Pictures on the ground: Planning your garden

It’s high summer and already some of us are contemplating next year’s garden. Perhaps this fall we will move some plants from one spot to another or maybe dig a completely new bed. And so the gardening cycle continues.
Creating a beautiful garden is an eminently visual process, akin to painting a beautiful picture. We ponder which plants will bloom together and how to combine them to produce a pleasing whole. We even conjure up images of plein-air artists like Claude Monet working outdoors in diffuse natural light, carefully mixing their paints to recreate their own mesmerizing gardens on canvas.
But we need to remember that, before putting a dab of color on the canvas, most artists spend considerable time conceiving the spatial composition for their painting — be it a still life, a pastoral scene, or an abstract mosaic. They contemplate the space the subject will occupy — often called the positive space — how it should be positioned, how much room it will need and how the different elements of the subject relate to one another.
They also consider the background — the negative space — that will surround and frame the subject. Differentiated from the subject in both color and texture, the negative space further dramatizes the final composition.
And, just like creating a beautiful painting, the foundation for a gorgeous garden is a compelling spatial design showing all the different garden spaces and how they interrelate. Designing garden spaces is like creating pictures on the ground.
A spatial design becomes your blueprint for the future, as you develop your garden over one or more years. And since it shows the size and shape of the individual beds, it becomes your guide as you choose the permanent plants — trees, shrubs and perennials — that will populate those beds.
As I look out across my garden from my kitchen window I am struck by the interplay of the different spaces — beds, lawn, hardscape and paths. And, off in the distance, the whole picture is framed by a meadow and the forest.
Of course, when I actually walk around the garden, then it’s the details, like a clump of lady’s slippers with delicate pink veining on the pouches, or the tapestry of leaves reflecting in the ground-level copper dish, that become the star attraction.
The pleasure I get from my garden involves both types of encounters. But, like many of us, I spend considerably more time looking across the garden from afar, so this in fact becomes the predominate way I experience it. And for six months of winter this is the only way I see my garden! Thus giving due attention to the big spaces will go along way towards making a pleasurable garden.
So let’s take a look at the different components of our gardens and how to create a spatial design that is both beautiful and yet functional, and stand the test of time.
If you are designing a new garden (or remaking an existing one) it helps to think about the individual shapes of all the components — hardscape, paths, lawn and planted areas — and how together they will form a harmonious whole.
For practical reasons some garden spaces will be edged with straight lines, giving them a certain formality. Obviously the outline of the house is all about straight lines. Thus the beds that abut the house will be at least partially straight-edged. And, to facilitate easy access to functional places — like the garage, woodshed or compost — the paths leading from the house are typically straight.
Also, the outline for the family vegetable garden, whether it is single large cultivated area, a series of narrow beds separated by paths or a collection of raised beds, is usually square or rectangular to expedite weeding and crop rotation.
But, as we move beyond the house and nearby functional areas into the rest of the garden, the use of curves tells us that we are moving into a different kind of space, one that is informal and natural.
Here the planted areas, often with smooth flowing shapes such as one might see on a contour map, become the focus of our attention, creating the positive space in our garden pictures.
Typically our planted areas are surrounded by lawn, a space which invites us into the garden and allows us to visit our plants up close. The lawn is akin to the negative space in a painting; it takes its shape from the beds and further dramatizes them.
It is important that the shape of the lawn is also attractive in its own right, with smooth edges and no sharp angles. And, since it must be easy to mow, this is another big reason to avoid sharp points and tight corners.
Next take a look at the shapes created by the hardscape and paths, and, last but not least, the outer edge of the cultivated garden. Just the simple trick of curving the line between the mown lawn and an unmown outer meadow can sometimes change the whole picture.
Here, very briefly, is how to go about designing a new area for your garden:
•  Using squared paper as a guide, make a map or base plan showing what is currently there, including the outline of the house, paths, hardscape and beds.
•  Cover your base plan with tracing paper and experiment with the outlines for the central parts of the garden, especially the planted areas and sitting areas.
•  Gradually refine your drawing, watching how the various spaces look, both aesthetically and functionally. Aim for smooth shapes without any squiggly lines or awkward corners.
•  Make fewer but larger flower beds (less edge to trim) that are deep enough to hold between two and five layers of plants — a minimum of five feet deep, but possibly up to 12 feet.
•  Ensure that the hardscape, especially a patio or a deck where people will sit and relax, is both attractively shaped AND functional, with enough space for both table and chairs and for people to move around.
Major paths should be a minimum of four feet wide to allow two people to walk together. All paths should be easy to navigate, either straight or gently curved.
Once you are happy with how everything looks, place a clean piece of tracing paper over everything to create a final drawing, and then get it reproduced at a copy machine.
In the next article we will look at how to fill your beds with beautiful plants.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.com.

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