Category: Design

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Design your dream garden – Part 2

WORKING WITH PROFESSIONALS

If you are contemplating extensive changes to your yard, you probably should consider consulting a professional designer. This is especially true if your project involves the installation of expensive, permanent architectural features such as terraces, a swimming pool or pond, outbuildings, and stone or concrete walks, or if it involves substantial changes to the topography of your property, changes that will affect the drainage of storm water.

Broadly speaking, professional garden designers fall into two categories, and the type you employ should reflect the nature of your project:

* Landscape architects must be licensed in most states, which means that they must demonstrate a mastery of the techniques of design and construction. Look for the letters “ASLA” on the business card–membership in the American Society of Landscape Architects is limited to those who have completed an ASLA-approved degree program at an accredited university, have passed a professional board examination, and have three years professional experience. The nature of their education makes landscape architects experts on the structural elements of the garden and engineering issues such as grading and drainage. Their knowledge of plant needs and possibilities may be limited.

* Landscape, or garden, designer, in contrast, is a title anyone can assume legally. For a qualified professional, be sure that the person you hire has been certified by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD), since that guarantees competency not only in the principles of design but also construction. Landscape designers bring varying experiences and training to bear on garden-making, but most that I have encountered were drawn to their profession by a love of plants and planting. As a result, designers seem often to create gardens of more horticultural interest.

ADAPTED PLANTS

Discovering what species are native to your area makes the task of selecting plants that will flourish on your site much easier. Knowing that your lot was originally prairie, for example, suggests that ornamental grasses would be a smart choice.

You’ll find on-line information about the plants native to each region at the Web site of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (www.wildflower.org). Botanical gardens, horticultural society libraries, and the office of the Cooperative Extension Service are other inexpensive or free local resources that can help you with the selection of regionally adapted flora.

ELIMINATING TIME-WASTERS

Amateurs create the most interesting gardens, but you cannot beat professional landscape maintenance services for efficiency. Above all, they can tell at a glance the bottlenecks that eat up time and energy. That’s why it’s a smart investment to buy an hour’s time from some such professional to look at the plan of a new garden before you plant. If what you are planning is a makeover of an existing landscape, walk around it with the pro to identify existing time-wasters that should be eliminated. Typical bottlenecks include:

* narrow peninsulas and comers of turf that are hard to mow or require hand-trimming. Replace these with ground cover or mulch.

* weed-infested ground covers, which indicate the use of plants that are poorly adapted to their situation–sun-loving ground-cover perennials, for example, stuck in a shady spot. Replace with a better-adapted species or with a durable, decorative mulch.

* trees and shrubs that outgrow the spot in which they are planted and therefore require constant trimming. Replace these with plants whose mature size fits the location.

* hedges or geometrically trimmed shrubs that need regular barbering. Such features can substitute for expensive architectural features (walls, statuary, etc.), lending the garden a dignified formality, but to avoid a maintenance nightmare they should be used sparingly.

starting SMALL

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We Americans are a notoriously impatient bunch, and when we build a new garden we commonly favor a crash program. We’d do better, in my opinion, to follow the example of our plants. They start small, as seeds, cuttings, grafts, or divisions. Then they extend themselves gradually, which allows them to adapt to circumstances and work around obstacles, instead of running into them. The net result is something much better rooted into the landscape, and achieved at far less cost.

TRY IT OUT WITH ANNUALS

Once you’ve developed a planting plan, try it out with annuals before you commit yourself to more permanent (and expensive) shrubs and perennials. A band of sunflowers could suggest a future hedge or fence; morning glories could stand in for the wisteria or climbing roses you hope to have some day. You may find that the reality is less appealing than what you imagined it would be, or that some details of the plan simply don’t work. If so, don’t worry–the annuals were coming out in the fall, anyway.

BUILD FIRST WITH BAMBOO

Garden structures can be mocked up with bamboo poles lashed together with twine. You may find that the arbor you planned to shade the deck makes that space feel claustrophobic, or that the proposed fence actually follows an inconvenient route. In either case, it’s simple to alter, move, or remove your skeleton structures.

Above all, though, imitate the plants and start small. Confine your planting the first year to a single, modest bed of flowers, or a group of shrubs, or a vine-shrouded arbor. Finish this well and enjoy it. Then build on this success with more projects as you are able. The most common mistake of beginning gardeners is to over-commit, to till up a huge area and then watch with discouragement as it returns to weeds. A small success is a far better beginning than a spectacular (and expensive) failure.

