The perfect garden design starts with you. It is based on personal likes and dislikes. It can be whimsical, abstract, geometrical, practical, vibrant or soothing or a combination of elements. What matters is that you are drawn into your surroundings with a peace in your soul. A garden should be a place where you long to be – “To thine own self be true.” (Act 1 Scene 3, “Hamlet,”William Shakespeare)
Designing and maintaining gardens for many years has taught me a great deal through trial and error. As I finally retire completely next year, I look forward to reassessing the home garden to make it more inviting year round. With pen in hand, let’s take a look at some abbreviated landscape tips that come together to make a perfect garden design.
• Location – Choosing the right site sounds easy, but there are factors to consider. Sunlight, shade, slope, drainage and wind will all have an effect as will the desired size and purpose of the garden. By spending time outdoors before landscaping, you can watch the movement of the sun throughout the day and throughout the seasons, notice the dry areas and the areas that stay wet, feel where the wind blows and where it doesn’t, observe areas that provide privacy and those you may want to screen.
• Design features – I love the sound of water. No landscape is complete for me without it. Our first landscape included a 6’ wide x 10 long’ pond with a cascading waterfall on one side. We dug the hole to a depth of 2’ at one end that went to 4’ deep, put down a liner, secured the edges with stone coping, and placed flat flagstone in a manner to create the waterfall. We made sure that we had a grounded exterior electrical outlet installed professionally for the pump. It looked beautiful and we loved it, until we realized that the pond had to be cleaned frequently because adjacent live oaks dropped leaves into it, the filter and pump needed regular maintenance and the liner would grow slime readily, requiring us to empty the pond and power wash it every year if we wanted clear water.
So, with that knowledge in hand, our water feature today is much smaller and simpler and is adjacent to our small patio and deck. It was included in the build out of the patio. Basically, we bought a 50 gallon round preformed pond tub with a strong perforated lid, dug a hole and placed it in the hole to a depth of a foot or so. A professional landscape firm laid the pavers for the patio area and then adjacent to it, they built a 4.5’ square wall (one foot in height) for the water feature. It touched the edges of the tub, requiring just the corners of the square to be filled. We knew we wanted small plants so we put 6-inch diameter PVC pipe in the corners, filled them with potting soil and planted succulents. We filled the tub and placed a simple pond pump with a filter on the bottom. The waterfall is made from the same flagstone of the old pond. The water is drawn upwards by the pump through a hidden tubing, cascades down into the top of a former bird bath metal basin that sits on top of the lid. As the bird bath fills, the water spills over the edges and returns to the tub through the perforated lid. The lid is hidden under small gravel. We haven’t had to do any major maintenance to the pump. We add water that is lost though evaporation and clean the bird bath once a year as it will grow algae in the warm months.
Other design features we wanted included a patio, deck area and an outdoor shower. We chose cool toned pavers for our patio, added the enclosed outdoor shower at one end and had a deck for outdoor dining built at the other. The deck is not used much. It’s a great size for seating six at the table but the composite decking has proven too hot to walk on much less use in the summer months and in the cooler months, the sand gnats and mosquitoes can be a problem. So, I plan to build a gazebo over/around it with drop down netted sides, and add a fan and lighting in the center. It makes no sense to have an outdoor dining area that is never used!
• Circulation and traffic flow – You have to figure out how to move about in the garden design. Our circular drive is gravel, with pavers at entry points to driveway from the street and at the garage. The path to the front porch consists of pavers and the path around to the back consists of flagstone. We also have easy access from the house to the back patio and deck area through large sliding glass doors.
• Plants and planting beds – Our climate is hot and humid with a few months of reprieve. And the warm season starts in March and continues through October. The soil tends to be sandy on the coast and barrier islands. My suggestion is to design beds that can be maintained easily, incorporate copious amount of organic matter into the soil before planting, and plan for an irrigation system to be installed. Always use mulch after planting to control weeds, soil temperature and soil moisture. When it comes to plants, consider that a lot of a few varieties is better than a few of a lot. Groupings of odd numbers of plant (3,5,7) work best. Remember accent plantings or an accent specimen. Be sure that the mature size (both height and width) match the site you have chosen for them. Too many design plans use inappropriate plants and/or put in too many! I have also cared for gardens that have plants that require too much TLC. Choose what grows well here. I am satisfied with perennials that thrive in our heat and humidity and have learned to embrace native plants. I use container plants for annuals (no more plantings in the ground) and have gotten rid of all grass. My desire is for a low maintenance garden year round.
If you love a vegetable garden like I do, let me give you a hint. Keep it at a size you can maintain! Next year will be the first year in 15 years that I will need my own garden. It will be enclosed (deer issue), no bigger than 10×15 feet, all raised planters and it will have a gravel base throughout. Location will be in full sun with easy access to a garden hose. No longer will I try to maintain an organic garden any bigger than this. Weeding can be overwhelming and the insects never seem to die here! Happy gardening!