Four Quick Lessons in Garden Design

Several years ago my sister Cindy and I traveled to England. We passed a few delightful days in London, then went down to Dorset to spend a week at a small inn that specializes in garden tours. The setting was utterly charming, a 17th century thatched building nestled in a tiny village in the thick of Thomas Hardy country, and for once the accommodations completely lived up to their billing – a rarity in travel these days. We spent a fascinating week seeing some of the loveliest landscapes in the world during the day, followed by a delicious dinner each evening.  Then, after the meal, my sister and I would retire to the little house at the rear of the garden, overlooking the pastures leading up to the Iron Age fort on Hamblin Hill, sitting and talking as the sun slowly sank behind the old stone wall and the last of the bees retired after a hard day’s labor amongst the lavender blossoms.  Truly Magical. When I got home, I realized that what had made that spot so special was that you were actually able to enjoy the garden from within in the garden, rather than from afar. Seeing – and smelling and touching – flowers close up is a far different experience than watching from a distant patio or picture window, no matter how delightful the view. So that fall, motivated by what I had experienced, I set about making some changes to my own garden, building the small shed (from a kit, very easy to do) and seating deck (not so easy) you see above (which I call the bee house, as it shelters all my apiary supplies) where you can go on a warm late spring afternoon and sit among the first roses, peonies and clematis, and while a way a half hour, or hour, or two, with a book or a cocktail, or a friend, or all three. Later, the Oriental lilies take over, providing a breathtakingly beautiful perch in July. In building this space, I kept in mind four guiding principles, which work equally well in every garden:

1) The first, and most important, I’ve already shared: you need a space IN your garden to appreciate your garden to its fullest.

2) Color is crucial to creating pleasing garden space, and it doesn’t always have to come from the plants. Hardscape can carry color – as it often does in Europe, but rarely here. In my garden the two electric blue Adirondack chairs light up the spot even on the grayest day. (I must admit I was rather dubious about this color at first, but after seeing it in England, decided to try it here. I love it. Other colors that work well for furniture are dark Chinese lacquer red and chartreuse.) Note too the pop given by the lime green smoke bush cotinus coggygria ‘Golden Spirit’ to the right of the shed. Variegated foliage, as I wrote in a previous post, is a wonderful way to add color to the landscape throughout the season.

3) European gardens, often small, need to make use of every square foot. Imitate them and think vertical. Vines are highly underutilized in our gardens, and are often the best means to link structure to landscape.

4) Good plant combinations are essential to good gardening: why not get a double bang for your buck whenever you can? Here the antique bourbon rose’ Zepherine Drouhin’ (thornless by the way, and perfect for seating areas) mingles with clematis “Hyde Hall.’


Four Quick Lessons in Garden Design — 1 Comment

  1. That looks like a wonderful spot to rest. There’s always something so wonderful and charming about cottages or sheds or benches nestled in the trees. Magic. And I love the idea of red laquered chairs, although your blue ones look wonderful too. And yes, England is so lush and green that it’s hard not to get inspired at every turn.

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