Designing the perfect flower garden

Maybe your great aunt Tillie told you she can’t garden any longer and you should come over and take what you want from her yard. Maybe someone gave you a gift certificate to a local garden center for Christmas and you can’t wait to go flower shopping. Or maybe you just bought the place and want it to look pretty next summer.

Whatever your reason for wanting to spruce up your landscape, some people who are new to gardening are overwhelmed. Others jump right in and put plants here and there without a plan. Still others begin poring over books and magazines, or search other landscapes for ideas.

We have to start somewhere, so grab a pencil and a bit of note paper and jot down these few basic tips that every gardener, both new and experienced, needs to know so they can end up with an exciting and colorful place to escape in their own backyards.

Don’t skimp on width. Garden borders that crawl along the edge of a fenceline, along a sidewalk or beside a side door path are not just there to accommodate one row of marigolds. A guideline when creating a border is never make the width less than one-fourth its length, but never narrower than four feet. Use your judgment here, but keep in mind that wider is better.

Don’t skimp on the size of island gardens either. Whether you want it to be perfect circle, an oval or even kidney-shaped, don’t think small unless your space is extremely limited. The more variety and texture you add to a garden, the more natural it looks.

Shapely gardens are more attractive. Some people like straight lines. There is no rule against making a straight flower border or a square-shaped bed if that’s what you like. But most experienced gardeners avoid straight lines while reciting the mantra, “there are no straight lines in nature.” To make your garden seem as though it belongs in your landscape, I would advise curving those edges. But it’s your design, so it’s entirely up to you.

Think in layers. In any garden design, whether it’s borders or island beds, you want your view to flow from back to front as well as end to end. In borders, it is customary to put the taller plants to the back and the shorter, ground-cover type plants to the front. In islands, the taller plants are in the center with medium and smaller plants working their way to the edges, but feel free to mix it up as long as small plants don’t end up hidden. You may want to think in terms of seasonal blooms as well. Some plants are early bloomers while others open up later. You don’t want to fill the back of the garden with late blooming tall plants, such as black-eyed Susan or Montauk daisies and having nothing blooming earlier. Consider spring blooming dwarf lilac or mid-season coreopsis.

Not all plants have to produce large, colorful flowers. Ornamental grasses are a great way to bring texture into the design, while acting as a frame for those impressive bloomers. Grasses are available in all sizes and shades of green, white and maroon. Some grasses stand tall and erect while others drape and cascade like a living waterfall. Some seem to sparkle when the sun hits them a certain way and they all make a soothing, rustling sound when there is merely a light breeze in the air.

Gardens aren’t just about plants. This is why garden centers also sell bird baths, gazing balls, archways and other forms of artistic-looking structures. Think about what you like; perhaps an ornate fountain or a simple stone with water streaming over the top. Maybe you would like a simple bench where you can sit among the plants. Whatever you like, make the structure the focal point of your garden and place your plants so the view starts there and then drifts over the rest of the garden. The larger the garden, the more focal points you can add.

These are just a few things to remember when working on your own garden design for next season.

Kathleen Evanoff’s column will return on March 3. This column originally ran on Feb. 8, 2010.