Newsletter Feature

GARDEN DESIGN (THIRD OF 3 PARTS): PAINTING IN THE REST by Barbara Shapiro

     Hopefully, you’ve inventoried your garden’s environment and thought about or even altered its structure, so now you can consider adding or subtracting plants. First, you need to decide what kinds of plants: a tree, some shrubs, perennials, annuals, bulbs, or ornamental grasses? Ask the basic questions: do you have sufficient room for a mature plant? Do you want to make room by removing something? Do the plants you want share the same cultural needs for soil, water and sun or shade? Are they going to be more high water or xeric? And, especially, will they provide winter interest? Do the rest of the plants and structures in the yard look good in winter? And, do you intend to add some pots and where would you put them? Can you provide the care they need? You might think about adding the bigger plants first: a tree or some shrubs. Both of those need adequate space for roots and deep watering.

     All plants need some attention annually to grow and look well. Think about their year-round appearance. Most blooming trees and shrubs have a short period of bloom: do they have a good leaf structure, fall color, or berries, or an appealing shape? Of course, they should be well adapted varieties for our climate. Flowering apples, cherries or plums are beautiful in the spring and are good looking trees, but you have to be able to deal with the fruit and fall cleanup and spring pruning. Evergreens are often a nice choice like a pine, a spruce or a juniper. But all of them shed cones and leaves, often twice a year, and the bigger ones take up a lot of space. Never plant them too close to the house or a solid wall. There are now available short or miniature pines and spruces that can grow well with less room and less trouble.   All evergreens might have to be sprayed in late spring or washed down to limit insect infestations. Do some research, try to see some examples and estimate size and care. Look at shape and see if it fits in with what you have or want. Consider whether they are to provide shade or act as a windbreak or privacy screen. Shrubs are often a good choice if you already have trees or don’t want to add tall trees: there are a huge variety, some of which take more water and some less, and some growing into smallish trees and others into compact bushes. A standard summer-blooming butterfly bush (the davidii species)can grow from 10 to 12 feet tall; bigger crape myrtles will often mature at 12 to 15 feet. Even a mature lilac can be 12 feet tall. Most desert willows can be grown as small trees or shrubs and chaste trees (vitex) usually grow to only 12 or 15 feet. All have seed and leaf and pod cleanup. All require some pruning in late winter. Most xeric shrubs tend to be smaller: some rosemary top out at 6 to 8 feet, but sand plum, turpentine bush, chamisa, fern bush and giant sage max out at about 5 feet.

     Shrubs needing more water like tall roses, forsythia, compact lilacs, sages, mock orange, winter jasmine, snowball viburnum, barberry, Oregon grape (mahonia), red-twig dogwood and spirea are usually under 6 feet. These shrubs will need pruning in spring, cleanup in fall and some attention to feeding during the growing season: the more native or xeric varieties need hardly any fertilizer if the soil is good.

     Softer plants like perennials, annuals, ornamental grasses and bulbs are usually the last consideration. They are your primary color and texture ornaments. They can also be replaced easily if you make a mistake about a plant’s color , you kill it or change your mind. But these plants are more than just ornaments. Even vegetable gardens can use them. Interplanting food plants with flowering herbs and other flowers attracts beneficial insects and pollinators. And vegetable gardens need not be boring. Take a look at some examples of what are called “potagers” or ornamental vegetable gardens on the internet. Consider an herb garden as a special attraction in the garden for useful but beautiful plants.

     Perennials usually take three years to reach a mature size but most will flower the first year. Annuals grow to maturity and flower in one year and are especially good in pots. Many perennials, bulbs and ornamental grasses have a good form and structure even when not in bloom; many also provide good seed heads in the fall and through the winter. Think about tall blades of Iris, the arching foliage of daylilies, the tall stands of Karl Forester feather reed grass, the tidy rounded clumps of blackfoot daisy, agave or claret cup cactus, mounds of garden pinks or clusters of sempervivum (Hens and Chicks) against rocks. These all do well in our climate. In choosing perennials, consider whether you want to repeat them or use a group of similar plants to create continuity in the garden. Three stands of tall grass; repeated clumps of pinks or blue fescue; staggered groups of silver artemesia or many groups of tall sword-like iris are just a few examples of how multiples of plants can hold a landscape together. The same thing can be done with color: repeating soft pinks or variations of pink; repeating reds or blues or whites can make a garden of varied plants feel more coherent and serene. Color is an important consideration. Remember that pale pinks, lavenders, ivories and blues are cool colors that tend to visually recede. Reds, oranges, bright intense blues, magentas, golds and violets are stimulating and attention grabbing. They come forward visually. Silvers and greens tend to be somewhat neutral unless they have patterns or variegation.

     In a small garden, one strategy is to emphasize paler, taller plants in the rear and the intensely colored plants lower and in the front. The garden seems larger with this arrangement. A color can also be intensified by putting together plants on the opposite sides of the color wheel: red with green; blue with orange; purple with bright yellow. The colors vibrate and seem more intense when put next to one another.

     Colors can also be emphasized by putting together variations of the same color with foliage or petals of different size: some with small petals and some with large. Think of the effect of putting together a florist’s bouquet of a bunch of small, white baby’s breath with a few large, white Asiatic lilies: the smaller, less pure white emphasizes the intense bigger white. The same effect can be produced in the garden with any color.

     Foliage is important because flowers do not bloom all year. Use different greens, silver, even burgundies. Avoid too much leaf variegation. Your shrubs and trees can offer this green pleasure as well, and are especially interesting when their foliage turns a different color in the fall.

     Also consider form. Too much of the same shape and height can become boring. One effective combination is to put a tall upright plant behind a mounding plant and then place a groundcover or low sprawling plant in front. Or, three tall upright plants in the rear, with some arching or mounding plants in front and then shorter plants below them. You can stagger the bloom times in these groups, too. Think about whether you want one of each or more of each. One garden rule (that can be broken!) is that plants seem to be visually more interesting if they are planted together in odd numbers: groups of three or five or even one, for example. 

     Bulbs are the first thing to bloom in Spring. You can gradually add them so you end up having a collection. Try to group them together, or mark where they are: you do not want to slice into them when you are digging around later in the year. Bulbs are a long term investment, just like perennials. And, many of them are not attractive to animals or birds, like daffodils, hyacinths, iris or ornamental onions (alliums).

     Measure out your space; try a rough sketch with colored crayons. Get some catalogues with pictures and descriptions. Most will tell you if plants need sun or shade, high or low water, average or moist soil and their winter hardiness. Remember that you need to be able to work around your soft plants for cleanup, feeding and pruning, so leave yourself room to walk around and work! But most of all, enjoy what you have wrought!