Harmony in the Garden Blog

Garden Designer’s Roundtable – Some rules are meant to be broken!

flush-down-rulesWhenever I begin a new design, at some point early in the design process I like to invite the new client to my garden so they can 1) get a first-hand look of my own, personal favorite style of gardening, and 2) identify the plants they like/dislike for their own garden.  It’s also a great way to get them excited and to start thinking about the details of their project. And while I do take pride in showing my garden to others, I’ve been noticing that I start to make excuses before the client’s have even stepped out of their car!  Excuses like “Oh don’t worry – I won’t give you a garden like this…” and  “Okay – your pathway will be totally different than this…”

In my head I’m thinking “Kids…don’t try this at home”…Then it dawned on me – I’m a Giant Hypocrite, breaking many standard design ‘rules’!

Rule #1:   Make those pathways wide enough



Okay – it’s pretty common knowledge among designers that you need to make pathways plenty widewide enough for 2 people to stroll down together, conversing with one another about what a wonderful job their landscape designer did (haha!).  And for the most part – my pathways pretty much follow this rule.

Daisy on her path
.......All except this one
.....and maybe this one, too! But I have my reasons - honest!


The first was installed about 10 years ago with the sole purpose of providing a walkway for my fussy little dog so she wouldn’t have to get her feet wet when she walked out to use her potty area (which is waaaaay on the other side of the house).  My little princess can’t stand wet lawn, and once we figured out that if we made it easier for her to get to her ‘spot’ she’d use it!  And you know what – it worked!  Except I wasn’t really thinking about the fact that people don’t like to walk on wet lawn, either – and will always choose a pathway instead.  Over the years, after hosting several outdoor parties, I’ve realized people will walk just about anywhere BUT lawn…they hate it as much as my dog!  So make sure you give those patios and pathways plenty of room!  In hindsight I wish I would’ve made it 36″ wide – instead of it’s narrow 24 inches.  Oh well…..


The second pathway, however, is intentionally designed to be narrow, sort of a ‘hidden pathway’ beckoning to those who happen to notice it.  I wanted it to be one that someone might accidentally discover – not one that screams out to the world ‘Hey – I’m over here…come and walk on me!”  And it’s successful – just last week, my neighbor’s little boy came running up to me to tell me he found a ‘secret pathway’ in my garden!


Rule #2:  Proper spacing between plants



I once read in a garden design book that the proper spacing between mature plants is 20 to 30 inches.  While theoretically this makes sense – it gives the plant plenty of air circulation, allows the eye to take in one plant at a time, prevents crowding – in my own garden, the proper spacing between plants is more like 20 to 30 millimeters!


I took this photo yesterday, which is a perfect example of this common rule.  There’s plenty of space between the plants – that’s for sure!  This garden was planted 2 years ago, and while the plants will continue to grow, they’ll never run the risk of (gasp!) touching each other.


This is definitely NOT my own personal style.  But this rule, in particular, is one in which I’m constantly dancing on the line.  Most of my clients want a garden that’s over-the-top beautiful but low-maintenance.  The above garden is definitely low-maintenance, but is it over-the-top beautiful?


I’ll confess – I’m a crammer. The mantra that plays over and over inside my head is “bare ground=planting opportunity”. In my own garden, I constantly push the limits, and love to experiment.  Sure sometimes things go wrong – packed in plants sometimes develop mildew, or they begin to shade out another plant.  But that’s the whole point of my garden – to experiment and have fun with it.



Orange 6_1DSC03600.

Admit it – aren’t these examples more exciting to look at?  Full of texture, excitement, foliage contrast, flowers  and colors galore.  Even in a small bed, you can stuff in lots of plants with the end results being quite dramatic.  Yes, it’s more work.  A LOT more work.  But it’s so rewarding for me to see a visual feast like this each day!


Rule #3: Plant smaller plants up front and taller ones in the back


Yes, yes…visually that makes sense, I know.  Having one’s eye start down low, then gently leading upwards to the taller plants in the back.  This garden is a perfect example of this rule – kinda like your school’s class photo…the smallest plants in the front with the tallest in the back.


But how boring is THAT when it’s used over and over again.  It’s a little too predictable.


