Make Your Garden Sing
“A garden should make you feel you've entered privileged space -- a place not just set apart but reverberant -- and it seems to me that, to achieve this, the gardener must put some kind of twist on the existing landscape, turn its prose into something nearer poetry.” - Michael Pollan
Have you ever been to someone's garden and come home and said, “I wish my garden looked like that.” Well I suspect all gardeners, young and old, beginner and advanced, have felt this way. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what it is that we are drawn to in a garden, yet we have a sense it ‘feels right.’ Trying to implement what we see and sense isn’t always easy. The beauty and the mystery is that all gardens are unique. Ideas may be borrowed but how they are used becomes ours.
In my years of gardening there are some threads that I’ve discovered that help a garden work and ‘feel right.’ How you make them unique to you is your job, but starting with a few basics is helpful. These are the ones that stand out for me:
It sounds basic and it is. But to have a healthy garden it’s imperative to start with good soil. Not even the perfect placement of plants will ever look nice or thrive if the soil is not healthy. The better the nourishment the better the survival. There are numerous fertilizers on the market that can be used but I personally prefer the organic route and choose to amend my soil with a healthy heaping, about three inches, of compost yearly or at least every other year, usually in the fall. The benefit of compost is that it breaks down slowly and amends the soil and the plants, where fertilizers mostly amend just the plants.
Living in the country we are fortunate to have good sources available to us of great compost that has been properly heated so no weed seeds grow and thus the plants thrive. I learned the hard way by putting straight sheep and chicken manure on my gardens once which magically grew the best grass I ever had, everywhere, but not where I wanted it. Using compost, whether you buy it from a reputable source, or make it yourself, is worth the work. No matter which route you choose, the start to a healthy garden is good soil. In addition to compost putting down a layer of mulch (again about three inches) is also beneficial in suppressing weeds, retaining moisture and amending the soil even further. This is best done in the spring after the seedlings are visible and strong. Don’t scrimp on good soil. You will be grateful when you see the results as will your garden.
One of the other mistakes I made when I first began gardening was making my beds too narrow. They were 30 to 40 feet long but only about four feet wide. Once I enlarged the depth of my beds, doors opened and I and my garden had room to breathe. Now there was space for layers of plants and the opportunity for greater interest. My enlarged beds were now 10 feet in depth in some places and close to 15 feet in others. Whether you choose to have tall plants in the back graduating to shorter ones in the front, or just an array of tall and short plants mingled together, doesn’t matter. What matters are the layers that now enhance the garden. Adding depth to any bed, even from two feet to five feet will add a vast difference in a small bed and create the ability to use more plants effectively. Initially it is a little more work, but in the end, worth every effort.
After visiting many gardens, reading garden journals and books, I noticed the gardens that spoke to me the most all held a common thread. They had great structure and bones. One of my wise gardening friends taught me that when you look at your garden, first look at it in winter, or visualize how it will look in winter. If it’s interesting in winter you have the beginning of a great garden.
Snow glistens on tree branches, and highlights shrubs and evergreens as it does ornamental pieces or stone. The result is often breathtaking. The shapes and textures of tree limbs, especially ones with unusual bark add multiple interest in all seasons, but especially in winter. Shrubs soften the landscape adding a calming element and keep the garden from looking stark. Architectural shapes become strong and stunning. Look carefully at your garden in winter. A garden without structure has no bones and little interest.
Texture, Shape and Colors
Using interesting shapes and structure (mentioned above) along with a mixture of textures and colors will really make a garden sing. For me this is where the real joy and challenge begin. The part where you throw paint at your canvas. A garden with a variety of textures is a garden that does not need a lot of flowers, or flowers at all, because the textures are pleasing enough. Flowers can be added here and there but when they fade the garden is still compelling. When using textures and/or flowers, using a variation of color, height and shape next to one another is quite powerful. For instance placing a soft feathery plant such as an Amsonia ‘Hubricttii’ next to a larger-leaved or dense plant such as a Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke,’ will make each plant pop. Or a tightly trimmed boxwood placed in front of a tall grass that dances around it will make the other more noticeable. Using complimentary colors often works well too. If a big purple leafed Ajuga such as ‘Caitlin’s Giant’ or ‘Black Scallop’ is placed in front of yellow variegated grass they will each cause the other to glow.
