How to Design Gardens

Thoughts of quiet, private space in which to relax on a warm summer evening lead right to your own backyard. You'll want your outdoor space to be as comfortable as a cozy room with a glowing fire on a cold winter night. The terrace may lead to a swath of lush grass bordered by beds of rich ground covers, evergreens, and budding flowers. A canopy of trees overhead provide dappled shade that moves with the breeze. Your landscape is a place of peace and beauty because of thoughtful planning, hard work, and patience.

In this article, we'll show you how to design gardens:
  • Designing a Landscape Garden

    Whether you're looking to screen an eyesore or frame a beautiful vista, you'll become personally involved in developing a landscape that suits your needs and desires. You may like to dabble in the yard after a hard day's work, or you may prefer to spend weekends in the garden working on routine chores. Any way you look at landscaping, you can choose the style that fits your needs. In this section, we'll teach you how to design a landscape garden.

  • Landscape Garden Tips

    When planting a landscape garden, you'll want to start with an assessment of your personal needs. Make a list of what you want to incorporate into your design. Take notes of special functions or service areas your landscape will need to provide. Then, consider the tips throughout this section as you build your landscape. You'll discover landscape design ideas that, after implementing, you'll enjoy for a lifetime.

  • Planting Ground Covers

    Grasses of many kinds cover all corners of the earth. Some grow tall with wispy flowers then turn to seed. Some hug the ground, spreading by creeping stems. Some species of grass tolerate wear and regular mowing. When planting ground covers, you'll need to decide which of the many varieties of grasses best suits your yard. Turf grasses are the most durable and commonly grown ground cover. Other species, while not as durable to serve as a yard, are wonderful garden plants. Ornamental grasses can serve as long-lived ground covers. We'll explore the different kinds of ground covers in this section.

  • Designing a Mixed Garden

    Any visitor to commercial public garden can tell you just what fantastic displays a mixed garden can provide. Bare walls are decorated with half-baskets full of flowers; large massed plantings line sidewalks and fill sitting areas; huge planters are jammed with color; baskets of blooms hang from tree limbs and archways; and window boxes decorate balconies. When designing a mixed garden, your limits are only the amount of space and your imagination. We'll help you open up your imagination with ideas on how to design a mixed garden.

  • Designing a Garden for Privacy

    Your backyard garden should be your private oasis. That means that your crazy neighbors aren't joining your barbecue uninvited. The kids from the next yard aren't cruising through your yard killing everything in their path. The dogs aren't eating your favorite begonias or leaving you presents to find later. You need to design a garden for privacy. We'll show you the best methods to design a garden using fences, patios, and paving techniques to keep your garden exactly what you want it to be -- yours.

  • Designing with Trees, Shrubs, and Vines

    Every yard needs more than just pretty flowers to make it complete. You'll want the grandeur of trees arching overhead; shrubs provide privacy and protection; vines can fill in bare walls or fences. Without these woody plants defining the landscape, your backyard would look out of place. Woody plants are expensive and hard to relocate, so you want to make sure you plant them in the right place the first time. We'll show you how to design with trees, shrubs, and vines.

  • Tree, Shrub, and Vine Design Ideas

    Planting a tree, shrub or vine properly is the most important step in growing it. Where you place it is the key to success. In addition to considering the different elements of the outdoor ceiling landscape, you can also look to trees, shrubs, and vines for design ideas. Vines on a trellis can be a focal point of a garden, while vines around a pipe can also block out that hideous mistake in home plumbing. Shrubs can be pruned formally  to create an Edward-Scissorhands-like masterpiece for your garden, or informally to act as a natural barrier between your house and the folks next door. In this section, we'll give you some more design ideas for working with trees, shrubs, and vines.

  • Designing a Garden for Shade

    People rarely set out to create shade on purpose, at least not in the garden. Instead, shade is usually something is forced upon them. It is all too easy to look at the negative aspects of shade: the favorite sun-loving plants you can grow, the inability to get a suntan in your own yard, the pervasive greenness rather than the riotous color of the mixed border. Often there is little you can do about shade, so why not accept it and learn to live with it? You'll quickly find that shade gardening, while a bit of a challenge, offers ample advantages as well. We'll keep the lights on a shade garden in this final section.
There's a different type of garden for every kind of design you could imagine. Let's get started by designing a landscape garden.

Designing a Landscape Garden

Any beautifully designed landscape may be attractive to view, but if it doesn't accommodate the needs of the people who use the property, the landscape design is not practical. Before making a plan for your space, discuss with the members of your household the needs and plans for use of the landscape.

Create a functional sketch when designing a landscape garden.

With a sketch pad, carefully plot the relationships between
indoor and outdoor space in a landscape design picture.

Make a list of desired functions before making the actual plan. The following functions are some that you may want to consider: sitting/dining area, clothesline, barbecue, dog pen, wind protection, vegetable garden, compost, lawn recreation, children's play area, and firewood storage.

