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Lydia Kiezebrink, September 3 2021

Expert Do's and Don'ts of Garden Design

With the growing season as short as it is here in Ottawa, we sometimes feel it's a race to get our gardens looking their best. Every spring, we eagerly visit garden centers and come back with a collection of new favourite plants, get them in the ground and await to be awestruck by their display. Why is it then, that we are often disappointed by the full effect of our gardens? That, although we may love each individual plant, when we look at the garden in its entirety, it seems lacking? These professional planting design tips will help you get the garden you long for. 

1) Don't rely on flowers

There's no disputing the beauty and colour that flowers bring to the garden. The problem is that flower duration for most perennials and shrubs is only about 2 to 3 weeks and many flowering plants can be very ordinary and uninspiring when not in bloom. Using plants with staggered bloom times helps to offset this problem but an even better strategy is to use plants which have interesting foliage, form or texture --- all attributes that remain for the whole growing season (see our Tip #3 Use Contrast) . Unlike flowers, these qualities are not fleeting and so deliver extend design value. It's not to say that you shouldn't include flowering plants in your garden, but think of them as a bonus rather than a critical element of your garden's design.

Shrubs can be uninteresting when not in flower. (right photo)  Interesting foliage colour provides a longer period of interest (left photo)

2) Plant en-masse

Clutter is displeasing to the eye and when we put a variety of single plants next to one another, the eye registers it as clutter. This very common planting practice results in a "collector's garden" and is the single-most common mistake made by amateur gardeners. Instead, aim to plant, at a minimum, in groups of 3 (odd numbers are best), but ideally in even larger groups of 5 or 7 or more. Yes, mass planting means the variety of plants in your garden is limited, but the ones that make the cut will have higher impact, creating a more dramatic and pleasing overall effect.

A collector's garden:

Mass planting: 

Mass planting in drifts:

3) Use contrast

Putting two things with contrasting attributes next to one another has the effect of highlighting those attributes and making us take notice. A plant's texture, form and colour are the 3 key attributes used to create this dramatic effect (see Expert Tip: Using Contrast in the Garden for more detail) .

Coarse textured leaves against fine textured leaves:

Plant forms and colours contrast here: bright green arching grasses, red upright stems and a dark purple globular shrub:

4) Create vertical interest and structure

Don't forget to punctuate the landscape with taller plants for vertical interest. A landscape where everything is the same height is very uninteresting, especially in winter when low plants are covered in snow. Adding taller woody plant material serves to expand our views as well as add structure and balance to the landscape.

Trees add punctuation to the landscape: 

Taller plants soften and balance architecture:

5) Plan for year-round interest

In our experience, the most neglected seasons with respect to garden appeal, are fall and winter. Most people seek out plants that flower in spring and summer but often don't give much consideration to fall and winter. We are fortunate to live in a hardiness zone that supports wonder fall foliage colour and shouldn’t forget to include a few shrubs or trees that put on a wonderful fall display.

Armstrong Gold Red Maple & Burning Bush:

Winter is even more challenging as much of our gardens are under snow cover during this period. That doesn't mean, though, that they need to be boring. Evergreen plant material, berries, fruit, bark colour, bark texture and plant form can all contribute to a beautiful winter landscape. Branches become wonderful collection spots for snow and ice, creating a lovely sculptural effect. The colour range of conifers (green, blue/silver, yellow), can also be very showy in winter.

Structure in the winter garden:

Showy berries:

 Showy fruit & Conifer colours:

Interesting bark & Interesting form :

Now that you are armed with these expert design tips, examine your gardens with a critical eye. A few small changes may be all that's needed to realize an improvement. If an overhaul is in order, approach it in stages or call in professionals like the team at Eden Design (edendesign.co) to transform your landscape into the one you long for.  

Written by

Lydia Kiezebrink


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