The lone voice of horticultural reason

Don On Design

There are no straight lines in nature, no squares, perfect right angles or crisp parallel lines; pondering this is the starting point for creating attractive yards. Divine principles of design and form expressed on Earth are wisely mimicked by gardeners but cannot be improved upon. In the garden the best we can do is take what nature’s hand left us and attempt to fine-tune it, this random perfection that only in the current blink of our planet’s history has man divided into little rectangles and sold.

We love to grow flowers because we become the artist; our yard is our canvas and the colorful blooms our paints. There is reward in glancing at a once-desolate corner of property that our hand has transformed into blooming beauty. Even so, the gardener cannot create the seed, only grow it; we cannot play God, but we can draw supreme satisfaction as creative middleman.

Why does an oval bed of flowers look good circling a tree? Because things are oval in nature-the crown of the tree, a pond, a berry, a robin’s egg. But make the bed a perfect circle with the tree smack in the middle and it looks contrived; symmetry in nature is confined to creatures, individual flower blooms and leaves, not topography.

Let your flower beds curve and flow and rise and turn. One old trick is to create the outline of your beds using garden hose; I’ve found no better way. Should the curve soften here, or turn more sharply? Gently lift and bend the hose. Is the bed long enough here to balance the width of the other part? Move the hose until proper proportion appears seemingly from nowhere. Ah, there. That looks right.

For island flowerbeds, experiment with outline shapes, particularly at the back, that mimic the shapes of a tree (its trunk or its crown,) shrubbery, the house or other structures in proximity. I’m elongating a daylily bed in my front yard with a concave curve that would roughly allow the convex peninsula of techny arborvitae fifteen feet behind it to fit snugly, like two pieces of a child’s simple puzzle. Yet the two pieces will remain fifteen feet apart. No one walking down my street will exactly get it, except to see that area and think hmm, that’s pretty–it flows.

In the past I’ve done what the books all say, that is, gotten out the graph paper and made a whole yard plan, placed the footprint for my house, driveway and existing trees, considered what’s sun and what’s shade, where’s south for heat and northwest for winter winds, and this elaborate process does help. I sketch in the beds for flowers but long ago stopped short of placing circles to represent the actual perennials I’ll plant or which annual is going to fill up this spot here. It’s all going to change as soon as I begin to paint it, so why waste the time? Place your trees and major shrubs first in the landscape, that makes sense, but after that I’m finding my style is to figure the rest out after I open the paints. Discover your natural style, technique and stroke.

Like a good painting, successful landscaping shows balance, depth, light, focal point and communion of color. Achieving these from infinite possibilities is why a gardener joyously gardens for a lifetime.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener