“If someone visiting your yard asks, ‘Did you do that on purpose?’ your yard needs help.” That’s the first sentence on page 40 of my book, and one of my favorites.
I told the Rant-ettes I wouldn’t abuse my privilege as guest blogger to flog you with flagrant come-ons about my garden design book. (See? I haven’t even mentioned the title. Later for that.)
For the first few months, the working title was Good Yard, Bad Yard, conceived as a light-hearted series of contrasting situations explaining why some gardens are a source of continual joy and others, disappointment. Not just aesthetics. The book’s outline also delved into practical and environmental issues. After submitting a few chapters, my editor, publisher and I realized that clever as the format seemed, it was too constraining.
But the good/bad thing seems just great for a blog post, so let’s take it for a spin…
Bad yards result from not listening to what your yard is trying to tell you. I do a lot of consultations for people who’ve spent years unintentionally screwing up their yards – the result of incremental mistakes and ignoring what’s right in front of their nostrils. Take a recent house call I made. The new owners, in a burst of urban homesteading fervor, ripped out their weedy, patchy lawn (so far so good) and planted a dozen fruit trees.
If they had paid closer attention, they would have noticed that, a) the soil consisted of heavy clay underlaid with hardpan; b) the runoff flowed toward this low spot, exacerbating drainage, and c) if the trees survived, they would not only shade the new raised veggie beds, but also block the beautiful view of the misty mountain peaks a few miles away. Not a recipe for success.
Getting it Right: Until gardens learn to send text messages, the only way to avoid these and other problems is to spend some thoughtful hours analyzing the immediate site as well as the surrounding off-site conditions that might affect your yard, both from a planting POV and your outdoor comfort. Take pictures, walk and talk with a video camera (don’t hold it in front of your face if you live on a bluff-top), sample the soil, determine why otherwise tough plants are languishing, notice where the blistering summer hot spots repel you and the welcoming puddles of sunshine beckon you on winter days. Then respond in your design.
Good garden design doesn’t put all its trust in zone maps. Take the USDA map at face value and you’re asking for trouble. They’re a good starting point, but too general to be very useful on their own. Microclimates are what really matter – the differences around a single property caused by varying sun exposure, air movement, reflected heat, etc.
How I Screwed Up: I learned the hard way in my early design years that taking “half-day sun” at face got me in a heap of trouble. I specified a silver-leaf princess flower (Tibouchina heteromalla) for two beds on opposite sides of the house, having learned that repetition is the key to coherent design. The plant in the east-facing bed was lusciously bedecked with vibrant foliage and passionately purple flowers. Alas, its sibling was reduced to a handful of crispy kettle chips by summer’s end. The lesson: Match your plants to the microclimates around the garden.
Don’t Select Plants Just for Their Looks. Please tell me you don’t buy plants just because they look beautiful. Quoting from my book [Author’s note: If you read to the end, I’ll tell you the name], “Pretty plants are great, but like teenagers, they should make themselves useful.” If your only concern is whether your perennial color scheme matches the throw pillows on the patio chairs, you’re short-changing yourself.
Better Idea: Before you buy, consider whether the plants you’re bringing home can do anything for you: cast cooling shade on the patio and house, reduce chilling winds, block an unwanted view, control erosion, feed you, etc. That doesn’t mean these same plants can’t also be drop-dead gorgeous – you just need to consider your priorities. It might take more time to assemble a beautiful and practical palette, but you’ll get more cluck for your plant purchasing buck.
The problem with instant gratification is it leads to visually painful, high maintenance train wrecks. (See my Crimes Against Horticulture rant, 1-24-13). In a quest for immediate gratification, people space their shrubs and ground covers as if they’ll never grow another inch after they’re installed. This kind of thinking isn’t just pessimistic, it’s delusional. (Thanks, HGTV!)
My buddy, Owen Dell, sums it up thusly: “Every plant has its genetic destiny”, meaning you can talk to your red oak until you’re blue in the face, but you won’t convince it to grow happily ever after in a window box.
Here’s an unfathomable example in my neighborhood. Each of these lantana (not tender in Santa Barbara) have the potential to achieve a spread of 4 to 6 feet. So here are three rows of them in a five-foot wide parking strip, planted a foot from each other and six inches from the curb and sidewalk. It’s taken less than three months for their tips touch and years to go before they call it quits. Some might consider this planting attractive (in a chaotic confetti sort of way), but soon the gardener will start vertically shearing the sides to contain its exuberance, achieving a massive mess of dead twigs and never-ending work.
A Smarter Way: Take the time to research the predictable mature size of a plant before deciding how many to buy and how to space them. Make your beds big enough to accommodate layers of planting. Then, mulch and be patient. If that’s not your virtue, double up the number of plants, but swear an oath that you’ll cull out every other plant until you have only enough to fill the bed at maturity. Or plant a sacrificial ground cover.
Thanks for hanging in. Now can I plug Yards: Turn Any Outdoor Space Into the Garden of Your Dreams, St. Lynn’s Press ($17.95)? It’s the book to read before you read all the other books. It gives budding designers a broad perspective on how professionals approach landscape design. It’s not just informative and beautifully illustrated, but a fun read, equally appropriate on the coffee table or the porcelain tank. Yards is available at indie bookstores and all your favorite on-line sellers.
Billy Goodnick (billygoodnick.com)