Getting a feel for garden design

Does your garden ever seem to be a bit of a challenge? Is it a thankless task to maintain? – too small for all the things you would like to fit in? Too shady? Too exposed? Is it square and boring? An awkward shape where nothing seems to fit? Is it too steep, nothing but clay and either sopping wet or bone dry?

Believe it or not, with some basic knowledge of design many of these problems transmute, Jekyll and Hyde-like, into the chance for something surprising and different.

If you think design is a bit of a mystery, esoteric, or just for those who can draw, then start to think again. Design is actually a set of tools and, once you understand how to use them, you can get much more from the space around your home than you could have ever imagined. Professional designers have trained and practiced for years, of course and deal with the really difficult problems with the most elegant solutions, but you can still achieve something very worthwhile.

Let’s start with scale – large sections can be easy care – designed to be both varied and low maintenance. The key is to have big areas which are easy to keep because they consist of trees, ground cover planting and low maintenance surfaces such as pebbles and grass in simple shapes (without complicated edges and obstacles for the mower). The photos below show one of my beachfront gardens – only just built. It is designed to be absolute lowest maintenance. Note the shell and pebble mulches and the easy lawn shapes with mowing edges. The planting is hardly visible yet but will fill out with time and the climbers on the pergola and trellis will furnish the living court.

Renowned Californian landscape architect Isobelle Green also uses pebbles for mulch. The photo below shows how stunning they can look with mature planting.

As this photo also shows, other parts of the garden, especially those nearer the house, can be more varied and detailed and a good place to put plants which need a lot of tender loving care (you are less likely to forget about them if you walk past them every day). In design terms, complex design like this suits small spaces because the intricate scale can be fully appreciated at close quarters.

The design principle here is that the scale of the garden should reflect the distance from which it is most often seen.

So the tiniest townhouse garden can be transformed from cramped and pokey to delightfully intimate by carefully arranging of paving, individual plants, pots, sculpture, pools, driftwood etc. This is photo shows a details of a tiny courtyard I designed, with miniature pool, fountain and water lily.

There is another trick worth mentioning here. If you put bold foliage plants in the foreground and small leaved, finely branched plants in the background you will stretch the space – give an illusion of it being larger because our eyes are used to interpreting smaller things as further away in perspective. This works particularly well if the shapes of the plants and their leaves are similar but of different sizes (e.g. Ligularia reniformis in the foreground and Asarum europaeum or native Gunnera prorepens in the background).

Colour works too. Warm colours, especially red and orange and dark shades (eg Canna varieties), ‘advance’ and cool pale colours like pastel blues (e.g the common climber Plumbago capensis) and lilacs ‘retreat’. Not just flowers, but also foliage can have this effect. Bold form against a simple background advances. Look at this Vriesia fillipokoeberg against dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus nana) and the red Canna in the photos below.

By contrast, the blues of Carex trifida and the fine foliage of other sedges make the garden in the photo below feel spacious.

Another way of getting more from a small space is to place an ‘eye catcher’ in a strategic position near the boundary of the garden (or even beyond it if possible). This attracts your eye from the foreground to the distance and encourages you to explore the space. To work best it should be surrounded with simple background materials, and not with other specimens vying for your attention.

As for the other ‘problems/opportunities (“probortunites”?) I mentioned earlier, shaded gardens let you grow a classy range of plants that would not survive in full sun (especially in the northern parts of New Zealand), awkward shapes can be tweaked by artful patterns, steep banks can give us ‘hanging gardens’ and so on.

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