Gardeners and Design – Compatible?


by Guest Blogger Rick Anderson of  Whispering Crane Institute

Susan has asked me to comment (rant) on how Gardeners go about their business in their

My biggest suggestion is to come up with some sort of plan, heck, any sort of plan that
looks at the garden/yard as a whole.  This is where most young designers and
amateurs get into their biggest problem(s). The failure to look at the whole, as
opposed to the individual parts.  Here’s a perfect
example:   A gardener goes out and buys another plant they gotta have, they just gotta have it . . . you know
who you are.  Then it’s brought home and ??? Where does it go??? “Well, I dig this
up, move this, move this . ..  move this . . . then plant that”.  Well, maybe that
spot looks good, but what has happened to the rest of the bed?  Is there still
flow, rhythm, seasonal effect, compatibility?

To put it another way, to design properly, look at the big picture 1st.  Design for the
entire yard, to create the gardens, spaces, and surface areas and how they
connect.  Don’t get bogged down in specifics (as they say, “don’t sweat the small
stuff”)  That will come when you start to work in the smaller focused
areas. Think big, work big and bold and over the design process the focus of the
work becomes smaller and smaller.

Unfortunately, a lot of designs start small, and the design process is literally crippled, and I do
mean crippled, by the inability to get out of that one small space, or where to
put that one perfect plant.  It may be a perfect plant, but without the right
focal point, lead–up and supporting cast, and backdrop . . . whaddya got???


  1. I’ve tried planning and it doesn’t work for me. I can only plan to a very limited extent in my garden.

    Over-reliance on planning puts too much pressure on me to get it right the first time. The frustration when part of the idea doesn’t work because something won’t grow, or when an idea sounds good on paper but flops in the garden…the agony is too great.

    I *want* to act on flights of fancy. I *want* my garden to be an experiment. It’s practically my only creative outlet.

    Maybe if I had an omniscient sense about what’s going to work and encyclopedic knowledge of every plant I could choose from, or a really big yard, planning it out would work better, or be helpful. But as it is, I find the idea too stressful.

    I had to remove the water feature because I will never win the raccoon war (I wasn’t told there would be raccoons)–and that was after three iterations on the water feature. I’ve moved cobblestone paths to accomodate the growth of shrubs that grew bigger than I anticipated. The bamboo turned out to be far more floppy than we were told. It had to go and that required extensive reconsideration. I had no idea some moth larvae would attack some plants way more others (and I’m not going to spray in my yard–the plants have to stand on their own, or go). I decided I wanted a vegetable patch after all…I had to make room for that. I have conflicting feelings about lawn, so some years I have one, some years I don’t. I could go on. There’s just too much need for spontanaeity and innovation for me to rely on plans.

    Plus, what am I supposed to say to the beautiful new plant that catches my eye? “No, I can’t have you. You’re not in the plan”? I could never.

  2. I’ve reading and thinking a lot about design recently. One of many back-logged blogging ideas. I’ll probably get to it yet.

    My advice for folks is: don’t get intimidated by “design.” There’s the explicit, upfront, “planned” design, as you describe. I’ve done that at least once for every garden in which I’ve ever had a hand.

    But design is an everyday part of each of us, even when we don’t think that’s what we’re doing. We are natural designers, so natural we may not be aware that’s what we’re doing.

  3. I’ve learned the lesson of balancing design versus love of a plant the hard way by having to correct some “mistakes” and losing some plants along the way.

    I now have an overall plan in my mind, if not on paper, and it does keep me somewhat from buying a plant without having any idea where I will plant it. I still slip on occasion, who wouldn’t?

  4. “Over-reliance on planning puts too much pressure on me to get it right the first time. … Maybe if I had an omniscient sense about what’s going to work and encyclopedic knowledge of every plant I could choose from, or a really big yard, planning it out would work better, or be helpful.”

    I second that (thanks, chuckb). This post really sounds like it was written by someone who has a degree in landscape design (and also who doesn’t have to live with the results of that plan when your yard makes mincemeat of it). For the rest of us who haven’t already made their mistakes, if all you have to go on are catalog descriptions and global advice of this sort, you’re kind of screwed. Nobody tells you the Impatiens balsamina can take over a whole bed, the Monarda gets powdery mildew from drying out in the summer sun even though it’s planted at the bottom of a slope in the yard, maple tree roots create a drought spot around a shrub that likes stream banks, etc.

    And you can’t know a lot of things until the plants tell you from their perspective. I started out with one ‘design’ last fall that fell apart in the spring when I realized the semishade from short days was only going to get deeper because of neighbors’ trees. I regrouped, but I had to move 6-7 shrubs, and rethink which plants were right for which locations. I have half a notebook full of discarded maps already.

    A post like this would be a lot more helpful if it discussed ways of creating “flow, rhythm, seasonal effect, compatibility” for that perfect plant, instead of telling us to stay away from sugary snacks and brush our teeth.

  5. After making three Illinois gardens that sort of unfolded, developed and grew in stages, when we purchased our fourth house, I deliberately made a comprehensive plan for the mostly empty front yard. I took classes on landscaping in Central Texas, drew a detailed plan on blown-up copies of the survey and made a plant list, then had my work reviewed and approved by the landscape architect who taught the classes.

    My husband and I followed this plan fairly closely over the next four years, and the end result was attractive, added privacy, was deer-resistant, and was fairly low for water usage. We knew the house was a temporary address, so we were pleased that our landscape added curb appeal when we sold it.

    But I don’t miss that garden… it had most of my brain, some of my color preferences, but little of my soul.

    When we began garden #5, I’d been changed by the designing experience; I couldn’t go back to the original haphazard methods, but didn’t want to make a garden without passion. I’m now trying to combine mind and heart: we’ve planned important elements like the ways we move through the spaces or how we will use areas, put the largest elements in first and used more hardscape, but I won’t stop buying plants that I love, even when I’m not sure how to use them.

    Although it’s hard to do in the north, down here most plants can stay outside in containers for years, moving up in pot-sizes until a permanent place is ready.

    I’m on a budget, so if I get a chance to own a plant I want, I take the chance and the heck with the plan!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  6. I’m with firefly and chuckb. “Planning” is bull. “Planning” is garden industry propaganda.

    It only works when you already have considerable experience with your yard–and what will grow in it. Books and general principles, I find next to useless on the question of, “Will it thrive or will it embarrass the gardener by shrivelling?”

    Instead of planning, I’m a big proponent of conviction. When you DO find what works, plant enough of it to blind the neighbors.

  7. I’m totally with firefly, chuckb, and Michelle. I actually just did a post about this a while ago. I’ve intended to plan for a long time, and have always felt like I “should” plan my garden. My biggest issue is what chuck hit on above, seeing a gorgeous, gotta-have plant—I would never be able to say “Nope, not in the plans.” I go by what feels right, like Michelle said. If I notice that there’s an awful lot of spiky, upright texture in a part of my garden, I’ll keep in mind to look for something a little rounder, or more airy. There’s always plenty out there for me to fall inlove with!

  8. I’m no longer resigned to the idea that my yard is more like a nursery than a garden. I like plants. I like experimentation. When I’m in the garden I’m working, intereacting with each individual plant I’ve fallen in love with–not sitting back on my heels and admiring the view.

    Gardens are “designed” to impress other people. Although Garden Rant has made fun of me before for not inviting other people into my garden, the truth is, I do it for me. So call me an unapolegetically selfish gardener who is a passionate about plants. You can’t insult me with the truth.

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