Draw a simple sketch showing the general location of the elements needed in relation to the house and one another. For instance, if an outdoor eating area is needed, sketch it near the kitchen, and firewood storage should be convenient to the door nearest the fireplace. The relationship diagram will help you in the beginning steps of putting a plan together. In addition, decide the level of maintenance you are willing to meet. Your plan should reflect the amount of maintenance time you're interested in spending in the yard and garden.

If your house is visible from a road, you have a public view area. Think of your house, or front door, as the focal point of a picture. You'll want to frame the view, to draw attention to your house. Typically, foundation plantings are set at the base of the house to create a transition between the house and the landscape. Foundation plantings can be a simple mix of small evergreens and flowering shrubs, ornamental trees, ground covers, and herbaceous plants. Consider shade when choosing trees; deciduous trees will shade the house in the summer while allowing sunlight in during the winter. Be sure to screen service areas -- trash cans, laundry lines, and the like -- from the public area.

You'll want to develop other sections of your landscape for outdoor living. You may decide to incorporate a service area -- toolshed, doghouse, clothesline, potting area. It should be convenient to the house yet tucked away from public view and private entertaining. If children will be using the landscape, plan for a children's play area: A swing set and sand box may be in your plans. You'll want this area set aside but in full view for easy supervision. Separate the children's area from the eating and entertaining area with a low border, and you'll get a feeling of separate outdoor rooms.

A private entertaining and eating area is among the most common space needs of a well-planned landscape. Design it as you would a comfortable room in your house. The size of the area should be determined by the number of people who will be accommodated. A patio or terrace with adjacent lawn for occasional spillover works well. Privacy from neighbors as well as shade can be achieved through the proper selection and placement of screening materials and a canopy of trees.

Create a Functional Sketch

When you plan for outdoor activities and traffic patterns, related functions should be grouped together. For example, parking and entrance to the house go together. With a sketch pad, carefully plot the relationship between the indoor space -- windows and doors -- with the outdoor space -- public, private, and service. From the list of functional areas you need, designate space to accommodate each function in your landscape design picture.

Traffic Flow Design

The purpose of paths, walks, and driveways is to direct and safely move traffic from place to place. The heavier the traffic, the sturdier, wider, and more permanent the path should be. Make entrance walks comfortable enough for at least two people to walk abreast (a minimum of four feet, five is better). Service and rear-entry paths should be three to four feet wide. Garden paths should be designed so visitors feel comfortable on a stroll through the garden. Stepping-stone or mulch-covered paths allow easy access to corners of the garden during maintenance. All paths should be flush with the ground for safety. Make sure steps and grade changes are stable, safe, and well-lighted.

Mapping Things Out

A simple assessment of your landscape needs is your first step in planning your property. Make a list of the features you want to incorporate into your design. Then you can begin to find the room for it all and start putting the elements in place.
  • Draw a map of your property and decide where the new beds and plantings will go before you start buying and planting. The map needs to be to scale -- an exact replica of your property in miniature. Many landscape designers use a scale in which 1/4-inch on the plan equals one foot in your yard. This scale usually provides enough room to show considerable detail but is likely to require the use of oversized paper so everything will fit on one sheet for a complete landscape design picture.

    When designing a landscape garden, get inspiration from public gardens.

    Get inspiration from public gardens.

    Measure the yard using a measuring tape (50-foot lengths work well), and sketch the perimeter on graph paper. Draw in existing trees, shrubs, fences, and other features you intend to keep, using an overhead view. Make some copies so you can experiment with designs. Then pencil in possible bed outlines and imagine how they will look. Once you've decided on the location of the beds, pencil in the plants you want to add (at the proper spacing) and get an accurate count of how many plants you'll need before you start shelling out any money.

  • Plan the shape of the lawn, which is usually the biggest feature in a yard. The lawn's shape is more important than the shape of the beds. If it's designed with straight or gradually curving lines, the lawn can make a pretty picture and remain easy to mow. Avoid sharp turns, wiggly edges, and jagged corners, which are irritating to the eye and extra work to mow.

  • Take photos and photocopy them. You can shoot the entire front yard or backyard, the plantings around the house's foundation, or individual gardens. Enlarge them on a color copier, if one is available. Then you can sketch in prospective new plants and get an landscape design ideas of how they will look. Winter is a great time to do this. Although the yard may be dormant, you won't forget how it usually looks.

  • Borrow ideas from neighbors' gardens. There is no better way to learn what grows well in your area. You can also get great garden landscape design ideas from other people. Remember, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

  • Visit public gardens and nurseries with display beds for inspiration. These professionally designed gardens may have the newest plants and creative ideas for combining them. Look for gardens about the same size as your yard so you can apply what you learn directly.
This is just the beginning of landscape design. Click to the next section for more inspiring landscape design ideas.

