Shape Up Your Garden

What does it mean when a garden has good “bones” or a strong framework? Think of it this way. Laying out a well-defined pattern of trees and shrubs is as important to a beautiful garden as constructing a framework of walls, windows and doors is to designing a wonderful house. In both cases, the “skeleton” defines the style, size and character of the space.

Too often gardeners start developing their landscapes by adding dabs of flowers here and there. This is a bit like picking out decorative accessories before the house is constructed. It is important to define the spaces within the garden and determine their use before decorating an outdoor setting with colorful flowers.

There are several advantages to building a strong framework in your garden:

  • Framing a garden actually makes plant selection and gardening much easier by creating manageable spaces that reflect unique moods and style.
  • Framing a garden saves you time. When borders are structured with trees and shrubs, all you need to do is fill in with a healthy dose of perennials and pockets of annuals to create a low-maintenance garden.
  • Framing a garden allows you to be a magician. You can make your neighbors disappear, conjure up a magical oasis from a lackluster lot and increase your living space by creating a series of outdoor areas for you to use and enjoy.

The first step to strengthen the framework of your garden is to make a list of activities you like to do outdoors. Then consider the best location for these activities so the designated areas become natural extensions of indoor rooms.

Using orange surveyor flags (found in home centers), or other markers you have on hand, such as a garden hose, lay out the “walls” of the rooms that may become either screens or hard surface areas for patios and decks. Keep in mind that the most pleasing spaces are created when the scale of the garden room reflects the proportions of the dwelling itself. From the center of each new area, take photographs in the direction of each “wall” or side of the room to document the entire perimeter.

Use the photographs as background for your designs. Place tracing paper over prints or enlarge color copies, and draw in plantings for borders. At this stage simply think about the plantings as large blocks or shapes – don’t be concerned about which plants to use. Draw in the shapes and forms of the plantings that best match the style of your garden and home. Loose, flowing shapes suggest a casual garden while evenly spaced, columnar shapes are better suited for a formal home.

Consider combining the plantings with fences, gates and other structures. Determine the height and width of the plants best suited for the area.

Consider light, water and soil conditions. If you want to establish a hedge, the entire length of the border should have the same growing conditions so the plants will fill in evenly. A fence or wall may be better suited if there is too much change in the growing conditions.

Now match the shapes you’ve selected in the borders with plants that have similar forms. Decide is you prefer evergreens, for a year-round screen, or deciduous plants that will lose their foliage in winter.

Choose 3 or 4 varieties of “workhorse” plants – those that are easy to care for, dependable plants suited for your area – as your structural plantings.

Develop a plan for several rooms at once to ensure that each area will add to the overall plan.

Call before digging! It is important to know the location of all underground electric and telephone cables as well as gas lines before digging. Utility companies will come out and mark the lines free of charge.

Whenever possible make your borders at least 6 to 8 feet wide. This will give you room to mix trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. If you have less space consider columnar or dwarf varieties and containers of plantings can be placed to build the framework around patios and decks.

By taking a little time now to strengthen the framework of your garden, you’ll be better prepared next spring to decorate with colorful flowers.