The list becomes endless: a purple eldberry (Sambuscus ‘Black Lace’) nestled over yellow wax bells (Kirengeshoma palmata), near purple asters, next to a yellow variegated shrub shadowed by a tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum ‘Lavender Mist’), or hosta with purple flowers. Orange or red heleniums next to blue salvia or hyssop (Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’) behind a red coleus, next to a dark green boxwood. A red Japanese maple near a willowy grass with pink fluffy seed heads, next to a dark evergreen, etc.
Colors and textures can play off of one another all the way around the garden creating a lovely cadence that pulls you along. In the end it is a carefully crafted painting of sorts that is not only pleasing to the eye but beautiful. That said, an all green garden can be also outstanding merely by using unusual shapes and textures together especially along with hardscape. Some of the loveliest and most stunning gardens use this palette. How they are placed and trimmed is the art here. A garden can be mostly pinks, blues and whites, or chartreuse, purple and reds. Or perhaps you are drawn to the soft flowing prairie look. It doesn’t matter as long as the textures, shapes and colors make the plant next to it sing. I confess this, too, can turn into an obsession and more work of forever moving plants around for better placement.
In New England we are blessed with stonewalls and an abundance of granite. Using granite in New England gardens echoes what we see in the surrounding fields and woods and helps unite the garden with the natural world around it. But the use of any stone, and other elements such as brick, iron, wood or metal adds a great deal to a garden.
As mentioned above hardscape will become part of the “structure” of a garden. A stone or brick patio, walkway, cobbles lining beds, granite blocks strategically placed in the garden perhaps with pots sitting on top, plinths, benches, chairs, large pots, trellises, arbors, birdbaths, birdhouses, wooden posts, fences and gates, garden ornaments or art all add stability, interest and structure to a garden. The mood can be of your choosing: whimsical, stately, simple and stunning, artistic or a combination. Collecting and adding hardscape is great fun but be forewarned: also addictive.
Maintenance and Appearance
Maintenance is a tricky word. But a garden that is not taken care of shows it and thus creates a certain sense of unease. Yet there is a delicate balance between cleanliness and comfort. Sometimes the charm is the moss or plants that have set themselves between the pavers on a path or patio or the way other plants have found their way into the perfect spot, or the plants that overflow the edges so that you feel you are walking in the garden and not around it. Some of these acts of nature are the ones that create that “feel” we are initially drawn towards. Time has taught me that nature often does this best. But even a garden with time and age on its side still needs to show signs of care. We have all seen neglected gardens that weigh heavily upon us as if the owner is gone to never return.
Again it’s all about balance. Some gardeners like more order than others and neither is right or wrong. The garden will always reflect aspects of yourself, like them or not. I would gather most gardeners have learned a great deal about themselves from working in their own gardens. When I first visited English gardens many years ago they had a huge impact on me for all the reasons listed above and for appearance. There was something comforting about the neatly edged beds of grass meeting dirt at a perfect right angle. How they maintain this is beyond comprehension but I knew it was something I liked and thus try to recreate in my own gardens (but not to the degree the English do). It adds to the list of obsessions, and I realize what it says about me, but I do it anyway because it makes me feel good. So that is part of the balance too.
“Gardens are a form of autobiography.” – Sydney Eddison
So have fun, continually observe, be courageous, make mistakes, do and undo, celebrate your successes, learn from your failures, keep your sense of humor and sanity (sometimes the hardest part), and enjoy making your garden unique to you, beautiful and healthy and singing its own song. You can even sing along!
The Artful Gardener, in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
For more guest blog posts from Maude Odgers, click here. You can also visit Maude's website at www.maudeodgers.com.
All photos of the Odgers garden above by Maude Odgers.