Landscape Garden Tips

It's always difficult to visualize how large a plant will grow once it becomes part of your landscape. For instance, an eight-inch high Chinese juniper will grow to eight feet tall and eight feet wide in a few short years. Plants mature at varying rates: Some establish themselves very slowly, others very quickly.

You'll need to determine the size you want the plant to reach within a particular time frame. If you're planning a patio and need a quick source of shade, a fast-growing tree may be just what you need. Foundation plantings need a different solution: Slow-growing dwarf shrubs and ground covers are often the answer for a foundation around a home where space is limited. You may want to plan on planting some fast-growing materials, which are sometimes short-lived, along with some slower-growing species, which are often long-lived plants. When the slow-growing species become established, remove some of the faster-growing species that have outlived their position in the landscape.

A good landscape design plan incorporates plant height into the design.

Good landscape design incorporates plant shape into the design.

Choose plants according to their position in the landscape. Consider the natural shape, height, and width of plants before you install them. Improper plant selection often disappoints the homeowner when drastic pruning or costly renovation measures are required.

As you plan your design, think about the plant characteristics you need before you decide the plant to install. Think about the shape of the plant: Would a round or vase-shaped shrub suit the area best? Think about the size: Do you need a tall shade tree, or a short, round ornamental? Consider the growth habits that fit into the design best: Is a ground cover with an extensive root system needed to hold together a bank, or would low, arching shrubs work as well? Existing soil conditions, wind, sun exposure, and hardiness are also serious considerations: Do you need a plant that can tolerate wet soils, or one that will thrive in dense shade? Once you've answered these questions, find a plant that is suited to all of the requirements and your success will be almost guaranteed.

Pruning to keep plants in bounds is an integral part of landscape upkeep. Some plants, such as
formal hedges, are sheared to maintain a formal appeal. Most plants require thinning to maintain their natural shape while reducing their size. The season of flowering is a good guide to direct your pruning shears. Flowering shrubs are best pruned when flowering ends; the plant can then generate new stems to produce next year's blossoms. Evergreens are best pruned in early spring. Pruning initiates new stem and leaf growth. If you prune too late in the season, new growth will be damaged by winter before it can fully develop.

Landscape plants may be pruned for dramatic effect by implementing a "special effects" pruning plan. Multistem shrubs, such as holly, bayberry, and lilac, can be pruned into a "standard," or single-stemmed small tree. When the plant is young, remove all but the strongest, straightest trunk. Stake the single trunk and remove all side branches to the point where you want the tree to branch out. Annual pruning is necessary to remove suckers from the base and side-branch shoots. An espalier is a tree or shrub that has been drastically pruned to grow flat or in a predetermined pattern along a fence or wall. Whether a formal or informal shape is desired, regular pruning and bending of the main stems is practiced. This produces interesting character in a plant species that might not otherwise fit in an allotted space.

The Magic of Movement

When designing your garden, the position of sunlight and shade at different times of the day and different times of the year is an important piece of information. You'll need a basic knowledge of the movement of the sun in relation to the garden's features. Understanding this movement will help in deciding the placement and choice of plants. The sun rises north of the east-west line in the summer, exposing all sides of a house to a certain amount of sunlight. It's high in the sky, producing short shadows from buildings and plants. In the winter, the sun rises south of the east-west line, producing long shadows from structures and plants.

Movement is an important garden design principle.

These flowers sway gently in the wind.

Choose plants that will best suit the natural effects of exposure. The sun can have different effects throughout the day. The introduction of shade provides relief for plants and daily movement of color and mood. A plant needing full sun may do well even if it is shaded for a few hours in the late afternoon, but a shade-loving plant might burn if it receives a few hours of sun during the afternoon.

A garden in the morning has characteristics that may not be evident during the later, shady hours. During a summer day when the sun is rising, parts of a shady garden may light up with sunlight and then give way to dappled shade as the sun rises higher in the sky. Plant and construction materials appear to take on different textures as the angle of the sun changes. Sun and shade are constantly changing patterns, changing the feel of the garden from hour to hour and season to season.

People are attracted to movement in the garden. Water cascading into a pool, for instance, always attracts attention. Grow plants that will attract visitors: Butterflies and hummingbirds are among the easiest and prettiest guests to entice. You'll have to allow some natural food for the caterpillars and plenty of flowers that provide nectar for hummingbirds, but the activity in the garden is wonderful.

Water gardens attract attention in a landscape garden design.

Water gardens attract attention in a landscape garden design.

