Here’s a bad idea: You live in a house that looks like it belongs on France’s Normandy coast and you’re intending to landscape the yard with your Sonoran Desert cactus collection. This odd combo might look nice to you, but don’t expect any style awards. Granted, there’s probably not a vigilante brigade from the Crimes Against Horticulture squad in your neighborhood waiting to publicly shame you. But, like chocolate milk and sardines, some things just shouldn’t mix it up.
When we talk about “garden style” we generally mean a garden emblematic of a particular historic period and geographic region. For example, Mediterranean-style gardens reflect the influences of Islam and the Moorish culture: conservative use of scarce water, simple floral color schemes, and water-thrifty plants arranged to reinforce a symmetrical layout of the grounds. Many Japanese gardens embody the Shinto religion’s animist belief that nature is imbued with spirit. Based on this philosophy, they show reverence for natural elements.
I think that if you live in a house with a distinct architectural style, you have a higher obligation to marry the garden to the house. Take a weekend bike ride and look at other homes like yours. You’ll notice gardens that just seem to fit the house and others that clash. Chances are, the ones you like follow the design principles of that historic design period. A traditional style house will have symmetrical walks, rose beds, perennial borders; a 1950s Modern uses strong angles and high-contrast, sculptural plantings.
On the other hand, if figuring out the style of your home leaves you scratching your head and running to the nearest architectural historian, don’t fret. A house that doesn’t make a strong style statement frees you to try on different styles without causing a visual train wreck of conflicting concepts. Like the ubiquitous white-painted walls of an art museum, there’s no conflict if one gallery exhibits the wildness of a Jackson Pollack free-for-all and another displays the more restrained work of the Italian Renaissance.
And then there’s Eclectic, whimsically grabbing bits and pieces from different styles. Sometimes it’s the style people call the “mix-and-match” approach—it doesn’t fit neatly into a category. That’s okay. Some of my favorite garden designs defy labeling. But every day they bring joy to their owners and to visitors. Sometimes a client apologizes for not being more committed to a particular look or style. I put them at ease. “You’re the one who lives here. If it makes you smile (and nobody gets hurt), I’m cool with that.”
The shape of things
One question that often hangs up novice designers comes right at the start: “What shapes should the pieces of my garden take?” Some garden styles call out for the imperfect balance we often find in nature —curving paths and edges, irregular massings of plant material. For other designers, there’s comfort in grids and symmetry. Here are three different-but-the-same gardens, all based on the same key features, but each expressed in a different style. This is by no means an exhaustive exploration of all the possibilities, but demonstrates how personal taste and style can influence the finished dream garden. Ask yourself which kind of style are you most comfortable with. Then, whip out a sketchpad and see how you can fit one of these approaches to your garden.
This approach has a casual feeling using organic, flowing forms you might find in nature. It can be used with almost any style of architecture.
- flowing lines
- asymmetrical balance
- irregular massing of plants
This treatment plays off the proportions of the house and has a more stationary feeling. Try this layout with classic architectural styles.
- parallel and perpendicular lines
- regular geometric forms and arcs
- symmetrical balance
- static planting beds
This is a more playful, “artsy” direction, using the grid approach, but kicking it off kilter. It adds a feeling of dynamism and is well suited to contemporary forms of architecture.
- dynamic use of space
- plants follow grid but leap across edges
- corner beds have more depth
Selecting a theme
Another approach to creating the garden of your dreams is introducing a theme or two. Weaving a consistent theme through your garden adds an extra dimension to your yard. Like a musical motif that comes and goes, expressed in a slightly different way each time it appears, a theme ties the garden together and generates anticipation for the next reveal. As you’ll see, most themes can exist within any style of garden.
One of the most common themes used in garden design is water. For every style of garden there are traditional ways to incorporate water. Mediterranean-influenced gardens use water with great reverence, due to its scarcity. At the center of the patio, water is expressed as a barely bubbling fountain surrounded by a simple geometric pool. Elsewhere, perhaps in a secluded refuge, a birdbath provides another expression of water, offering a refreshing sip to visiting creatures.
In contrast, a woodland garden might feature water as a gently flowing stream. You don’t even need real water to make a statement. In a desert landscape, a dry arroyo with artfully arranged boulders and rocks tells us that water has shaped the garden, but isn’t always present.
I think of gardens as existing not in three dimensions, but in four, employing the viewer’s movement in time. You can create a feeling of movement with a series of paths that lead you through the garden, using screening plants at eye level to conceal, then revealing outdoor rooms and vistas in a game of hide and seek. Movement also includes plants that are animated by breezes, like tall ornamental grasses, or clattering columns of bamboo.
I’m not going to try to define garden art for you—eye of the beholder and all that stuff. For some folks, classically-inspired works in marble serve as magnets that draw visitors along the paths and through the garden. For others, displaying their grandkids’ hand-painted bird houses on the fence outside the family room does the trick. Next thing you know, the yard becomes dappled with youthful expression and fun. Collections of found objects can be organized in a series of “galleries,” with each exhibition embellished with plants to suit the mood.
Art can be the center of attention or teasing from behind a spray of foliage. Practical items like seating, lights, handrails, and gates can be turned into works of art, in the right hands. Though these will likely cost more than mass-produced plastic lawn chairs, they can elevate your garden to a higher aesthetic level and personalize it. Funk is art, too—look for things you can pull from the waste stream, then soak them in a bowl of imagination overnight.
