Tag Archives: laying out a bed

Blocking out a bed

16 Sep

Here’s my fantasy:  a garden bed that looks fabulous and interesting year-round, without necessarily tons of flowers all the time but with handsome foliage, contrasting shapes,  and well-graded sizes creating a sense of balance and an ineffable beauty even in the depths of winter.

How hard can it be?

I’m far from an expert.  Those are the folks who can conjure up a beautiful planting with the mere bat of an eyelash.  Most gardening books are utterly maddening to me because they’re written by people who know their plants so well that they can hardly remember what it’s like to struggle to put something attractive together.  This isn’t advice from a sage.  It’s advice from someone who sat, dazed and confused, in front of plant lists and catalogs many a time, unable to process exactly how all these pictures are supposed to come together to make a garden.

I used to sit down with lists of plants that I like and start planning from spring.  My the time I got to mid-summer, I was always out of room, and I would end up with a few odd flowers tucked here and there for late summer and fall color.  And hate it.

It was only after several years and much frustration that I realized my problem:  Like 95% of gardeners, I was doing it backwards!

Spring is the easiest season to plan for in any zone up to 8a, particularly, because of the ephemerals that obligingly blossom and disappear before the first big heatwave.  Any idiot with bag full of bulbs can make a spring garden pop.  Naturally, then, spring is the last season to plan–something to slip in between the other flowers while relying on bulbs planted under perennials that haven’t leafed out yet for the big punch.

So instead, I started with winter.  Winter interest consists of evergreens, interesting twigs and bark, and plants that keep interesting shapes after they die to the ground, like may grasses and Sedum “Autumn Joy.”

I’ve done this for everything I’ve designed over the past year and have been terrifically encouraged.  For now, I’ll stick with my streetside bed, which is my newest (not yet implemented) design, as my example.  It is 28′ wide and 8′ deep, and it’s the only full-sun space in my entire front yard, so I really want to get some bang for my buck.  On one side, it’s bordered by the driveway; on the other, by the property line.  The front touches the street, and at the back is a cement culvert to drain off rainwater.

The purpose of this bed is to screen the house and yard from the street.  We live at the end of a cul-de-sac, and about twice an hour, someone will drive down to the end, circle slowly, and drive away again.  A few people are probably lost.  The others are likely perusing the neighborhood; very few people know we’re back here, and when they discover our neighborhood, most visitors seem obsessed with the need to drive up and down the streets.  (Hey, so were we!  It’s a beautiful neighborhood, with houses that are very different from one another.)  These drive-bys at night get annoying, as headlights of turning cars can shine into the house.  I’m also hoping to discourage Bambi and his punk deer pals from raiding further into the yard.  Plus, my larger plans for the front yard involves a serious of garden rooms–and I can’t stand to see my only full sun space remain unplanted.

Over the next several days, I’m going to use this as an example of a straightforward way to design a bed–one that you can apply to almost any situation.

Today, I’m going to start at the beginning:  blocking out a bed the way I do it.

To block out a bed, first you determine its size and shape.  (Done!  See above.  This was easy; it was pretty much determined by the property shape here.)

Then, you decide on the general shape of the plantings.  This means the places for tall, rounded plants, evergreens, short plants, that sort of thing.  There are no details here.  It’s only a rough idea.

Because I wanted high screening behind and yet it came all the way up to the street, I decided to have four layers of heights of plants:  low, meaning a foot or less, near the road; medium, meaning 15″ to two feet; taller perennials, meaning two to three and a half feet; and finally a backbone of shrubs, from three to eight feet.  The only reason I can do this is because I can plant the shrubs near the edge of the bed, so that they grow over the concrete culvert that delineates the back of the bed.

To keep this from looking like a mishmash of plant “samples,” I need to make wide and narrow swaths of plants, the narrowest no less than 3′ wide.  This echoes the long line of the bed and makes the most of each planting.  Roughly, like this:

This is a really important point, one that’s easy to forget.  (I’ve forgotten it often enough to my sorrow!)  Impact from smaller plants comes from repetition.  If if something doesn’t cover at least five square feet, it’s going to have little weight in a mixed border of this type.  Every plant needs enough visual space to make an impact.  This means that either you should plant in swaths or you should leave blank area around specimen plantings for adequate appreciation.  If there are too many things competing for attention in a combined space, the result is chaos.

Now, for more preliminary work:

I didn’t what to my garden to be a sacrificial altar to the ravenous devils popularly called “deer,” and so I started with a list of deer-resistant plants.  I relied mainly on a list compiled by the master gardeners of Williamsburg, Virginia, since it’s near enough, and I supplemented that list with one from White Flower Farm.  Local lists are best:  Deer’s tastes appear to be regional, as I found to my woe when planting earlier things that no deer would touch in, say, Ohio, that they all thought was the finest gourmet food imaginable here.

I started out with a basic color plan for my bed.  I wanted as much of an emphasis on (evergreen, when possible) foliage color and texture as bloom, and for foliage, I wanted every major color–green, silver, chartreuse, and blue–in either brilliant contrast or complement.  For bloom color, I chose purple, pink, and white/cream, with punches of orange and yellow only very early in the season.

I decided I wanted a lot of evergreens (because of the border’s front-and-center place in my yard), and if much space was given to things I was growing for foliage, not bloom, then long bloom time on the plants I did choose for flowers would be crucial.  So I hunted down lists of plants that bloomed a long time, too.  I didn’t care if the plants were unusual or cool so much as bountiful and reliable!