Use plants to accentuate the movement of the wind as it blows through the garden. Plants with paper-thin leaves flutter like birds, creating interest through movement. Many plants -- particularly ornamental grasses with flowers and seed heads high atop tall, slender stalks -- produce a quiet rustle with seed against seed creating a natural wind chime. Summer breezes add romance to a garden, carrying the fragrance of phlox or moonvine through the air. Scent is one of the garden's most subtle delights. As fragrance drifts through the garden, the garden visitor will feel inspired and refreshed.

Tree Placement for Afternoon Shade

Carefully consider the placement of shade trees for your outdoor living space; it is difficult to remedy a poorly placed tree after it has matured. Each variety of tree has its own growth habit: Some are tall, broad, and slow-growing; others grow quickly into vase-shaped or rounded crowns. Allow at least 15 feet from foundations for large trees and at least eight feet for small, ornamental trees. To create afternoon shade, plant medium trees 15 feet south and 20 feet west of your living area; increase the distance for large trees.

Ground covers add to the beauty of a garden. Learnn how to plant ground covers in the next section.

Planting Ground Covers

Planting ground covers is a fulfilling way to utiilize all of your garden space.

Ground-cover plantings should be evenly thick. It helps to set plants in place at regular spacing in the first place. Begin by preparing the ground as for any garden bed. Then use a wire or string grid with regularly spaced openings at three-inch intervals (or other size if appropriate) to help you distribute the plants. For easier, trouble-free planting, consider the following tips:
  • Use landscape fabric instead of plastic to reduce weeds in large plantings. Landscape fabric has pores that allow free air and water movement a big advantage over impenetrable plastic. Lay it down before planting and then cut holes in the fabric. Plant your ground cover in the holes. When covered with mulch, landscape fabric prevents light from reaching the soil, which will stop the sprouting of most weed seeds.    
  • Hold barren soil in place with burlap when planting ground cover on a slope. This will prevent erosion while the ground cover is getting established. You should pin the burlap securely into the soil so that it won't slip off when rain makes the soil heavy and wet. Cut modest openings in the burlap and plant one ground cover in each.                                             
                  A heallthy ground cover should establish a strong root system.
                  A heallthy ground cover should establish a strong root system. 

Once the ground cover establishes a strong root system and is able to secure nearby soil from erosion, you can gradually enlarge the openings and allow it to spread until it fills out the slope.

  • Set ground cover plugs in place using a wire grid stretched over the bed for fast, easy planting. The regularly spaced openings will help you to coordinate spacing without a measuring tape.     
  • Help ground covers spread by layering stems as they grow. Layering encourages stems to root while still connected to the parent plant.
Ground covers such as pachysandra are easily rooted simply by covering barren portions of the stem with soil and keeping them moist.

For harder-to-root ground covers such as wintercreeper, you can remove a small piece of bark from the bottom of the stem and treat the opening with rooting hormone before covering the stem with soil.

A Gift of Ground Cover
Ground covers spread fast. People with established gardens often have ground cover to spare, because it needs thinning or trimming.

See if a neighboring gardener or even a groundskeeper at the park will fill a big plastic trash bag with starts of wild ginger, epimedium, or pachysandra for you. It will save you some serious money, compared to buying flats at the garden center or hiring a landscaper to do the job. 

  • Spread netting or old sheets over ground covers during autumn leaf drop. It can be difficult to rake leaves out of thick ground covers, and allowing the leaves to sit and mat on the ground-cover bed creates unhealthy conditions. But planning ahead to catch leaves as they fall allows you to gather up all the leaves in one easy move and keeps the ground cover uncluttered. 
  • Rejuvenate winter-burned ground-cover plantings by mowing. If a cold winter causes broad-leaf evergreens to grow brown and unsightly, don't give up hope. There is a good chance that the roots are still alive and will send up fresh green growth come springtime. Mowing off the old leaves gives the new leaves plenty of space and keeps the bed tidy.
Using Ornamental Grasses

Ornamental grasses add grace to any garden. With their array of colors, textures, and sizes, ornamental grasses add year-round interest. They even become animated when wind weaves in and out of their leaves. Only your imagination limits their use in your garden. Whether as a specimen or a massed planting, grasses can be used for screening, accent, focal point, or to frame a view. Since grasses are found over the entire earth, you're certain to find a variety to suit your decorative and cultural needs.

Ornamental grasses can be mixed for an effective landscape design.

Ornamental grasses, shrubs, and border plants
can be mixed together effectively.

As with turf grasses, ornamental grasses are categorized as cool-season grasses and warm-season grasses. Many ornamental grasses are perennials, but some are so tender they're treated as annuals. Cool-season grasses actively grow during the cool parts of the year; some even stay green throughout the winter. Before the warm-season grasses begin to show much life after dormancy, cool-season grasses burst into quick, lush growth. They bloom early in the season. When frost comes, the foliage and seed heads turn a bright golden tan and continue to offer a fine display through winter.

