Freebie garden redesign by landscape architect Billy G



Here's what happens when a landscape designer or architect visits, if you're lucky – free and free-wheeling advice.  So I shouldn't have been surprised when Billy Goodnick visited my garden briefly last September and immediately pointed out to me the errors in my decidedly amateur attempt at design.  (I kept wanting to offer a lame defense – "I knew that!" – but refrained.)  No matter that the plants he knows and grows in Santa Barbara, CA are totally alien to us Easterners because the basics of design – line, massing and structure – are universal. 

And as much as I sure prefer compliments to criticism, I knew he was right.  I wasn't happy with the design of my back garden, either.  I needed some coaching.  So as soon as Billy got home I send him this extremely crude drawing of the view from the house looking into the woods, with the larger plants indicated.

Then a few days later this is what I got back.  


Note that Billy is suggesting I give up the wide open lawn (or lawn substitute) surrounded by borders effect and turn the space into something more interesting.  So the left border becomes larger, less border-like, and even jumps the dry streambed – something I'd never have thought of doing.  And instead of seeing the entire garden from those chairs in the lower right, with this design I'd be lured into walking through the garden. And oh, notice how many more plants I'll have!  

Designing is a fun!
So Coach Billy, here's my progress report.  You titled this a "massing study" but of course what comes before massing is line, so I've gotten busy creating the lines, following (more or less) your inspiring sketch.  No, I didn't use garden hose – the most frequently recommended and WORST possible method for trying out new lines. Instead, I grabbed my bucket of stakes and planted those suckers along the new lines, then ran up to the deck to see the effect from above.  When I was happy with the staked lines, I sprayed marking paint along them and ran up to the deck again to look.  Then I checked the new lines from the chairs and while walking through the space, and tweaked 'til I was happy.  Man, I am loving the whole process – and the new look. 

Next up, massing, and this is where it gets tricky for gardeners without deep pockets.  Purchased in the typical starter sizes, most plants need YEARS to become respectable masses, so I'm scrounging my garden for full-grown plants that can be moved for quick effect, and have found a few.   Not enough to show you the exciting "after," but hopefully by spring.

The pressure's on
Make that definitely by spring because somehow I agreed to have my garden on the Garden Conservancy Open Days tour next May – yikes!  Visitors will be paying $5 for the privilege, you know.


  1. You lucky gardener! The new design looks wonderful. There is nothing like a bus load of visitors to motivate! Have fun. Happy New Year, Gail

  2. I would love to have someone else look at the design of my own garden. I think I’ve used up all my good ideas on clients! All kidding aside, it’s hard to reinvent/redesign something that you look at every day, with the exception of pulling out everything and starting over, and who has the time or money for that!

  3. Susan: It was such a kick visiting you after the GWA confab. Like Madeline Kahn told Tatum O’Neil in Paper Moon, your garden has “great bone struckchuh.” You were such a gracious hostess, taking us to the National Arboretum.

    All I did was add a bit of meat. Glad it’s working out for you and thanks for the spotlight.

  4. Looks like a well layered plan.
    But why the comment that using a hose is the WORST possible method of laying out a visual line?

    It is a practical and often convenient method to assist in visualization when in the preliminary phase of design consideration.
    One can easily move the hose a foot here or there without pounding stakes in and out of the ground and readjusting the lines.
    The common thick bright green color of the hose makes it easy to see the layout on the ground vs. a thin string line ( which usually comes later after the final layout is agreed upon ).
    And if you are laying out a lawn border it is extremely easy to test run your mower against the hose layout to see if you have a good mowing arc to work with.
    So why is a hose the WORST method for preliminary layout ?

  5. Well, Susan, all by yourself you have managed to lift your garden way above the “random collection of plants” category that my garden falls into.

    Great that a guy who can quote Madeline Kahn is taking things up to another level!

    So will the narrowing-into-a-path middle section still be a lawn substitute when you’re done?

  6. Must be our warm California weather, or in clod climates try a Sears or Dramm hose. They are of excellent flexible and virtually kink free quality.
    For laying out long graceful arcs , professional landscapers will often use schedule 40 PVC pipe and irrigation staples.

  7. I don’t use the garden hose method too often, but when I do I find it helps to put a shut off at the end and charge the hose with water. It doesn’t fight me so much when it has water in it.

  8. That’s great that you were able to get Billy’s reactions and ideas to your garden. I think a lot of us dye in the wool, do it our own way, amateur hacks appreciate getting feedback (dare I all it critique) from folks who design gardens for a living. While everyone wants to hear favorable stuff, it is really more useful to note different ideas when the rationale can be communicated as well. Don’t forget to post some photos, before and after, when the time is right.

  9. Very nice example to understand the use of focal points.

    I have read that a lawn mower is the best way to determine the boundaries of garden beds. “If you can’t mow it, it won’t work,” being the principle. Of course to use this method, a firm requirement is a lawn.

  10. Boy, Susan gives you guys a view behind the curtain of professional design and the locomotive gets diverted onto a dead end discussion about hoses! Whooda thunk it?

    Here’s the dealio – if you want a quick and dirty way to lay out curves, Susan is dead on. Grab a bundle of stakes and “walk the line” dropping a stake every five or ten feet, like the dashes in a dashed line. Your eye will fill in the blanks when you step back and look. Don’t like it? Pick up two or three stakes and try another arc. It’s so fast and flexible compared to moving every inch of hose for each configuration.

    Works great for experimenting with the center line of a path too.

    THEN once your got the basic geometry of the curve to your liking, by all means, ahem, lay out your hose. Nuff said?

    Debra: Prinzing got me to look at her garden in Thousand Oaks in exchange for some very good chili and some writing advice. I’m guessing I’ll be passing through SoCal sometime in spring. You’ve got a date, girl.

  11. Not a dead end discussion at all, Billy. Actually, I was quite pleased to see Susan drive a stake through the heart of this oft regurgitated advice. And here is why …

    From the standpoint of an educator, this hose “advice” is fraught with problems. Admittedly, these are typically newbie problems. Advanced people like Michele and yourself will never fall victim to these problems because they clearly “get it”.

    The problem comes when newbies interpret the advice with an essentially empty head. They are typically told to “use a garden hose to make interesting curves“.

    Now, I am confident that our lovely Deviant Designer could use limp spaghetti noodles to lay out curves and the results would look fantastic. However, the term “interesting curves” means quite another thing to a newbie.

    Unfortunately, newbies now have just enough information to be dangerous. They will typically squiggle out some untenable shape that is impossible to mow and/or trim. It also looks bad but the newbie doesn’t see it that way. After all, they followed the “expert” advice. (Example linked below.)

  12. …. and to Michelle D, I want to know what a ‘clod climate’ is? I don’t think I live in one (sandy soil, no clods) — so what’s a gardener to do? (smiles)

  13. A clod climate is one where it’s so cold that you can’t bend down and shape a hose on a piece of ground.:-)

    The dealio – a hose is simply a tool.
    Any tool in the hands of a beginner can be a challenge to master.
    But hey, it’s a hose and any moron can eventually figure it out.
    The challenging part is understanding line, form and function.
    Once you got that one figured out you can use a hose, a digital laser or a bucket of stakes to do a layout.

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