Give your garden great bones
Memorable landscapes get their character from walls, benches, patios, fountains, lighting and planters — all the things that aren’t plants.
You’ve probably seen good gardens and great gardens, and maybe you are a little mystified by the difference. Gardeners often are surprised to find that, after they’ve installed a stunning — and expensive — collection of plants, their garden is just blah.
That’s because, oddly, a garden with only plants is boring. "Too many plants, when they aren’t separated and organized by hardscaping, can be just too much for the eye to take in," says garden designer Keith Davitt. When you add a big rock, a bench or a curving path to a profusion of plants, suddenly the garden has a story to tell; it draws people in.
The most memorable gardens are those with internal structure — what Davitt and others call "hardscaping." It’s a catch-all term for the permanent fixtures that give gardens shape and dimension and provide a framework for the plants. Some call this a garden’s "bones."
Hardscape elements include paths, lighting, fences, stone walls, gates, benches, pergolas, arbors, trellises, rockeries, terraces, patios, decks, fountains and other water features, large landscaping rocks and boulders, sculpture and ornaments, containers, raised beds, planters and even edging around flower beds.
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Thoughtfully installed, garden bones enhance your property’s value by giving it an attractive, finished look. Hardscaping can let you enlarge your home by extending the livable space into the outdoors.
It also can be used it to play down your property’s flaws and highlight its strengths.
"If you’ve got things growing over a trellis or a fence, you aren’t going to notice the thing you don’t like — you’re going to notice the plants and the structure," points out Marianne Lipanovich, co-author of the "Sunset Big Book of Garden Designs."
A few examples:
- Frame your view of a neighbor’s lovely pear tree with strategically placed trellises and vines or by building a path pointing to the view.
- Install a lattice fence to block your view of the neighbor’s house.
- Install a sculpture or an ornament that leads the eye away from the busy street or a neighbor’s garbage cans.
You’ve probably seen gardens where hardscaping was overdone: bubbling fountains, reflecting globes, stone paths, brick paths and slate flagstones, a pergola, four squirrel sculptures, several gnomes, three bird feeders, a bird bath and a couple of windmills.
To keep your look clean and unified, cultivate your "eye" (your visual judgment), paying attention to what looks good to you and what doesn’t, even if you can’t explain why. You’ll gain confidence as you go, says Davitt, who wrote "Hardscaping: How to Use Structures, Pathways, Patios & Ornaments in Your Garden."
1. Think big. When making any change, think about how it will affect your entire property, including the house.
- To make sure your ideas will work as you hope, take your time before making permanent changes. Try out ideas by making drawings; thumb through landscape design books and magazines from the library.
- Ask the opinions of friends whose taste you trust.
- Walk your property, picturing how the change you’re considering might affect it. Stand back and look at it from all angles, including from across the street.
- Experiment by trying out new elements in several locations. If you can’t literally move hardscaping around — as with paths or patios — mark the proposed boundaries and notice how you react to the changes. Observe how light and wind will hit the new installation. Look for problems, such as obstructing the flow of pedestrian traffic, that the change might create.
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2. Select focal points. Intriguing and magical landscapes are built around a few carefully chosen focal points — pieces of hardscape.
- One focal point may be enough if it is in the right place. "You don't want too many, because they then stop being focal points and become distracting," Davitt says.
- A larger garden may support several focal points; a small garden fewer — perhaps just one or two.
- Focal points can be vertical — an arbor with a cozy bench for reading, perhaps, or a tall piece of sculpture, a bird bath or a garden tuteur (tower).
- Examples of horizontal focal points include a patio with dining set or lounging furniture, a pond or a dry creek.
3. Edit. Design the entire landscape around the focal points, directing the eye to them. When adding something new, check to see that it doesn’t compete with your focal points and clutter the landscape. If you have collected many treasures that you want to showcase, rotate them in and out of the garden, keeping most in storage.
- Keep experimenting with new locations for favorite things.
- You can move planters and big pots with a hand cart or wheeled stands.