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Escape to the Backyard

Creating the perfect flower garden design

June 23, 2008
By KATHLEEN EVANOFF-Tribune Chronicle

Creating a backyard oasis where your family can enjoy their summer days might seem like a daunting task, but if you think of your yard the way you think of your house, it might not be as overwhelming. Garden design is simply bringing your likes and dislikes out of doors. Are you a modernist who prefers stark lines, formal effects and monochromatic color? Are you a traditionalist that feels comfortable among smooth lines and earth tones? Or perhaps you are old-fashioned, preferring instead overstuffed furniture, comfy quilts and a myriad of colors. It is likely that you already know what you like, even if you don't know what it's called. Most new gardeners begin with a small plot of garden space that seems to grow over time. As a result, many first gardens are a mixture of several different plants, likely one of each, until we have a mish-mash of colors and textures with no particular design in mind. Even cottage gardens, those impressionistic pallets of color, first developed by turn of the century gardener Gertrude Jekyll, began with a plan. Those first gardens have a way of growing in both square footage and in the size of the plants. By the time our new gardener has gotten his or her feet wet, it becomes evident that perhaps a plan might not be such a bad idea. You don't have to be a horticulturist, or even an artist, to sit down with a bit of paper and a pencil, and begin sketching a few ideas for expanding your garden. But to take what others before us have already tried and learned, it might not be a bad idea to follow a few simple rules when taking on the task of garden design. The first thing to note when planning a new flower garden is the site. We've already discussed areas of sun and shade and even spots that might have both in one area. But now a closer look at the site can reveal the type of garden that fits well within that spot. Will the garden bed be a border or an island bed? What is available for possible growth? Perhaps the garden can begin as a border, but later on be expanded into a peninsula bed reaching out into a new space in the yard. Perhaps the borders should be terraced because of a sloping yard. It may seem like a lot to consider, but if you simply look at the space your garden will be living in, you can let its natural topography tell you what sort of garden it should be. Get the general layout of the garden figured out first, including whether walkways will be needed or desired and other hardscape material, such as a water feature, bird baths or feeders, benches and any other large garden structures that might be included. Once you know the shape of things, the rest will easily fall into place. As you are thinking of the bed design, don't worry about the plants just yet, but keep in mind that small flowering trees and shrubs can be a part of whatever you decide. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you work on your garden design. l Don't skip on width. If you are working on a border, you may be tempted to create one long line of plants, perhaps no wider than single or double file, alongside a fence, a house or a garage. If you have the space, remember that a rule of thumb is to make your borders four times longer than they are wide. But build the border no more than eight to 10 feet wide if it is longer. l Some people don't mind straight-lined borders, but keep in mind that there are no straight lines in nature. If you are looking for a natural effect, build some curves into the outer edge of your garden. A nice easy flow of curves is all that is needed. Don't get too carried away or you may end up with lots of squiggles instead of having a smooth flow to your garden bed. l Mark your garden with a flexible hose. You can move the hose around as you make changes to your design. Once the design is what you want, use landscape spray-paint, available in all garden centers, to outline the space. If you find you still want to make changes, the paint is easily mowed away along with the grass so you can start over. If possible, trench your border to a depth of no more than four inches. Begin by removing the sod within the garden bed and rototill or double dig the soil within the garden. Amend the soil with plenty of compost and till again to mix the compost into the clay. You are looking for soil that is neither too compact nor too soft, but more like the texture of moist chocolate cake. If your site is underwater for several days following a hard rain, you may want to consider building raised beds so your plants can have good drainage. Or you can choose plants that don't mind sitting in a bit of water. We will get into choosing plants later on in the season. Once your garden soil is ready, consider your hardscape. Hardscape is a gardening term that refers to structures that will not be easily moved. These structures include walkways, trellis's, arbors, fountains and any other type of permanent garden sculpture or art. You may want to create a central focal point in the garden where you plan to place a sundial, fountain or birdbath. Keep in mind that you will need to get to the structure, usually by way of a garden path or walkway. It is easier to build these structures before you begin planting that to put them in afterward; although, changes are always possible. Remember that plants, unless they are enormous, well established trees, can be moved, and often are, if you find you aren't happy with their placement. The most important tip to remember is that gardens and a gardener's tastes are ever changing. Things can always be moved if they don't live up to your expectations. For questions on your garden's design, call The Ohio State University Extension Trumbull County Master Gardener hotline at 330-637-3908, or e-mail your question to Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension of Trumbull County. She can be reached at



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