Operating by the seat of your plants

Plants will always be inspiring and after years of walking around with a plant in one hand and a shovel in the other trying to find a place to plant it, I have learned 10 easy to follow rules to a better home landscape design. Walking and running through neighborhoods it is easy to see who had a plan, who had a concept, and who was operating by the seat of their plants.

If you “over do” it you will have a do over on your hands. Use the look around rule. Avoid what we call monoculture. Too much of one thing can be a problem. Diversity is important in the landscape. If you plant too much of one type of plant and a problem crops up like an insect or disease, it will spread like wildfire without a proper amount of diversity in your yard. Look around your yard, your neighbors yard, is there a plant that is let’s say, over done? Approach your landscape in bite size pieces. It’s more fun that way and gives you opportunity to change your mind as you go.

Landscape design concepts

It is possible that opposites initially attract in relationships but over time they will drive each other nuts. People tend to gravitate toward those of similar tastes and characteristics. Unlike people plants don’t walk or talk so they have a natural understanding of their differences in the landscape. I know that in the landscape, opposites do attract and make for a better look. Use opposites in color, texture and form. For example the colors blue and yellow are opposites on the color wheel. Together in the landscape they make for stunning partners. Another example would be form. If every plant had small leaves the look would quickly become confusing and cluttered. Use of large leafed plants with small leafed plants allows the plants to show off their unique characteristics as part of the whole presentation. The landscape will be less busy to the eye and more focused. Each character gets to play a role. Ornamental grasses are perfect for adding foliage differentiation to deciduous flowering shrubs or large leafed perennials.

The law of similarity would imply that similar things tend to be grouped together. The individuals become a group visually as opposed to a collection of individuals. To show off a focal point for the wow factor the supporting group needs to complement the star of the show by NOT having similar form or size and texture. It’s like the supporting cast showing up in the same dress as the diva in the performance. Not a good idea and it’s going to ruffle some feathers. In the landscape the focal point “diva” is usually the plant you shelled out a lot of money for at the garden center.

View your landscape as though you are taking a picture. Visual composition understands “Positive space” the main focus and “Negative space” the background. Negative space is not meaningless. Negative space supports the foreground or positive space in the picture. Positive and negative space together tell a story just like your landscape. Each with a role to play, focal point or wow plants are supported by foundation plantings often evergreens that provide the bones and structure of a well designed landscape. Plants like people consist of movie stars and those that are content to play a supporting role. It’s just the way it is in life.

Use unequal, not measured spacing. Use your tape measure for building stud walls or installing cabinets. In most cases plants in a row with equal measured spacing do not look natural.
After you apply rule 3 above; add the rule of planting in odd numbers. Generally plants in groupings of 1,3,5,7 etc. look better than even numbered groupings. A good example would be the ubiquitous practice of two identical plants on either side of the front entrance steps or opposite corners of the house. I think the person who started this was the same person who started the ill advised “volcano mulching” around trees. A misdirected practice that for some reason was copied by others as a generally accepted practice. How boring.

Use curved borders or edging and tie it all together with a continuous border. A recent study I read suggested that curved beds alone could add to the value of your house by 1% to 2%. If you are talking about a $200,000 home, that’s $2,000 to $4,000 dollars! Once you’ve established the curved borders, consider a plant material that can tie it all together. The law of continuity proves that points connected by curving lines are seen in a way that follows the smoothest path. The flow is seen as belonging together. Remember point 1 above where we strive for diversity in plant material in the landscape? Now that you have a diverse group of plants, pick one type of low growing plant for the border to tie it all together……it works!

The view from your window indoors is important too!

Ask yourself (on paper) a lot of questions before you start as it regards to your intentions for the landscape. What is the purpose of my landscape or this area of my landscape? What is my favorite garden use? Entertaining? Tanning? Bird Refuge? Bocce ball? Impress the neighbors? What is my favorite garden mood? Seclusion? Natural and unkempt? Bright and happy? Shady and mysterious? What is my favorite sensory effect, sight, and smell, hearing, taste or touch? How about favorite garden feature? Fountain? Pond? Path? Statue? Furniture or favorite chair? Specimen plant? By asking these questions and putting them on paper you can do some goal setting for your landscape.

In the midwest and northeast of the country, the side of the house you plant on and the winter exposure to the plants is an important consideration. I find the east side of the house to be a great area for planting. Plants like roses and hydrangeas seem to do well on the east side. The south and west side of the house provide plenty of light in summer but can be harsh, especially in winter to evergreens and broadleaf evergreens. The unforgiving structural shade of the north side of the house can be difficult for plants that need a little more light. Take all four seasons including winter into consideration when selecting the exposure for your plants. Plants susceptible to winter sun and wind like broadleaf evergreens (Rhododendrons) or susceptible deciduous (Hydrangea macrophylla or Japanese Maple) may prefer the cover of a north or east exposure. Be attentive to natural microclimates in your landscape and plant species accordingly. Some plants thrive in my landscape with the protection of the north side of a structure (when the sun is low in the south in winter) or the east side of the home where the snow piles in winter (natural insulation) due to prevailing winds from the west.

Put a shovel in the ground! Working in organic material for good drainage and a good ratio of oxygen to moisture retention capability is so important. Mix amendments in with the parent or existing soil 50/50. Dig a hole in the soil where you intend to plant and fill the hole with water. Observe what happens. Does it drain quickly? Slowly? Doesn’t drain at all? This simple test will tell you a lot about what you need to do to make the planting area a good habitat for the plant. Composted manure, compost, leaves, peat moss and other organic material worked in liberally with the existing soil in the planting area will allow your landscape to thrive. What was it the presidential candidate Ross Perot always said in his campaign? “Measure twice cut once”. A famous Abraham Lincoln quote was, “If given 6 hours to cut down a tree I will spend the first 4 hours sharpening the axe. When working with plants look down first not up. A good foundation is a recipe for success.

Pull it all together with an exciting border

Consider the eventual plant size. Don’t put a plant within 2 feet of another that will eventually grow to 5 feet! Do your homework. Take the mature estimated size of both plants and divide by 2. This will give you proper spacing between the plants for future growth. If you don’t, soon you’ll be moving or pruning one or both of the plants! It is less important with perennials as most of my perennials are eligible for frequent “flower” miles they travel so often. That’s half the fun of perennials, being able to bend over and split your plants. With trees, evergreens and shrubs however a bad placement can create dilemmas down the road. Don’t let a poor placement eventually “shrub” you the wrong way.

Design the garden to be viewed from the inside as well as the outside. Grow a diverse group of plants as well as plants that tend to give 3 to 4 seasons of interest. This will give you something to enjoy year round from your vantagepoint whether inside or outside the home. Look at your landscape from inside the house before putting a shovel in the ground. A landscape should not be installed simply for curb appeal. Enjoy it from that favorite window in your home. Select some plants that work hard for you providing 3 to 4 seasons of interest. As an example I have always tried to incorporate an Oak leaf Hydrangea. Pretty oak leaf shaped foliage in spring, gorgeous panicles of bloom in summer, stunning dark burgundy color in fall, and cinnamon exfoliating bark in winter.

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