A garden that’s a blank canvas might sound like every gardener’s dream: the chance to design and lay-out a planting scheme exactly how you’d like it, the endless possibilities of planting combinations, the opportunity to try out that brilliant water feature idea you’ve always wanted to build. But when it comes down to it, a garden that is truly a blank canvas can seem a bit daunting – where do you start?
Luckily Vicky Adam, one of our own Grayshaw & Yeo gardeners, has recently completed the London College of Garden Design ‘Planting Design Diploma’, delivered at Kew Gardens, and was happy to share a summary of all that she learned on her 6 month course. Here are her ‘wow’ moments – the real nuggets of planting design ‘gold’ that she gleaned from her studies.
It’s really tempting to begin wth a list of plants and work backwards, fitting them into a design, but the best way to approach planting design is to step back and consider what the garden is for. Who’s going to use it? What’s it going to be used for? If it’s a family garden you’re designing for – used mainly at weekends or in the summer – then your plant choices might be very different from a planting design for a couple who entertain frequently throughout the year. You might also consider how the garden planting makes people feel…protected and enclosed, or open and vibrant.
Will the client see the planting from the downstairs kitchen window or mainly from an upstairs balcony? If the planting is surrounding a seating area then you can add in details, textures and scents that will be appreciated at close quarters. However, if the planting frames a distant view, or is seen in the distance, its worth considering more architectural plants, or repeat planting in blocks to create more visual impact. Knot gardens, for example are meant to be viewed both from the upstairs of a house, but also from the ground, as people wander amongst the pathways.
Flowers are beautiful, but they tend to have brief ‘moments in the sun’, so when designing a planting scheme it’s important to think about the overall form and texture of the plant as this is what the client will see throughout most of the year. Does the plant have an airy open structure or a dense, solid form? Getting a good balance of shapes and textures throughout the garden will help tie the planting together as a whole. This is especially worth considering when choosing trees – for example you may want to use a multi-stemmed specimen near a patio area to create views between the boughs, while the soft texture of stachys leaves would be great near a path for children to feel.
You can find colour inspiration from all parts of the plant. You might notice the yellow centre of an aster and pick that shade up in another plant elsewhere in the border. Repeating colours and plants throughout the scheme will help to relate one part of the garden to another, while keeping the overall palette restricted to a few shades or hues will create a harmonious effect.
By contrast if you want to create a vibrant, energetic scheme then you might increase the number of colours you use. Cooler, bluer shades recede, while hotter colours come forwards, but if you want the planting to make a dramatic impact and grab attention then mix the colours up – but take care; this approach is harder to manage as ‘busy’ schemes can easily become chaotic.
Light and shade, or tonal range is also important. This relates not just to areas of sunlight and shade in the garden but also to plants that are lighter or airier and those that are darker or denser. A good balance of tonal range in a design will stop a planting scheme from either being to ‘heavy’ or too ‘airy’; a contrast of tonal range will create drama and interest.
One of Vicky’s tutors said that a ‘garden that’s designed for year round interest can be a year round disapointment.’ This is a really interesting idea, as there’s plenty of newly published books on the shelves today persuading us to create ‘year round interest’, but there’s something rather nice about accepting that rarely (if ever) will all of a garden look good all of the time. This is where ‘character areas’ come into play, creating interest in specific parts of the garden at different times of the year. This serves to really celebrate and enhance each part of the garden that has something special at distinct points in the calender, rather than always trying to take it all in at once.
A beautiful fountain might be frozen and drab in midwinter, but planted with water lillies for summer colour it will be a really special annual highlight. Equally a swathe of cornus planted towards the end of the garden might not be noticed at all during the summer, but brings a flash of red and orange colour in the winter as the herbaceous planting dies back and the stems are revealed.
It’s important too make connections not just between the plants in terms of colour, texture and form, but also between the planting and the house and garden furniture. What colour is the house? What style is the client’s garden furniture? What is the surrounding landscape like? What are the local building materials like? Linking your scheme to things that can already be seen in and from the garden will help connect it to what’s already there. You may also need to design a planting scheme around plants that are already in situ, like old apple trees, hedges or treasured roses.
It’s tempting to get carried away with a design, but a good scheme will really meet the needs of the client – their colour preferences, tastes and how they’ll use the garden. It’s also important to consider how much maintenance they are willing to pay for or do themselves – this will influence the kind of plants you choose, and how much care they’ll need. Some clients may also have specific problems to overcome like harsh frost pockets or howling westerly winds, damage from deer and rabbits or waterlogged soil.
Last but not least, try to keep the planting on a human scale. Combine a variety of plants that have different heights, all of which create different effects for the passerby; a lofty tree might lead the gaze upwards, a perennial at eye-height might reveal the detail of a flower, while a low shrubby plant might encourage someone to bend down and ‘smell the roses’. What’s important is that each of these experiences is relative to the size of a human being. If all the planting is low and flat the detail can be overlooked; equally too many tall plants can create a feeling of being hemmed in and obstruct the view of the garden as a whole.
Vicky’s informative and lively talk gave us all some great advice on planting design and we hope that you to can take away some her ‘gems’ of advice to use in your own grden, too.