6 suggestions for taking your property from common to vibrantly diverse

Story and Photography by Garry Menendez

On a residential scale, is there a difference between a landscape and a garden? Most homeowners would say that the land surrounding their home is well landscaped or that they had a landscaper install their plants. I love the landscapes in our region, but I do shudder a bit when I hear the word overly used to describe our exterior surroundings. If formal definitions are a necessity, it may likely be a matter of scale – with “landscape” referring to a larger area and a “garden” as a smaller area within that landscape. 

A whimsical garden portal leads visitors to the next room.

When you go to a restaurant and are being seated, I doubt you ask the host if you can have a table in the middle of the dining area that is totally exposed. More often, we say, “Could we have a booth please?” As humans, we would rather not have our back exposed. The same is true with successful garden design. When I’m designing for or consulting with a property owner who has a clean slate, I always try to help them prioritize their design implementation by directing them to work from the boundaries inward. Meaning go to the property lines, create an ample and diverse screen and then add another layer of horticultural interest between your home and that buffer. 

After passing through the gate, this treat awaits.

Think about contrast as well. Planting a white-blooming dogwood (Cornus florida) in front of a dark backdrop of conifers will make those blooms appear to float in the air. Enclosing your garden doesn’t mean building a fortress. Preserve some of that “borrowed scenery,” or shakai as its known in Japanese gardens and focus on screening undesirable views or develop a sense of enclosure around the areas you will spend more time.

There are many ways to define this term when it comes to garden design. To most, this means creating areas of understory interest beneath or in front of larger plants or canopy trees. We tend to think of plant layering as lower plants in front, and stepping up plant heights. It can also refer to creating an evolving plant community in layers within one area. 

There is a great book by Claudia West and Thomas Rainer called Planting in a Post Wild World in which they describe a method of layered planting to create dynamic and beautiful gardens without the use of mulch. There is not enough space here to go into detail, but the premise is to create more than mulch collections by planting in layers and allowing functional, spreading plants (often from seed) to cover the ground. Through this layer seasonal theme, plants will emerge while the “bones” of the planting design give the garden structure.

When it comes to garden design I am more of an informal guy. Clipped boxwood hedges and white-only blooms are just fine for many, but if you could see our Christmas tree, you would understand. I love diversity. When you have a full and diverse garden, the plants tend to fill any gaps and keep unwanted weeds at bay. Or it may be that with enough variety, an occasional weed may go unnoticed. 

Plant diversity grabs one’s attention in this attractive garden entry.

At the risk of being shrugged off by a few, I will add that diversity in your lawn is also much friendlier to our planet than trying to keep everything foreign out. The chemical manufacturers would have you believe that the minute you spot clover or violets in your turf, it’s time to go on the attack. (I do draw the line at crabgrass for whatever reason. Maybe its because it is of no use to our pollinating insects.)

If you don’t have a blank slate, this may mean less to you. But being able to move comfortably from one garden room to another is the key to a successfully laid out garden. Think about a hierarchy of paths as well. As opposed to the entry to a home (paved and 3-5 feet wide) an intimate garden path should be just wide enough for one person and perhaps a wheelbarrow and can be mulch, turf, crushed stone, or other soft, pervious material. As with so many elements in a good garden though, this path should be well defined with appropriate edging materials so that the lines remain crisp and orderly.

What was once a difficult side lawn to maintain is now a welcoming passageway from front to back.

Where beds are deep, don’t be afraid to create means of access so that you and your visitors may explore the plant collections and perhaps discover some hidden details. I was once laying out such a path and discovered that a width of exactly two bricks (16 inches) was perfect since you want to slow down in these spaces and perhaps literally smell the roses.

Focal Features
I am not saying this is for everyone, but visitors to our garden will often find themselves in a type of “Eye Spy” setting, looking for tiny discoveries tucked into nooks. For the average person it is more likely that just a few well-placed pieces of outdoor art or “yart” (yard art) is enough to create interest. 

If you have had an opportunity to visit an art gallery, you probably noticed how the open space between pieces of art is essential, avoiding visual overload. The same is true in most garden settings (bedsides ours). Place a focal point, whether live such as a specimen plant or a sculpture, far enough away from any competition. Just like in the gallery the eyes need a break from excitement.

Garden phlox (P. divaricata), poppies (Papaver spp.), and mayapple (Podophyllum spp.) are considered ephemeral (fading away after their display), but they occupy what would otherwise be bare soil – a gardener’s nightmare.

Details And Plant Communities
When creating an inspirational garden, the beauty really is in the details. I confess that in the past I was one of those designers who left plenty of space between plants, allowing them ample room to grow and fill in over many seasons. Maybe it’s age and the thought of mortality now, but my pendulum has swung the other way. Pack it in. Plant for today. Make it your goal to see no mulch within three to five years. Life really is short, so why look at so many square feet of brown (mulch)? 

Gardening is fluid. Don’t be afraid to plant temporary placeholders while you wait for a nearby plant to mature. Keep those wonderful garden centers and growers in business. 

Here’s another thought: Dig, divide, and replant some of your own favorites. Consider plugs or seeding rather than feeling compelled to purchase gallon-sized pots. (I’m speaking here of mainly the detail/ground cover layer and not woody plants.)

While this is in no way intended to be a complete tutorial, I hope it has allowed you to see your and other gardens with new eyes. There was a time when gardening was considered the number-one hobby of many Americans. Sadly, I think it has been replaced by staring at one’s phone. Go out there and get cracking on your living canvas. So many plants. So little time

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