If you want your garden to attract desirable wildlife, consider bird feeders, beneficial insect-attractors, native plants, moving water, and lightly managed tangles of brush. They will reward you with a show of flying and creeping creatures to entertain you.
You can play with color by designing different parts of the garden based on a dominant color scheme, such as a blue garden with restful morning colors, a hot-colored garden that comes to life in midday sun, or a white garden glowing on moonlit nights. If you’re adventurous, paint the nearby exterior walls of your house different colors to match your garden!
“The gentle art of plagiarism”—Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!
Your chances of creating the garden you dream about increase when you figure out what you like and what you don’t. Even more important is understanding why you like what you like. Take a garden tour, flip through magazines, or cruise websites for styles and themes that excite you. Make a list of what you love and you will be taking the first steps to assembling the components that can be arranged artfully—finding your own style.
But there’s a catch. What if the garden that gets you all hot and bothered is growing in the warm, muggy environs of Durham, North Carolina and you garden in the cool, forested regions of the Pacific Northwest? For certain, you won’t be able to simply cut and paste the design, then sand down the edges to make it fit. But you can use that garden to prime your pump. Here’s what you do…
Collect photographs of a half-dozen gardens you like, lay them out on the table, and grab a pad and pen. Use books, magazines, or images you’ve captured from the Internet. At the top of the pad, give each garden a title and write “What I Like About You” (one of my favorite 80s tunes by The Romantics). And since there’s no such thing as a perfect garden, leave additional space for traits that fall in the “Nice, but…” category.
Do some garden study
Let’s assume that the photo below turns you on. (It’s growing in Santa Barbara, and perhaps has no business in your zone. No worries; it’s just here to help find your personal style.) This is essentially a three-plant combo featuring a purple-leaf plum tree (left), New Zealand tea bush (right), and Spanish lavender (bottom).
Notice where your eye goes first. More than likely, it’s the dark maroon foliage of the plum. There’s something rich and sensual about it—it’s in high contrast to the rest of the composition. On your pad, jot down “purple leaves” in your “Hell YES” column. Maybe you’ve just found a new flavor to spice up your landscape?
Do the flower colors please your eye? Pale pink plays well with maroon foliage—the tint and shade of red. And the lavender flowers add contrast without coming on too strong. That’s because lavender is the tint of purple, the hue just next to red. Make a note: “Strive for subtle range of colors” and “Pink and lavender flowers are yummy together.”
What did you just learn? You’re attracted to an analogous color scheme, built around red. This scheme expands the color palette by using tints and shades while leaving out the primary hue.
Continue analyzing the composition for “big picture” traits. Perhaps the composition feels a bit too crowded. In the “Nice, but” column write, “Keep plants airy and open.”
Let’s take one more analytical pass. Notice a range of foliage sizes that add to the contrast—larger leaves on the tree and delicate foliage on the others. The same thought process applies to the density and form of each plant: some solid, some lacier; some mounding and others upright.
The point is, every visual characteristic of each plant is an element you can exploit when you juxtapose them to generate contrast and harmony.
Cap your garden with a layer of sustainability
I’m hoping that the principles of designing in a sustainable manner are now ingrained in everything we do in the garden and in our lives. But just in case…
There are countless definitions of “sustainability.” So I keep it simple: Design and build a garden that’s as close to a natural system as possible—the fewest negative inputs (water, pesticides, herbicides, energy, money) and harmful outputs (pollutants, run-off, green waste, erosion). For me, that means using local materials; choosing native and locally adapted plants that will thrive with little extra care (except the fun stuff!) and help support wildlife; reusing and adapting materials that can be rescued from the waste stream; minimal disruption to the soil—you get the idea.
With a little creative thinking, these principles can be worked into any landscaping project, regardless of your garden’s style. It doesn’t matter if your planting beds follow a perfect grid or meander through the space—you can still select climate-appropriate plants that are known to thrive on benign neglect. Try repurposing pieces of your old concrete patio and forego the flagstone that’s mined with fossil fuel-consuming heavy machinery and hauled from far away. Of special importance in low rainfall areas, find opportunities to harvest rainfall and slow its flow through the garden so more is returned to the soil and deep aquifers.
Build a team
It’s been almost a decade since I published a garden design book (more on that in a sec) and flew around the country giving talks. My favorite way to start when speaking to what I lovingly called “The Rabid Horticulturist Societies” was to ask, “How many of you can walk out into your back yard and say, with a straight face, ‘Yes, I meant to do this’?” After the giggles and uncomfortable feeling of “busted!” subsided, I’d make my pitch for bringing in a professional designer. Even paying for an hour or two with a pro can give you a sounding board for your ideas and perhaps provide you with fresh ideas to move forward, either on your own or with a full-service master plan.
Or, read a book. I know just the one. It’s called Yards: Turn Any Outdoor Space Into the Garden of Your Dreams (St. Lynn’s Press, 2013) and I’m the author. I set out to demystify the process that professional designers follow. I’m very proud of it. New York Times bestselling author Amy Stewart was kind enough to write the blurb on the back cover: “Billy Goodnick delivers the most laid-back, user-friendly and entertaining garden advice you’ll ever read. Invite him into your yard—now!” Ask your local indie book store to order a copy or two (you have friends who garden, don’t you?) or find it online.