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Garden Design

This is my chance to elaborate on my thoughts on garden design. As I mentioned in my video – the place to start is with figuring out how you want to use and divide up the spaces in your property. I see this as the opportunity to avoid making expensive mistakes. Don’t plant that cute tree someone gave you right where you will eventually build a deck. Expensive raised beds constructed over a future drainage project that will carry nuisance water away from the house will be a heartbreaker if you have to dismantle them.

Questions of access and traffic, shade, privacy and storage use all come into this basic planning phase. Do you want more privacy? Shade in the summer? Wind protection in winter? Easy access to the house for yourselves and visitors? Places for extra cars, boats and compost piles? Room for a football game or a pool? Or do you just want a place to relax and play at growing stuff? This is also the time to be honest with yourself about how much time, energy and money you have for the maintenance and care of your garden.

I am always surprised at how reluctant people are to consider such practicalities, and how satisfying it is to make a long-term plan for the use of space.

Having sorted out the basics of what-goes-where, you can move on to the interesting question of what you want it all to look like. It helps to take a good look at the house you have bought. Did you go for a modern home in a new sub-division? Or an old cape or farmhouse? Or a grand old Victorian on Main Street? If the house suits your tastes, its garden should reflect them too. Ask yourself if you want a neat and formal ‘set piece’ look, or can you enjoy a more natural, untidy garden. Do you want riots of old-fashioned flowers, traffic-stopping displays or minimalist plantings of evergreens? Are you hoping to bring in birds and bees or would you rather be without them?

These decisions, once roughed out (and nothing ever stays the way you first intended it!) mean you can start figuring out what plants to use. This is where many people start, but it works so much better if you have the basic first steps figured out first, as now you have a frame work into which to fit the plants that you like. This is where you recognize that some plants, however lovely, are not for you. They may need too much care, grow too wild and shaggy, or simply impart the wrong character for you and your house. The endlessly fascinating project of learning the identity, ecology, preferences and habits of all the plants that might grow in your garden may be a draw or a barrier to you. If you want predictable, well-behaved plants you will be picking from a different list than the person who wants gorgeous color and bloom, or the person who wants naturalized chaos and all the wildlife that it can sustain. But your initial planning will be your guide as to how to locate and group plants such that they help you to execute your plan.

I could go on — and I do! There is no end to this subject – only libraries full of the history, philosophy and science of making gardens, and everyones garden is best when it provides that which you want it to be. But there is one over-riding principle which guides my approach – although I recognize that not everyone will agree with me. I find that simplicity in design is always better than unnecessary embellishment. I think it is true of fashion, architecture, food, music, writing — you name it. It is a question of doing the most with the least – of not putting ‘stuff on stuff’ (which may or may not be a quote from Calvin Trilling about food). There is beauty, and skill, in making do, of re-using, re-purposing, salvaging and repairing, rather than bulldozing and starting over. It is more challenging, and more satisfying, to find the simplest and most economical answer to a design demand, and still make something beautiful and functional.

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