Garden Lessons: Design: The View



One of our early garden design influences, Jerry Sedenko, helped us understand the design folly of filling a sizable border with one or two each of many different plants. Jerry had a great sense of humor and he coined this style “Pot ‘n Dot.” On our first trip to see the nurseries and gardens of the Pacific Northwest, Jerry drove us around Seattle, regaling the numerous examples of Pot ‘n Dot everywhere. Then he guided us to the stunning borders of Glen Withey and Charles Price, two savvy designers who had studied the English greats and created magical gardens where Swaths were Queen. I still have my notes from that trip and the plant lists, researched upon our return to Boston, are covered with the notation NH next to most of the plant names. NH is my shorthand for Not Hardy.

So while many of the plants we discovered there- could not be grown here, we still learned an essential design principle that continues to guide us. Swaths, sizable plantings of only one variety, make a significant visual statement, where dots of color from many single plantings- do not. The latter are not restful for the eye. They are like so much visual chatter and their busyness does not, in garden design terms,”make a statement.” (In the arbor photo above, is not the right side more effective than the left? ) Swaths are not any one size. In a typical suburban garden, where a border might be 12-15 ‘ long, a swath might be 3′ wide. In an urban setting with 6′ to 8′ garden beds, a swath might be 2′ . In a large country property, with sweeping borders and islands, a swath might be 10′ of one plant. Unless the garden is a formal one, swaths should have a natural amorphous shape, like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, fitting into swaths of neighboring plants.


Repetition and Continuity

While Jerry Sedenko’s coined “Pot ‘n Dot”, a design folly that includes ABABABAB planting schemes, is not a good thing, repetition in more subtle forms is a very important element in good garden design. The principle is the same as in interior decorating. Just as pillows can serve as accent colors that connect the various patterns and decorative elements in a room (think sofa, chairs, curtains, rugs, paintings) floral or foliage colors can do the same in a garden. Groundcovers, perennials, shrubs, vines, trees, container plantings, they all play a part in this principle, which both guides the view and subconsciously provides relaxation for the eyes by giving a visual sense of continuity.

On long paths or in a large garden vista, it can be helpful to repeat the same plant somewhere near the beginning and end of the view frame. We do this often with Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ , a low graceful yellow and green fountaining ornamental grass that has presence from early spring through hard frost.


Every Garden Should Have
Purple, Yellow and Blue Foliage

Once you’ve seen purple and yellow foliage used effectively(and not necessarily together), any garden without them is very boring.While it’s true that there are hundreds of different shades of green,and just as many types of green-based variegated foliage, without patches of bold non-green foliar color, all the greens wash together and the eye goes to rest. That might be fine for a meditation garden ,but not for a garden where you want the eye to be engaged and excited.


Verticals and Varying Heights in the Garden

Just as gardens need variety in plant colors, so they need variety in plant heights throughout the seasons. It is hardest to maintain this goal in Spring when plant growth is new, but in sunny beds, interplanting perennials with narrow conifers or evergreens can help greatly with this challenge. Throughout the summer, sunny beds can host an array of bulbs- alliums, fritillaria, kniphofia , crocosmia and others, that provide needed tall verticals before some perennials and ornamental grasses have reached their mature heights. Obelisks of clematis can also be very useful.

For shady areas in early to mid summer, bulbs like wood hyacinths and ornithogolum magnum can provide intermittent 1′ spikes and 3′ white spires. Scilla hispanica, wood hyacinths, look best in groups of one color (my preference is for blue) but ornithogolum magnum are large and even one or two can effectively raise the eyes and liven up a flatter dark area. Cimicifuga and Persicaria Lance Corporal can do the same in late summer and fall. Whereas tall vertical perennials are usually relegated to the back of garden borders, the see-through nature of many of these spires makes them adaptable to placement in the front of garden beds.

To fully appreciate the importance of verticals in the garden, look at the following photos and place your hand over the vertical element(s). Then remove your hand for a much livelier view.


Trompe l'oeuil Chinese Moon Windows

Garden Mirrors Guide the View

In the very back of the garden is a shady nook, centered around a pottery arm chair and pond. A few years ago, three MacMansions went up next door and they visually distracted one as one approached the shady woodland garden room.We planted medium height trees along the fence to block the view of the houses and we also used a Japanese landscape design element called The Borrowed View, which in our case, we adapted to a Faux Borrowed View.

In approaching the rear garden room, you travel a sunken path that encloses you and focuses your attention downwards. But as you round the bend towards the chair, the houses loom up above the shaded fence and distract you. So I decided to make a trompe l’oeil ‘borrowed view’. And I did it in the form of a Chinese Moon Window (usually it’s a Moon Gate). 

We made 2 circular mirror windows; then we hung them a short way down on the solid flat-topped stockade fence, about 6 feet apart, centered on a focal point weeping Viridis Japanese maple, next to the rear-most pond/waterfall. The mirror/windows brighten up a formerly dead spot by reflecting greenery and branches and sky. Now when you round that bend, they draw your eyes and keep your eyes down at their level rather than distracted by the background houses. On the shady fence, the faux borrowed view mirrors reflect a tall sunlit rhododendron (across from them)and give the effects of two round see-through window/peep holes seemingly showing sunny foliage ‘in the garden next door’! They do fool alot of visitors who seem to enjoy the trick.