Sometimes I like to place larger plants right up front – kind of an ‘in your face’ style.  I find this breaks up the ‘expected’ and causes your line of sight to say ‘Whoa..what’s going on here…slow down just a minute now..’  It keeps the garden interesting and from looking too ‘designed’.

Some of my favorites to place up front are those plants which are large yet ‘airy’ (so you can still see through them)..such as Verbena bonariensis, Anigozanthos (Kangaroo Paws) or a smaller Manzanita like ‘Howard McMinn’.


But they don’t always have to be ‘see-through’ – like this Senecio greyi and the Silver Lady fern demonstrate. Sometimes just having a larger plant up front is all you need to break up the “predictability” and create a sense of intrigue about what might be around the corner…

Rule #4: Reading (and believing) those plant tags!

planttagWhile I tend to talk to clients until I’m blue in the face about ‘selecting the right plant for the right space’ and to ‘read those plant tags, people!’….the rebel in me does just the opposite.

When I see a plant that I want, somehow I’m convinced that the plant tags are incorrect and that I should just go ahead and plant a 4′ shrub in a 2′ space.

Or that I can can easily ‘just keep it pruned’!

Or I’ll talk myself into believing that when the tag says ‘full sun’ it’s a typo and it really means ‘mostly shade’.

Or, my own personal favorite mind game: when the tag says ‘invasive’ it really means ‘in other people’s gardens’.

I’ll admit it – I like to push the envelope. And why not? There’s been many times that I’ve planted a ‘shade only’ plant in mostly sun with great success, and visa-versa. Though their tags said ‘full sun’, I have some plants that have never seen a ray of sunshine, and they couldn’t be happier!

IMG_0248_1PhloxPathway groundcovers




Check out my Phlox, Agapanthus and Elfin Thyme in the full (but bright) shade. Their tags clearly said they want sun- Ha Ha! Score one for me!


Regarding the ‘Light Requirements’ on the those plant tags, here’s a little tip I was told by a local nurseryman: those tags are quite often printed with a nation-wide ‘blanket statement’ approach to a plant’s light needs.  When it says ‘full sun’ – it probably means full sun in other parts of the country, where they also get lots of supplemental summer rain.  It’s not necessarily saying ‘full sun’ out here in California where it’s dry as a bone in the Summer.

So if you’re not sure yet and still want to gamble on a plant’s light requirements, it might pay to do a little research first.  Or then again, maybe not.  Sometimes I’ll take the risk, and personally, I like my own little success stories.

Rule #5: Each garden should reflect the individual

DSC05827This is one rule in which I whole-heartedly believe!  Not an easy task, though, when some clients are so overwhelmed by garden choices and decisions to make.  This is usually the case when someone has finished a complete remodel, and they’re finally getting to the garden and all they want is to do is to MOVE IN – not have to think about any more details!  Sometimes it just takes a bit of ‘coaxing’ to help them discover ways to personalize their garden – such as incorporating their children’s artwork or items from their past which may have meaning to them, as well as purchased garden art.



Here are some examples of things in my own garden which are priceless to me…


wall o junkheartwater pump

In my own garden you’ll find little stepping stones that my kids made each year at our local “Fall Festival”, a pot that I made with my 2 best friends last year when we took a series of pottery classes, my personal collection of old garden tools and stuff’ that’s been in my family for years and years, a heart that I made many years ago from some branches of a dying Plum tree, and an antique water pump (a wedding present from me to my husband)…

It’s things like this that make the difference between a Yard and a Garden.  And it’s things like this that the client sometimes needs help incorporating – either before, during or after the project.  They’re like the ‘accessories’ to the perfect outfit – SO necessary!!

Sometimes it’s the small touches that give a garden it’s soul.

A big THANK YOU! to Susan Morrison for thinking of such a creative post idea and for organizing a few other fellow APLD designers to write on this same topic, forming what we now call the Garden Designer’s Roundtable.  Please make sure you read their posts as well to find out if they ‘practice what they preach’!

Susan Morrison’s Blue Planet Garden Blog

Susan Cohan’s Miss Rumphius’ Rules and

Scott Hokunson’s Blue Heron Design Blog

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