Garden Lessons: Design

The History and Philosophy of Our Design Approach

Visitors often ask us “how did this all start?” How did an open expanse of lawn with a wild scrub area beyond- become a series of garden beds and a network of garden rooms?

In 1987 we began , fortunately, with an existing background of bones- trees and conifers, as the backdrop, next to a 6′ stockade fence around much of the property’s perimeter. So the picture frame was there; now we needed the picture. My designing eye was inspired and guided by two words. The View. I designed beds to fill the ‘framed view’ from the windows, deck and screen porch from which we looked out at ‘the back yard.’ These I integrated with beds designed by observing from the yard itself. We laid out the beds with garden hoses that were outlined with powdered lime (white, easy to apply, not harmful to anything, and a staple in our garden pantry. Now you can use landscaper’s spray paint.) Because I was not aiming for a formal garden, beds were not linear; they were somewhat crescent or kidney shaped with a curved or undulating front edge, and most were backed by a conifer lined fence or a low stone wall. Over the years, all beds kept their basic shape, but their edges were continually being brought forward as they expanded in size and the lawn shrank.

A short stone wall marked the line between the back yard and a slightly raised wild area of junk trees and scrub. After a year of focusing on the main beds and borders, we cleared the wild area. While we knew we would be concentrating on the lawn area first, we still wanted to stake out a design for the wild area, which would eventually become part of the whole garden. We designed a somewhat circular path centered around a future pond, waterfall, and sitting nook. Then we put on our ‘Have Shovel; Will Travel” Stetsons. From many foraging trips to abandoned lots, old railway beds and country roads, we brought back generic orange daylilies and stuck them in the junky unimproved soil- to outline the future path. Even though we knew we would not be working on it for a long time, it still felt great to see some blooming plants marking the someday garden area and inspiring our progress. That wild area eventually became three secluded garden rooms, each with a shaded sitting nook, pond and waterfall, all connected by a small network of sunken paths. The four original mature sugar maples remained and we supplemented them with many trees, Japanese maples, flowering shrubs, conifers, perennials and woodland plants. For sixteen years we concentrated on the lawn borders and the garden rooms.

Then we tackled the last untouched area, a small corner of land next to our house and situated at the intersection of two busy streets. Never before cultivated, this was a true desert of barren silt and weeds. Over the next six years, this ‘ Last Frontier’ became the Chasm, reached by passing through the Work and Delivery areas. (Regardless of their ‘working’ purpose, both the delivery area and the work area are treated like part of the gardens, and filled with plantings of every kind, accented by art pieces and water features.)The concept for The Chasm began with our foray into sunken paths by the lawn area borders. We wanted an attractive extension of the other parts of the garden, but we were challenged by the loud street traffic. We began by bringing in many truckloads of loam and compost and building up the soil 3-4′. We created a curving path that bisected the hill and dug it down 2′ below (the original) grade.

A natural ‘wall’ of shrubs, conifers and ornamental grasses. highlighted by a large solid entrance gate way, separates the visitor from the busy street, and creates an intimate sense of enclosure. By midsummer, when deciduous shrubs and ornamental grasses have leafed out, one can no longer glimpse even the tops of passing vehicles from the chasm path or its secluded bench under a weeping Japanese maple. The tall waterfall there also helps block traffic noise. The steep chasm walls are covered with a variety of tenacious, often flowering groundcovers (see Design: Plant Elements: Plants for Steep Slopes)

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