Design your own garden

August is a quiet month in the life of a gardener — a wonderful time to relax and enjoy our creations.  Spring weeding and planting activities are far behind us and fall clean-up chores are still weeks away. 
And, since you can readily see what aspects of the garden you like or don’t like, August is also the perfect time to mull on changes you might want to make sometime in the future and even experiment with your design ideas on paper.
So, whether you have a minuscule garden that you would love to expand, or a huge garden that cries out for a makeover, here are some suggestions for how to get started.
Think like an artist
Creating a lovely garden is an inherently visual process, not unlike making a lovely painting.  We love to ponder which plants will bloom together and all the different ways we might combine them to produce a kaleidoscope of beautiful images — ever-changing throughout the season.  Indeed I often have visions of  plein-air artists like Claude Monet, working outdoors in diffuse natural light, carefully mixing their paints to recreate their mesmerizing gardens on canvas.
But I am also mindful that, before putting a dab of color on the canvas, many 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 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 finally, they take note of the edges — the lines formed on the canvas where the positive and negative spaces abut one another — that are another component of the picture’s spatial composition.
Pictures on the ground
And, as with a lovely painting, the foundation for every beautiful garden is a compelling spatial composition that delineates the different garden spaces and the way they interrelate.  It is like making pictures on the ground.
Furthermore, since the spatial design shows the size and shape of the individual beds, it becomes your basis for choosing the plants — trees, shrubs and perennials — that will populate those beds.
As I look out across my own garden I am continually struck by the interplay of the shapes of all the different spaces — the flowerbed, lawn, paths and sitting areas — that are loosely organized around an imaginary axis running 45 degrees to the house. And, off in the distance, an outer border — in my case a meadow and the forest — frames this whole picture.
Closer to the house, of necessity, most of the edges are functional and straight. However, as I look beyond the vicinity of the house, the edges — such as the lines that separate the flowerbeds and the lawn — are gently curved.
Furthermore, since my garden is on a hillside, in most places that involve is a change in elevation I have used a retaining wall to delineate the different spaces (such as lawn and flowerbed) on either side. Thus retaining walls also act as edges in the design.
Like many of us, I seem to spend considerably more time looking out across my garden from my kitchen window than actually out there strolling around. And, when seen from afar, it is the “big picture” that I see. I delight in the contrasting shapes of the various spaces, further enhanced by the vertical nature of the plantings, and the ever-changing colors of the larger flower groupings.  And this underlying composition, accentuated by plenty of woody plants, becomes the essence of the winter garden.
Of course, when I actually walk around my garden, then it’s the details, like a clump of lady’s slippers with delicate pink veining outlining their pouches, or the tapestry of leaves reflecting in a ground-level copper dish, that become the star attraction.
So the pleasure I get from my garden involves both types of encounters.
Judith used gentle curves to delineate all the beds in her own garden in Goshen. Photo by Dick Conrad
A harmonious whole
It always helps to start with developing your “big picture” on paper, by laying in the individual shapes of the various components — hardscape, paths, lawn and planted areas — and then experimenting with different ways to combine them into a harmonious whole.
For functional reasons straight lines will delineate many of the garden spaces around your house — especially the driveway and utility area, deck or patio, vegetable garden, as well as all paths — giving this part of the garden a certain formality. 
But, as you move away from these more functional areas, it is the flowerbeds, sitting spaces and paths that become the main focus, and thus form the positive spaces in your picture. Here smooth flowing shapes, such as one might see on a contour map, will impart a relaxed informal ambience to the finished design.
Typically these positive spaces will be surrounded and framed by the lawn, a space that invites us out into the garden and allows us to visit our plants up close. Thus the lawn is akin to the negative space in a painting, taking its shape from the beds and further dramatizing them.
However, as you proceed to refine the shapes of the positive spaces, it helps to check and recheck to make sure the shape of the lawn will be attractive in its own right.  Remember too that lawns must be easy to mow, without any sharp points or tight corners.
If you want to create a spatial design for your own property here, very briefly, are the main steps:
Make a drawing that shows what is currently there, including the outline of the house, paths, hardscape and beds. This is called the base plan. If possible draw this to scale (1/8 inch = 1 foot is ideal) using squared paper as a guide.
Cover your base plan with a large piece of trace paper and experiment with shapes and sizes for the new planted areas and sitting areas you would like to develop.
Gradually refine the shapes of all the various spaces, from both an aesthetic and a functional perspective. Aim for nice smooth shapes — no squiggly lines or awkward corners.
Make fewer but larger flowerbeds (which results in less edge to trim and thus lower maintenance) that are deep enough to hold between two and five layers of plants — so a minimum of five feet, but possibly up to 12 feet deep.
Ensure that the hardscape, especially a patio or a deck where people will sit and relax, is both attractively shaped and fully functional, with enough space for both table and chairs and for people to move around.
Make the paths easy to navigate by using straight lines or gentle curves. To allow two people to walk together, make your major paths four feet or more wide.
Shape the lines of any retaining walls to complement the other parts of your spatial design.
Once you are happy with how it all looks, place a clean piece of trace paper over everything, create a final drawing and get it reproduced on a copy machine.
With your spatial plan as your guide, now you can delve into choosing beautiful plants for your new garden beds. (This article from my blog provides a starting point.)
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 northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at northcountryimpressions.com.

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