalog arrives, and long before websites are updates with the latest plant introductions. My secret? I look back at my photos from the previous year (we thank you for iPhoto Mr. Jobs). A little search for my metadata notes, and I can spend a cold, snowy, winters evening reminiscing - remembering plants that I wanted to order, plant combinations to try, and, time to study what works, and what doesn't in both mine, and in other peoples gardens.

The color of flowers when shown in plant catalogs can be very misleading. I have to contantly remind myself about the amount of green in a garden, sometimes, 90% green - essentially a green canvas, and sometimes, bright dots and specs of what may seem like a harsh color, is just what is needed. Rarely will any plant form a pool of pure color. You must allow you eye to mix green, gray and the floral color.

As a  creative director, I encourage designers I work with to be influenced first, and then to integrate that influence into their designs - not literally, of course, but allow it to inform what one creates. It's a practice many creatives perform - be they find artists or fashion designers - the design principals are the same, and even if you are not a professional garden designer, you too can learn from your own images.

Many of the images I am currently using for reference, are ones that I took at botanical gardens. I look at things like volume, space, texture and the quantity of plants used in a planting. Here are some of my notes, which I think you might find interesting.

1. It's all about the Cloud.

Airy panicles are best when planted in large clumps. In the Berkshire Botanic Garden ( above) various selections of Gaura lindheimeri are planted in a border in massive clumps. I've tried Gaura before, but only with single plants, and the effect was ( yawn), a little boring. This past September, when I visited the BBG, I took many photos of their fall borders, noting not only how many plants where planted together ( sometimes with 15 or more plants), but also how important the "cloud-effect" is.  Here, 6 plants together create a superstorm of color.

2. Pointillism Rules - Color in a catalog is not the same en-masse.

It's a trend we all see, but one we rarely practice. Sure, species Salvia are hot right now, but looking at a close-up of a plum colored salvia species in the Plant Delights Catalog is not the same as seeing a cloud of plum speckles in the border. One must consider the over-all effect. Professional garden designers only learn this from experience, so why not learn the same way they do? Refer to images, and note the over-all form that a clump of many airy plants makes. It's a but like photoshop, right? I may not like plum colored or red flowers when shot with a macro lens and then cropped and color corrected in a plant catalog, but sometimes ( mostly, really), the plant provides a completely different effect in the garden.

Think about scale, the over-all form of the clump, it's relative transparancy, how airy it is, think about the lighting - how the sun may illuminate the mass, or how it looks on an overcast day. Note how large the plant becomes by late summer, and note how many plants it took to get to the desired effect. I sometimes just keep photos which I know will inform me in a folder. I sometimes star them in iPhoto for future blog posts, or I open a Word file and make notes to myself about must-get plants ( like the Cuphea above - which I am still looking for).

3. I make notes about my own garden too.

Mistakes happen, as do opportunities. In the above photo from last July, I can see how 1 Helenium is not enough, I can imagine how 6 or 10 together will be more effective. I also can confirm what I at first may have believed to be a mistake ( orange in my color palette of violet and yellow), but in reality, the golden mango color is perfect.

4. Don't feel limited by green

OK. Green is indeed your canvas, but there are so many shades of green, so many that one could make a garden with just texture and shades of foliage. In the above image that I took at the Berkshire Botanic Garden last September, note not only the shades of green, but the forms each plant type makes. I sometimes shy away from red, but when sedums bloom on greyish stems, the puddle of grey green and mauve form great pools of color. Texture must be considered too, as grasses, spikey things like the pots of Phormium ( New Zealand Flax) and the silvery artemesia all combine to make forms. I have to become more confident about planting multiples, for imagine this garden with something we all do - planted in singles - just one plant of each specimen. The effect would be lost.

The same principal is applied here, at the xeric garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Sage, salvia and yucca along with many dryscape plants, many with silvery leaves and stems combine in a composition that again, would be boring if recreated with only single plants. Not that many of us can afford 10 or 20 of each plant, but start with 3 of each to learn, and then add every year. A practice I do often.

 5. Plant in 50 shades of Gray.

Verbascum spires, eriogonum and salvia proove that gray and silver can come in  many shades of grey, so although many of us may find green limiting, the truth is we are designing with plants, and we cannot escape the reality that foliage comes with some limitations. Explore the opportunity of stems, branchyness, spikyness and even fall and winter displays. Sunlight in the morning can transform a garden with dewy, fuzzy leaved plants, and a sunset with low angles of light in the autumn, can make a meadow sing.

I've been working on my front yard garden for a few years now, after first being inspired by a photo from a British garden that I had on my bulletin wall for a few years. It used berms ( piled soil to raise the bed level) and mass planting of heather, dwarf shrubs and other evergreens with texture, winter color and golden foliage mixed with silvery foliage. Each year I keep tweaking the composition, adding a dozen new erica here, removing a half dozen hosta, there. Most gardens - heck, all gardens are a work in progress, and surprises are inevitable. I tried a couple of Eremurus (Foxtail Lilies), a marginally hardy plant for us here in Massachusetts, but they not only survived (planted in gravel), they thrived. So each year I add a few more, never really at first considering the yellow motif, and how it might work with the violet salvia. In the winter, the heather and erica turn brilliant red, which when combined with the silvery leaved plants, turn the garden into a completely different palette.


  1. Evaluating and adding to a garden is one of my favorite things about garden design. I was at a client's house today going over with them the things that worked and making suggestions to replace things that didn't.

    As an art form a garden is ever changing and never quite finished. I think that is why it appeals to me.

  2. hopflower10:52 AM

    Agreed completely with all of those points. I am not a designer at all, having taken growing as my horticultural education; but I do appreciate those guides as being helpful to creating a successful garden.

    And of course, there are the peas. They always help!

  3. Great post. I've had an eye out for that tall cuphea since you first wrote about it. Wonderful coup to get the foxtail lilies to thrive for you.

  4. This is a wonderful post. Add to the tenets that what grows in the cool north is not always successful in the hot sun of the south, so adjustments are necessary in color and growing season, a lesson that was difficult for me.

  5. Nice post! Love your ideas here and your notes as well. Very impressive and interesting! Thanks for sharing!!

  6. Beautiful! Makes me long for summer, I wish it would hurry up and get here! I absolutely love that greenhouse, I would love, love, love to have that in my backyard!


  7. Great timing for this post. I really liked your "cloud" comments and want to try it this year.

  8. I that cuphea is to die for. Again, if anyone knows where I can score some see of Cuphea viscosissima, let me know! ( that means you too - savvy growers at Berkshire Botanic Gardens!) I'll trade something!

  9. Matt, I just ordered that cuphea from Chiltern's: http://www.chilternseeds.co.uk/item.php?id=417E


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