Designing a Garden

Designing a garden is one of the things I love to do. In fact, when I lived in Des Moines, IA, I opened my own small company, “The Gardener’s Apprentice,” and created designs for a few people before moving away in 1997. I’d pore through catalogs, create detailed plant lists, measure carefully, take note of the sun/shade conditions and drainage, and wound up, if I do say so myself, with some pretty damn awesome designs.

While I lived with my mother, I designed two gardens from scratch. I’ll share those designs in other posts.

But now it’s been almost ten years since I was able to do any designing. How excited I am to begin again!

The Island Bed’s Design

I’ve saved all the perennials from the island bed that sits between the two halves of my driveway. Here are progress pictures:

There are still some patches of greenery that are not things I want to save. I will dig out a small patch of the fuzzy coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ you can see to the left of the small dark evergreen, and we missed a couple small clumps of daylilies. Also, a dark burgundy hibiscus is finally coming up, and that has to come out for placing elsewhere. But almost all the rest is garbage. I really want to take out the two dwarf conifers, so I’ll root prune them now and then transplant them elsewhere in fall. In addition, I have not yet done anything about the damned trumpet vine suckers.

Still, I’m ready to design the new planting. I don’t know how everyone else does it, but this is my technique:

  1. I make a tentative list of plants I want to use in this garden, along with their heights, spreads, flower/foliage colors, and seasons of bloom. Then it’s on to the outside.
  2. Fasten one end of a long tape measure to one end of the garden, as close to the center as possible. Position is so it will get the length, not the width.
  3. Stretch it out down the length of the garden, lock it, and lay it down so that the numbers all face up.
  4. Draw that center line on graph paper on a clipboard. If it’s not very big, you may want to use two squares to a foot, otherwise make it one square to a foot. (Honestly, down the road one square may be easier to deal with.) Make a mark on the line for each foot.
  5. Go back to the beginning and, with a second tape measure, measure the width of the garden from the zero inch position to the edge. Write the number of inches down on your graph. I suggest putting this figure well outside where the final drawing will go.
  6. Continue measuring this half of the garden for each foot and writing down the inches. If there is a big change at a 6″ mark, write that down, too.
  7. Go to the other side and repeat steps 4 and 5.
  8. Note: If you have existing plants that will stay (such as my weeping pea tree), mark their positions while you are measuring.
  9. Remove the fixed tape measure and go indoors.
  10. Using the inch figures you took, make a dot the appropriate distance from the center line at each foot, all the way around.
  11. Connect the dots, and there you have your outline.

Here’s the diagram of the island bed I created by this method:

Island Bed Master

Island Bed Master

Note that I didn’t mark the positions of the existing plants on it. This is because I had to redraw it from the original. I filled those in before starting on the design. The “Dead Zone” is the place in front of the mailbox where not even weeds will grow.

Left to right equals south to north. The street runs perpendicular to the mailbox.

Now comes the fun part of garden design

Using my list of plants, I begin to place them on a copy of the master plan. (I should not here that I scanned the master into a graphics program, then redrew the entire grid because it was too light in the scan. Before I had a scanner, I used to redraw the whole form again and again – and again.)

Here’s where I ran into trouble because I’d used two squares per foot. I kept putting the plants’ widths in at one square per foot. That meant a perennial with an 18″ spread used a square and a half when it should have used 3 squares. SIGH. I had to start over.

Here’s as far as I’ve gotten, with the key below:

Island Bed Design 1

Island Bed Design 1

Island Bed Design 1 key

Island Bed Design 1 key

The line drawn 6″ in from the margins of the garden is to indicate that I want to edge the entire bed with white sweet alyssum.

(I absolutely could not find a pencil with a good eraser, which accounts for all the blurry bits.) On my key I also wrote down only brief descriptions, so here is the actual list:

  1. Canopy of weeping pussy willow tree
  2. Clematis x durandii – a non-vining blue clematis that I’ll try to train up into the canopy.
  3. Thuja ‘Teddy Bear’ – a small globe arborvitae that I cut in half two winters ago by driving over it in the snow. It’s too close to the driveway and needs to be moved.
  4. Chamaecyparis ‘Gold Threads.’ A fairly large golden false cypress that is also too close to the driveway and needs to be moved.
    Note: I don’t want to put these two back into this bed. I plan to root prune them within a few days, then transplant in fall.
  5. Existing daffodils.
  6. Heliopsis ‘Loraine Sunshine’ – a variegated-leafed plant with yellow daisy flowers. These will fill in and cover the dying daffodil foliage.
  7. Sedum ‘Frosty Morn’ – an upright sedum with green and white variegated leaves and white flowers in fall. I have only one of these, but I plan to split that one into two or three. This is a contrast plant amid the yellows.
  8. Daylily 'Going Bananas'

    Daylily ‘Going Bananas’

    Hemerocallis ‘Going Bananas.’ My original thought was to create a vignette with these daylilies and the shasta daisy ‘Banana Cream.’ Now it turns out they may not bloom at the same time, but I’m still going to give it a shot.

  9. Shasta daisy ‘Banana Cream.’ The size information on this is all but useless: “18-36×18-20.” Eighteen to 36 inches tall is a BIG difference! But there’s not much I can do about it, so I positioned it at an 18″ width, hoping it will stay at a sedate 18″ tall, and went on.
  10. “Golden Rayed Lily of Japan.” That’s what the catalog calls it.
  11. Hemerocallis ‘Marque Moon.’ This daylily is almost white with pale yellow edges – making a nice transition from this section into a white section.

I have two more bright yellow plants – daylily ‘Siloam Amazing Grace’ and (coming in fall) dwarf iris ‘Baby Blessed.’ These are going into the nursery bed. Again, they’d make a great match of close color but entirely different form, but I’m not sure they will bloom at the same time.

Artemisia 'Silver Mound'

Artemisia ‘Silver Mound.’

There will be four colors in this garden – yellow, blue, orange and white. I always use white as an accent color and may well use it as a divider between the color pools here. The trick in that case is to find long-blooming white-flowered plants that don’t get very wide. One possibility is artemisia ‘Silver Mound,’ which gets 12″ tall and 18″ wide, but I might be able to keep it pruned to 12″ wide. Whatever I do, I want a perennial for this use, not annuals.

I may also decide to put a narrow (no more than 15″) pathway from top to bottom through the widest part of the garden for easy access to plants in the center for care and maintenance. Whatever the surface is, it will have to be soft enough to kneel on. I’ll be looking at plants at for possible choices.

Obviously this design has a long way to go. I have only two blue plants at this time, but several orange perennials, including daylily ‘Mighty Chestnut’ which is in the header of my blog. I’ve chosen the others to compliment that daylily using similar colors but widely divergent form and foliage – heuchera (coral bells) with curly leaves and spikes of tiny flowers, achillea with its flat-headed plates of flowers and ferny foliage, and two irises (that won’t be here till fall). I was tempted to move my ‘Tuscawila Tigress’ daylilies into this area, but their flowers are far larger than those of ‘Mighty Chestnut’ and might overshadow them.

I’ve got a lot more enjoyment ahead of me as I continue designing this garden.

Photo credits:
Artemisia ‘Silver Mound’:  Valleybrook Gardens/Flickr
Daylily ‘Going Bananas’: Sharon Dowdy – UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

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