Warm-season grasses remain dormant through the winter. When the weather and soil has warmed up sufficiently, they grow rapidly. Warm-season grasses are best left alone except for an annual cutting back at the end of winter. They thrive on hot, long days and, once established, are tolerant of drought conditions. Most require a long growing season to flower in late summer and autumn, when many garden perennials have ceased blooming.

Ornamental grasses are also grouped as to how they grow. Some grasses form dense clumps, others spread by stolons or rhizomes. Clump grasses are easiest to use unless you have unlimited space to allow the grass to roam.

Clump grasses will stay where you plant them, but give them ample space to grow. Determine each variety's space needs and expect a properly tended grass to mature in three years. Grasses that spread will quickly invade the space of other nearby plantings unless they are planted in an area where you can contain their growth.

Ornamental grasses require little maintenance. Most varieties prefer well-drained soil in full sun; some varieties tolerate partial shade. Fertilizer needs are low; over-fertilization results in tall, lush growth that may require staking. Enjoy the grasses throughout the winter season; they add interest when nearly everything else is dormant. In late winter, cut the grasses down to allow for new growth, but be careful not to cut too low since damage to the growing shoots may occur. Two to six inches, depending on the size of the grass, should be sufficient.

Ornamental grasses can line a pathway for an inviting look.

A garden pathway edged with ornamental grasses
is peaceful and inviting.

Designing with grasses is easy. Use small grasses as edging plants; they're often hardier than many commonly used edging plants. Try planting a bank with two or three varieties of grasses; use taller varieties behind shorter ones to create a feeling of depth. Grasses mixed with perennials tie materials together during interim periods when one season's blooms have finished and the next season's blooms have yet to begin.

Ornamental grasses are an excellent choice for an unusual ground cover. They have appeal throughout the year, and there are many varieties to choose from. Ornamental grasses also serve as effective screens from early summer through winter. Choose varieties that will grow to at least eye level. Space the plants so they will form an impenetrable mass at maturity. Mix in evergreens to form a deep screen for all seasons. Any single, large ornamental grass can be used as a specimen plant. Use grass as a focal point in an open garden, or use a giant variety to break up expansive spaces. A single, fine-textured upright specimen breaks the monotony of a flat, coarse-textured planting.

Grasses are also well suited to container growing, as long as they receive the moisture and nutrients necessary for continual growth.
Some ornamental grasses are invasive in some regions. Check your state's weed list before you plant.

Ground covers offer a unique look to your landscape design. Consider using them to show off your creative flair. Learn how to design a mixed garden in the next section.

Designing a Mixed Garden

Many of us recall the old-fashioned gardens of our grandparents or other relatives and neighbors. These were usually a hodge-podge of annuals, perennials, and shrubs. Frequently, there were also trees, vegetables, and small fruits -- strawberries, raspberries, or currants -- mixed in.

It seemed that gardens, rather than being planned, more or less "happened." More likely, they evolved. As the gardener fancied something new or was given a plant by a friend, it was inserted into an available blank spot. Where yards were small and space was limited, these mixed gardens combined whatever was at hand. The end result often had an individual charm that was undeniable and delightful.

There's no reason, of course, why we can't create a similarly informal effect in a modern garden. For those with limited garden space, a mixed garden makes especially good sense. It allows us to have some of our personal favorites, rather than limiting us to only a few kinds of plants -- as is the case of massed garden designs.

A mixed garden is a very personal one that truly reflects the individual taste of the homeowners. Rather than being a garden for show, it's a garden designed for the pleasure of those who own it. If others who visit it also find it enjoyable, so much the better.

The numbers on the deisgn plan to the left correspond with these flowers:
  1. Morning Glory (over trellis)
  2. Moon Vine (over trellis)
  3. Garden seat or other garden feature with impatiens planted around and behind it
  4. Marigold
  5. Lobelia, blue
  6. Cosmos, mixed
  7. Hollyhock, mixed
  8. Birdbath
  9. Marigold
  10. Red salvia or red peppers
  11. Perilla
  12. Pot Marigold, yellow
  13. Sweet alyssum, white
  14. Swan River Daisy

Mixed design completed sketch.

The completed sketch.

A mixed garden deisgn plan incorporates these multiple annuals.

This mixed garden design plan includes many colorful annuals.

Some uniquely charming mixed gardens are possible. Fruit trees, such as peach, pear, or apple, can supply partial shade to flower beds filled with combinations of different-colored annuals and perennials. Clumps of favorite vegetables can also be placed among these flowering plants. The casual visitor might never notice these, since so many vegetables have attractive foliage to add to the garden scene. Feathery carrot tops; purplish beet greens; the bold and interesting foliage of parsnips; smooth, blue-green onion spikes; and large rhubarb leaves all make attractive additions to any flower bed.

Mixed Garden Design Ideas

Beds and Borders
  • Make island beds half as wide as the distance from where you view them. Island beds, often oval or free-form, are situated in areas of lawn where they can be viewed from all sides. They may be near a corner of your yard or by your driveway or entrance walk.

