Lessons from English Gardens for Americans #2: 3-D Gardening

The second in a continuing series

It’s very easy when gardening to get stuck in two dimensions. After all, most garden plans are in two dimensions; as humans we tend to think in two dimensions; pictures, television screens and computer monitors are all two dimensional; despite giving the impression of 3-D. But gardens are VERY much three dimension creations, and verticality is the direction we most often overlook.

Take this wonderfully sculptural grouping of purple echeveria set in front of this stone summer house, below. On a plan this would merely be a 2×2 square, but instead, this is Rodin come to life. Think how different — and dull — this space would have been planted with some massing on the flat, like daisies or geraniums.   Many plants are grown specifically for their structural nature — Henry Lauder’s Walking Stick Comes immediately to mind — and we need to pay attention to this important sub-genre of plants when we think about garden design.

Below’s another great example: clematis happily climbing a pillar. Clematis have recently become my new best friends. Many years ago on the Victory Garden I did a feature at a small specialty mail order nursery that grew only clematis. On a lark, I went back there last summer and was fascinated with the incredible beauty and variety of these easy-to-grow plants. I purchased way more than I should have, and set about tucking them hither and yon in the garden. For some, I built simple rustic supports made out of branches trimmed on the property (which become sculptures in themselves). Others I merely tucked about to clamber up lilacs, fences, roses, wherever they wished, taking advantage of the natural support their neighbors offered them. And what a result: beautiful form and flowers in what before had been empty air.vertical 2Fences and walls are particularly valuable for this. Why not take advantage of the surfaces they offer to fill your garden in fragrance and flower, like the stone wall covered with self-seeding wallflowers below?

vertical 4When I was a kid, the late Jack Horkheimer was the director of the Miami Planetarium. He had a weekly  2-minute spot on Sunday night PBS, telling viewers what planets or space phenomena to look for that week. He was quite the showman, always ending his broadcast with swelling music and the heartfelt admonition: “Keep Looking Up!

I’d offer that we gardeners would benefit from the same!


Lessons from English Gardens for Americans #2: 3-D Gardening — 7 Comments

  1. Great lesson Michael! Thank you.

    I have to keep reminding myself of just how much space there is in even the smallest gardens if we just simply look up. I have climbing hydrangeas, roses and even some varieties of annual morning glories which seem to re-seed every year. My luck with clematis has not been great, however your article has inspired me to try again. I might just make room for one or two varieties. As Christopher Lloyd used to say, don’t complain about not having room in your garden, stick a post in the ground and plant a climber.

    All the Best,

  2. Hi Peter. A quick followup on the clematis. I had mixed luck too, until I followed the advice of the specialty grower at Completely Clematis. 1) New plants can’t dry out until established, and they take a while to establish. Don’t expect too much the first year from most varieties. 2) Rabbits and deer love clematis. They must be protected with a foot high narrow metal mesh collar, or they will be continually eaten down to stumps. 3) Most varieties benefit from a hard pruning after flowering, which will cause a new round of growth. Also check out the specialty varieties.

  3. Michael, My garden also is filled with Clematis. Vertical color, and long lasting blooms. I have a traditional “Chicago Style” 1920’s Bungalow. And I think they are perfect adding vintage charm in the garden. Over the arbor, on the fence, and yes even filling in on the lilacs, and forsythia bushes.
    Thank you Michael for all the information for my “Bungalow Garden!” Cheers and all the best! M.

  4. Nice post and great information. Need to start protecting my clematis that live in the “bunny zone!”

  5. Oh, and I should add one other important tip: unlike almost every other plant, you should bury the crown 3-4 inches below the surface of the soil. This goes contrary to standard advice, but it allows the clematis to have several growth nodes below the surface of the soil in case of accident above. The crowns work themselves up over time, so if you are dividing an existing plant, reset the crown to a deeper level.

  6. We have a vinyl sided garage and we have a blank section where I would love to put a clematis there but I’m wondering what you think the plant will do to the siding…Will it burrow under the vinyl?

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