(see Techniques page for how we made these)


When the View is Limited
Design Well

If you are designing for a very small spot where the view is limited, it is especially important to choose plants that will change throughout the season and will give you the longest period of interest. The photos above and below show the view from our kitchen window. It is a very small space on the top of a rock wall, flanked on one side by the back of the house and an (evergreen) pieris and on the other by a large evergreen hinoki cypress. In between is planted a vignette of Geranium Rozanne, Hakonechloa All Gold and Corydalis Lutea, all of which complement each other in shape and color and give bloom from late April through November. They are supplemented with Parrot Tulips and Muscari which, along with the pieris, provide bloom and color in mid to late April, before the perennials begin. The photos were taken in late April, early July and mid-November.


Work Area

Work Areas

We didn’t have a formally constructed work area for a long time, but as the gardens grew, we realized that we needed a spacious area for all the tasks required behind the scenes- compost piles, potting area, a delivery place for plants and manure, and a holding area for things waiting to be planted . We eventually constructed our work area with a stockade fence perimeter and wood palettes dividing the composting bays. Two large heavy duty work benches were constructed. Water hoses were situated by the bench along with a sunken water tub for brief watering needs (when it was too much trouble to trek to the source and turn on the hoses.) As we were getting settled into our new work area, we realized that it took up a good ‘garden room’s worth of space. A combination of looking for places to put newly acquired plants, and a desire for an attractive space- caused us to incorporate the work area into the rest of the gardens, filling its perimeter and nooks with plants. We also had a need for an out-of-the-way place for some recently acquired and rather kooky garden art. We had purchased a bear sculpture at the Belfast Bear Fest because it made us laugh, but he really didn’t fit the mood of the main gardens. So Admiral Ray moved in to anchor the work area space. Eventually he was joined by a number of other art pieces, and some rare and less hardy trees, which appreciate the sheltered spot. The base of the trees and the unique soil and light conditions in the work area- inspired us to make a number of small plant vignettes, and we added a bench. When we eventually extended the arboretum into the ‘last frontier’ piece of our lot, the work area became(by necessity) a connector and pass-through space, a little break from the main gardens, for the curious visitor.

Whether your work area is large or small, hidden or open to view, you will enjoy it much more if you make it your own, decorating it with art and unique plants that you will especially value if they are only found there. Most importantly, make it comfortable and efficient. You deserve it.



Techniques for Increasing Privacy in your Garden

Study the sight lines that you want to block, and choose plants material accordingly. Eight years ago,on the southern side of our property , the neighboring parcel became 3 McMansions that loom above our land.Our primary views of the houses come from inside one room of our house, the entry path into our gardens, and the back yard. A 6′ stockade fence was erected by the developer on our lotline and we proceeded to plant that. We chose trees with canopies that would block the view beginning at the height of the fence or below it.This meant primarily ‘smaller’ trees, like Japanese maples and Flowering cherries. We interspersed these with conifers and Robinia frisia and various cultivars of Acer Negundo (Kelly’s Gold and Winter Lightning). Rambling along the fence top and through pergolas and up trees we placed a number of assertive vines- variegated kiwi, lonicera, and clematis.

To increase the height of a normal 6′ flat-top fence, add a lattice strip to the top of the fence and plant vigorous vines to cover the lattice.

If year ’round privacy is sought, choose evergreen plant material- conifers and non deciduous shrubs.
Consider ultimate circumference and height. and speed of growth Compared to most evergreens, rhododendrons grow slowly. Hemlocks and arbovitae hedges grow very quickly and can reach a maximum height of 15-20 ‘, but can be kept lower. If pet enclosure is not a requisite, a hedge can be a more attractive and less costly alternative to a fence. Consider future height maintenence and whether you want to handle that or have a tree service keep the hedge pruned.

Siting and Lowering of Paths
One way to add height to a fence without adding fencing- is digging down the paths from where the site lines occur. This can enable a few things-


Framing the View: Fences

I used to pooh pooh the thought, but it IS true that sometimes, what first appears to be a disaster- can turn into a good thing. Case in point: a local (z.5) friend recently called about “a horrible thing that is happening next door.” It turns out that her new neighbor had just destroyed my friend’s long established bucolic peace- by taking down 20 mature maples that had all their long life buffered the view of his hilltop house from her woodland dell home. To top it off, he had done this because, in place of the trees, on a sloped down hillside at the back of his side driveway, he was going to store his stark white RV and his two boats. So my friend would be looking out her front door and living room and bedroom windows, not at the woods beyond her stone wall and daylily border, but at an RV and boats- with no screening- and the woods beyond them. The property line’s low stone wall and deciduous shrubs that line the wall- would not fix the looming problem (both literal and figurative.)