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Design your dream garden – Part 1

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Winter, with its enforced idleness, can be a frustrating season for gardeners, but it does provide us with time to think. And thought–careful planning–is essential when you are getting ready to begin any new garden. “Starting from scratch” may translate into something as ambitious as a makeover of your entire yard, or it may be much more modest, accenting the entrance to your house with a bracket of flowers, perhaps, or planting a knot of culinary herbs outside the kitchen door. Whatever it is you are contemplating, remember this: Planning a new garden should begin with an analysis of what you already have.

ASSESSING YOUR SITE

It’s much easier to work with nature instead of against it–let the character of the site shape both the design of the garden and the choice of what you plant there. Features to consider include the following:

Topography: Is your yard sloping or flat? Does it sit on the top of a hill, or at the bottom–or maybe on the side? Hilltop sites are especially prone to wind and drought; hillside gardens are typically well-drained, but the soil is likely to be thin; sites at the foot of a hill may be damp and, because cold air runs downhill, are especially prone to frost.

Exposure: If your yard slopes, what direction does it face? A north-facing site is cooler in summer, colder in winter, and significantly less sunny. East-facing slopes receive mainly morning sun, west-facing ones mainly afternoon sun. Unshaded south-facing sites are the sunniest and, in summertime, the hottest–a good place for succulents, such as echeverias and sedums, and silver-leaved, heat- and drought-tolerant plants including artemisias and lavenders.

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Soil quality: Take a sample of your soil to the local Cooperative Extension Service to have it tested, not only for pH and nutrient content but also for soil type (loam, clay, etc.) and organic content. This information will help you select plants naturally suited to your site and apply just the fertilizers and soil conditioners your garden needs.

Sun versus shade: Note where the sunny and shady areas are within your yard, and how this pattern changes over the course of a day and as the seasons change. All sunlight is not equal–the midday sun is significantly stronger than that of early morning or late afternoon, and more to the taste of plants advertised as “sun-loving.”

Drainage: Are there areas of your yard where the moisture pools and then lingers during and after a rainstorm? They translate to sure death to plants that require a “well-drained soil.” In an arid western landscape, however, they may be the best spot to plant thirsty shade trees.

New Construction: Often the soil surrounding newly constructed homes is full of roots, left behind when the lot was cleared. Chances are the bulldozer also compacted the soil. For both reasons, plan to dig deep and mix lots of compost or other organic matter into any area you intend to plant.

ACCESSIBILITY

Make a note, as well, of man-made amenities as you start to plan new gardens. Features, such as vegetable and cutting gardens, that need frequent irrigation should be located near a faucet. Similarly, the chore of carting mulch to the hybrid teas becomes much easier if you set the rose garden alongside a broad, hard-surfaced path.

THE planning PROCESS

I’m the type of gardener who prefers, if possible, to do it myself. But I know my limitations, and when it comes to design, I need a critic–an objective second eye to evaluate my plans and stop my mistakes before they become reality. Fortunately, I have that pitiless eye on hand all the time, right in my closet: The camera doesn’t lie.

THE CAMERA AS CRITIC

Trying to create a visual record of my own garden has taught me how unflattering a photograph can be. Since it’s easier to just ignore the imperfections in my landscape, my eye tends to edit them out; I honestly do not see them. The camera, by contrast, captures every little flaw on film. At the same time, it also creates a virtual version of the landscape that is ideal for experimentation.

When planning a new garden, try placing yourself at all the major points of view–the back door and from steps, the living room window, the deck–using a camera to take pictures (preferably slides) of everything you see. Project the resulting slides onto a screen that you fashion by taping a large sheet of paper to the wall. First, look at each slide to identify all of the strengths and weaknesses you find in the scene. Make note of these on a pad. Then, with bright-colored, broad-tipped markers, sketch in the changes you might like to make.

By this method, trying out new beds and borders, laying in a terrace, and inserting or removing trees and shrubs all become effortless. Replace the paper from time to time and keep trying new drafts until you achieve a composition for each perspective that satisfies you. You’ll find these sketches invaluable as references when you start drafting a plan for garden planting and construction.