  • No matter where you put it, an island bed needs to be wide enough to look substantial from your house, patio, or kitchen window -- wherever you usually are when you see it. A tiny garden located far from the house is more comical than beautiful. So, for example, if an island bed is 20 feet away, make it 10 feet across. In very large yards, keep beds closer to the house if you don't have time to maintain a large island bed.

    This border is inviting and can accommodate taller plants.

    This border is inviting and can accommodate taller plants.

  • Make borders up to half as wide as the total space in a small- or medium-size yard. For example, a 40-foot-wide yard could have one border 20 feet wide or two borders10 feet wide. Borders -- traditional gardens usually set at the edge of a yard, fence, or hedge -- also need enough size to be in scale and make an impact in the yard. Wider borders can accommodate taller plants, including trees, shrubs, and large clumps of perennials and ornamental grasses, and so take on a rich diversity.
Paths and Pavings
  • Build garden paths anywhere that foot traffic wears out the grass. Paths make pleasing straight or curving lines through the yard and make it easier to get where you need to go in wet weather. They also save you the trouble of having to constantly reseed barren, foot-worn areas.

  • If you have a large lot, make paths wide enough for two people to walk side by side. If your path is of grass, make it wide enough to accommodate a lawn mower. Give your paths turns or curves so that part of the scene comes as a surprise as you stroll.

  • Paving materials range in style, price, ease of installation and maintenance, and appearance. Here are four popular options:

    • Irregular flagstones create a casual but handsome appearance. The walkway is leveled and laid out more carefully on a gravel bed, with or without mortar. For a more formal appearance, rectangular stones are used.

    • Professionally laid brick paving is durable and rather formal. There are several possible patterns and edgings, but simpler styles look best. Paving bricks are flatter and broader than bricks for buildings. Recycled or antique bricks can be used for pavings and edgings.

    • An ordinary concrete sidewalk, plain and simple, is a good-looking and practical choice and is usually less expensive than stone or brick. Be sure to make the path sufficiently broad or it may look too cramped.

    • Where a path is needed, and a casual look is desired, wood or bark chips can be used. This kind of path is permeable, so water does not run off, which makes it environmentally friendly. Because the chips break down, a new layer must be added from time to time to refresh the path. The old, decomposing chips can be left in place under the new ones or used for mulching or soil embellishments.
Garden Accents
  • Use a collection of pots to end cut-throughs and shortcuts. Gaps in the shrubbery or fencing around your yard are an invitation for neighborhood kids to slip through. Even adults will be tempted to shortcut across the lawn instead of following a longer path up the walk. Reroute traffic by blocking openings and detours with large pots of plants, flowers, herbs, or even your indoor floor plants brought outside in the summer. Cluster them together in a barrier that's not easily skirted. As a bonus, you'll have a dynamic plant grouping with maximum impact on the landscape.

    Use mixed garden plantings.

    These garden wheelbarrows are a nice way to block shortcuts.

  • Use old concrete from a poured sidewalk as stepping stones in a bed or border. This faux stone is either given away or sold inexpensively by communities conducting sidewalk renovation. Other people may have the same idea, so call well before you need the concrete and get your name on a waiting list if necessary.

  • Create a shade garden without trees by planting under a vine-covered arbor. Shade gardens can feature serene blends of ferns, hostas, and woodland wildflowers, plus a few dazzling bloomers such as azaleas and rhododendrons. Although these plants usually grow amid trees and shrubs, they can thrive in shadows cast by other structures -- walls, fences, houses, or a vine-covered arbor.

  • The advantage of an arbor shade garden is that fewer roots are competing for moisture and nutrients. And unlike a planting close to a wall or building, the arbor shade garden has plenty of fresh air circulation. In addition, an arbor looks great when clad in flowers and handsome foliage.

  • Cover rocks and bricks with moss using a buttermilk-moss milk shake. A soft green moss veneer adds an air of antiquity, permanence, and beauty to walls, walks, or woodland rock gardens. You can wait a few years for moss to naturally creep into moist and shady places, or you can encourage a quicker appearance. Gather local cushion-forming mosses, the kinds that thrive in your climate, and find a garden location similar to where they naturally grow. Mix the moss with buttermilk in a blender and pour the concoction onto the appropriate rocks or bricks in your garden. Let it dry thoroughly. Keep the area moist, but not so wet that the milk shake washes off the bricks or stones. New moss will soon make an appearance.

  • Reduce the volume of strong winds by planting a layered assortment of plants as a windbreak. Wind can knock down and dry out plants, generally making it harder to get the garden to grow well. Layered plants -- taller trees with shade-tolerant shrubs planted under them -- create an irregular barrier that gently stops wind. Solid fences, in contrast, allow wind to slip up and over and swirl back in on the other side.