The solution? Well, to begin with, a fence. And with this thought, she is shuddering. ” Oh, my woods….”
I, on the other hand, think the fence will be a blessing in disguise. It will bring definition to that edge of the property, serving as The Frame Around the Picture. It will extend just as far as is needed to block the eyesores, and will stop at a key mature tree, beyond which the open woods view will continue as before. I envision an 8′ H wide-panel solid cedar fence with a 2′ H square-opening lattice on top, and hipped caps on the posts. (This height of fence does not require approval in her town.) The fence’s design will reflect the Arts and Crafts style of her (former carriage house) handsome home across the lawn from the fence, providing a visual symmetry and continuity in the major non-plant, architectural elements of the property. The fence and house will both complement and balance each other visually. In the same way that paintings often need a frame to set them off, gardens most often benefit from a visual frame that subconsciously offers one a more intimate sense of enclosure. In addition, the tree and shrub perimeter planting will no longer visually melt into the woods, but will stand out against the solid backdrop of the fence.

Before recommending specific plants, I measured with my friend the vertical distance that she is looking to shield, from her chief viewpoints-her front doorstep and her living room window. Standing on the site of the future fence, we found that a screen 15′ in height would take care of blocking the view- of the offending toys AND the offender’s house. With that knowledge, and knowing that her fence line is a sunny area bordering a shady woodland, I have proceeded to recommend a number of conifers with a maximum height of at least 15 feet, and medium height deciduous trees whose canopies will be densest between 4′ and 20′ in height. My friend loves Umbrella Pine so that is listed, but it is very slow growing, so I have also included more fast growing conifers and deciduous trees and shrubs. In some cases, conifers will not just stand alone, but will back up to the fence, with deciduous small trees and shrubs in front of the conifers. Because the fence line is such a key view of the property, and because the surrounding woods and yard plantings are all fairly monochromatic/green, I have suggested many shrubs and trees with bold variegation and purple or blue or yellow coloring. Recommended plants include:

Chamaecyparis Crippsii
Chamaecyparis Obtusa
Thuja Yellow Ribbon
Thuja Smarggd(Emerald)
Abies Koreana Aurea and Silberlicht
Abies Concolor Candicans

Cornus kousa Gold Star
Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’
Cornus kousa pink flowering
Japanese maples:
Peaches ‘n cream
Oshio beni

weigela variegata- regular and mini versions
cornus alba Ivory Halo and Hedgerow Gold
calycanthus Venus and Hartledge Wine
hydrangeas- kyushu , oak leaf and QuickFire
deutzia Chardonnay Pearls
and many more.

Swaths of hakonechloa and single variety hostas will skirt the border.With time, the fence will take a back seat as the plants grow to command all the attention.


You Can’t See the Trees For the Forest
The Value of Periodic Culling

As mentioned before, we have a small suburban plot and we have crammed it full with trees and shrubs as well as perennials. As the garden has matured (now 23 years young), we have found it best to accept that sometimes major plants must be culled.

This spring we removed a 10′ H Parrotia tree and a 22′ H Acer negundo Kelly’s Gold. The former had been a shipping mistake (“You keep it”!)10 years ago . For lack of a better place, we had stuck it in the front yard, and I kept waiting for it to achieve its self-justifying autumnal glory -so beloved by Michael Dirr . It never did. In attempting to ascertain why, one nurseryman told me that there can be specimen variation like that in the tree world. It was a very handsome shape, but that was not enough raison d’etre, so we whacked its etre to the ground. Its understory and surrounding shrubs and perennials have rebounded with multitudes of silent cheering.

The Kelly’s Gold had been a glorious neon yellow presence for many years in one of the prime viewing spots in the ‘retum, but over time, it got away from us and doubled the ideal height for its location, hiding and blocking light from too many other plants. Also, its glory was improved upon with a new addition here, Acer negundo Winter Lightning (neon yellow branches through the winter as well as neon yellow foliage the rest of the year.) In April, we whacked the Kelly’s Gold as well, but in this instance, we knew it would sprout from the base, which it did. This time around, we will try keeping it within height bounds through regular aggressive pruning. Its former understory shrubs are flowering more abundantly now and, best of all, a clear view has been opened up to the amazing 25′H variegated liriodendron 30′ beyond it(one of my top 3 trees in the ‘retum.)

We also removed a mature 14′ H speciment of “Sambucus Aurea” that, in all its 18 years here, was never aurea. Sure, the birds just loved those berries, and the dirty white flower umbrels were plentiful, but it had to go. As a result, far more valuable woodies, Stewartia and Heptacodium, variegated hydrangea Light ‘O Day, and countless perennials, are shouting with glee. We may replace it with a narrow upright J. maple, but for now, I’m seeing the space and its plants anew.

Most gardeners know all too well the heartbreak of losing a beloved plant, but as your gardens and your plant numbers grow, it will likely become easier to turn your attention to other things and/or even be the intentional agent of that loss>>gain.


Conifers in Perennial Borders



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