    A bench in the garden adds to its beauty.

    A bench in the garden adds to its beauty.

  • Don't forget to place a bench in the garden. You can sit and admire your handiwork, which always looks best up close. Your bench, even a rugged one, can double as garden sculpture
If you don't want to be limited to only a few kinds and colors of flowers in your garden, consider planting a mixed garden. With the wonderful array of annuals at your disposal, it's even possible to have an entirely different and unique garden every growing season. In the next section, we'll discuss designing for privacy.

Designing a Garden for Privacy

One economical way to expand your living space is to go outdoors -- patios and decks are functional and are significant design elements in the landscape. If you decide to add a patio, terrace, or deck, calculate how large it needs to be to accommodate all the people who will use it on a regular basis.

Also think about the type of furniture you'll be using; outdoor furniture takes up a lot of space. Study potential locations throughout the seasons and at different times of the day; you'll have to decide whether you want the deck, patio, or terrace in sun, shade, or both. If a shady site is not available, the planting of a single tree or the construction of an overhead canopy are possible solutions. It's best to place the deck or patio in relation to the house; entrances, traffic flow, and food preparation are considerations. A patio needs a fairly flat area; decks and terraces lend themselves more easily to sloped land.

Patios help create outdoor privacy.

A patio needs a fairly flat space for entertaining.

If an existing patio is in poor repair or too small, renovation may be in order. Loose and disjointed bricks or stones set in sand are easily repaired by removing disjointed pavers and regrading the sand surface. Matching brick or stone can usually be purchased for expansion. If an old concrete patio is cracked and deteriorating, either remove the old patio -- usually a massive chore -- or build a deck over it.

The shape of your patio depends on your creativity. Complement the shape and style of the surrounding garden and the style of the house. Squares and right angles tend to look formal and traditional. Use wide sweeping lines carefully and sparingly. Curved lines can make a space seem smaller and create awkward spaces that are not large enough to use. Integrate plantings to help soften lines, increase privacy, and add interest. Most of all, be creative; grid patterns and paving combinations are unlimited.

The choice of paving materials is the most important element in the design. Choose a material that complements your landscape and home. Wood decks add a modern yet often informal appeal to the landscape. They are easy to build but should be considered major construction. Concrete is strong and durable and should be done by a professional. Brick and stone are the easiest to construct.

Screening, whether by plants or fencing, is sometimes necessary for wind and noise reduction or for privacy. Patios and decks at high levels tend to be exposed to excess wind. To reduce wind, plant open crowned trees or shrubs that will reduce a gust to a gentle breeze. Vine-covered lattice or fence sections work well for protecting the seating area from wind. Where noise is a problem, as in urban areas, you'll need a dense planting of shrubs to significantly absorb sound. Thick-leaved, dense conifers work best.

An important concern for an outdoor entertainment area is privacy. Even if your home is an estate in the country, a patio or deck is most comfortable when it feels like an outdoor room, with some feeling of enclosure. Small trees and shrubs are effective in building the "walls," and a canopy of trees gives the feeling of a ceiling. Choose and place plants to achieve all these effects as well as providing screening for privacy. Keep part of the patio or deck open for easy traffic flow into the lawn space and other surrounding areas. Fencing can be effective in providing privacy as well as adding elements of texture, color, and interest to the garden. A simple eight-foot section of fence can screen an unpleasant view and provide privacy.

Use the landscape to your advantage for privacy.

Use the landscape to your advantage to secure privacy.

Edgings are used to permanently outline and separate garden beds and borders from lawns. They help define and organize space and make mowing easier; they keep garden maintenance low by preventing creeping grasses from invading the bed; and they restrain mulch from washing into the lawn. Use a string line to mark straight edgings. Lay a garden hose for long sweeping curves; keep curves wide for easy mowing. Before digging, view the hose line from all angles to make certain it is a shape you like.

Paving with Brick

To build a brick-surfaced patio, choose a paving brick from the wide assortment of sizes, shapes, and colors available. Mark the area to be paved with string and remove six inches of soil. To carry off rainwater, grade the slope of the patio two inches for every six feet of distance. Tamp the soil as flat as possible. Build a lumber, metal, or brick edging frame along the perimeter of the patio.

Spread a two-inch layer of gravel, then a sheet of landscape fabric. Next, lay two inches of sand. Use a screed to flatten the sand layer; firmly tamp the sand. If the sand is not tight, the bricks will settle, making an uneven surface. Following a pattern you've selected, lay the bricks flat and tap each one lightly into place. Sweep sand into the joints.

Using Fences for Privacy

Fences and screens can be constructed from ready-made panels or created by the builder. Decide the function of the fence, and determine the style needed to fit that purpose and position. Fence panels need not be completely solid to provide privacy. Long sections of solid-board fencing can be monotonous. Integrate lattice or patterns into panels and use plants to soften the space.

Another way to secure privacy is to design with trees, shrubs and vines. We'll explore those design elements in the next section.

Designing with Trees, Shrubs, and Vines

Woody plants are a permanent, year-long presence in the landscape. This permanence helps determine their major uses.

Consider the landscape as if it were a living room. The floor would be formed by low-growing plants and ground-hugging constructions, like lawns and ground covers, patios and pavement. They form the base of any landscape. But what about the rest of the landscape, the walls and ceiling? That's where trees, shrubs, and climbing plants come in.


Shrubs and vines, as well as related constructions such as fences, form the walls of the room. They help define its boundaries, separating your yard from your neighbor's and one garden area from another. This is most obvious when plants are grown as a hedge, but even informal plantings of shrubs will help define bounds between various areas.

Shrubs borders form wall for privacy.

This cluster of small flowering shrubs acts as a wall.

A simple cluster of shrubs, for example, can separate the children's play area from a quiet rest area or the service area with its shed, garbage cans, and clothesline. Formal hedges, because of the obvious barrier they create, are most often used to define property lines.

Shrubs can also offer a screen for privacy, or they can block unsightly views. Deciduous shrubs are good choices for screening: They offer privacy during the summer months yet allow a maximum amount of winter sunlight to penetrate your yard at a season when light is at a premium. If the goal of the screen is to block an undesirable view, evergreens -- both conifers and broad-leaf -- are the plants of choice, since their cover is permanent. Taller shrubs can also be used as windbreaks or to create a bit of shade in an overly sunny spot.

Vines are used much like shrubs, except they must grow on some sort of support, such as a fence or trellis. A hedge may need many years to grow high enough to block a view. You can create the same effect in a year or two by planting a vining plant at the base of a fence. If you can't put up an attractive fence, a simple chain-link one with vines planted at the base will offer security without being obtrusive.

Vines are also useful in places where space is lacking. Most shrubs quickly attain a diameter of three to five feet; this can seem a waste of space in a tiny urban yard. Vines grow vertically: Most cling so closely to their support that they take up only inches of horizontal space.
For security purposes, you might want your wall to be composed of plants with spiny leaves or branches. A fire thorn or barberry hedge, for example, can be as effective a barrier as a chain-link fence but far more attractive.


After the "floor" and "walls" have been taken care of, the outdoor living room needs a ceiling. Although the sky can serve as an outdoor ceiling, it can be too much of a good thing. The vastness of the sky keeps a garden from feeling intimate.

The tree defines the ceiling.

This tree defines the ceiling.

Trees block out part of the sky, defining the sky's borders. Trees also contribute structure to the garden. Trunks and branches act as posts and beams to bring the sky down to a more human scale. For this management of the sky, trees have a purpose in every landscape, even the smallest one.

Trees have other uses as well. No other characteristic of trees is as obvious in the landscape as the shade they provide. Through their ability to filter sunlight and to cool the air through evapotranspiration, leaves can reduce the temperature by up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit on a hot summer day. Shade also protects from excess sun that can annoy your eyes and be dangerous for the skin. So every garden should have at least one shady nook. Some trees are known as "shade trees." These are usually taller trees with a broad crown. Smaller trees can also provide plentiful shade, although you may prefer to remove some of the lower branches for sitting.

Putting It all Together

With the structure of your "living room" -- floor, walls, and outdoor ceiling -- now clearly defined by the lawns and woody plants it contains, you have the base on which to build your landscape. All you have left to add is the "furniture": flower beds, accent plants, and the like.

Defining Woody Plants

Woody plants come in all shapes and sizes, from tall and upright to low and creeping. Aside from producing wood, these plants have one thing in common: persistent stems, meaning the stems survive from one year to the next. This distinguishes woody plants from herbaceous (nonwoody) plants like perennials, which die back to the ground each year. Although many woody plants lose their leaves in the winter or dry season, the stems survive and produce new leaves the following year. Trees, shrubs, and most vines are woody plants, but the boundaries between each group are not always clear.

Trees Versus Shrubs

Although most people recognize a tree when they see one, defining what does and does not constitute a tree is not easy. This is particularly the case when distinguishing between a tall shrub and a small tree.

One common definition of a tree is a perennial plant that bears only one single woody stem (the trunk) at ground level. Size is not a determining factor in this definition. A tree can reach 100 feet or more in height or only one foot for miniatures. In practice, however, a very small tree is likely to be treated as a shrub. Woody shrubs have several stems rising from ground level. Shrubs are also usually smaller, often 3 to 12 feet tall. There are many obvious exceptions, such as trees with multiple trunks that can be very hard to distinguish from tall shrubs. Other plants can be either trees or shrubs depending on how they are grown. These general definitions, however, do help to distinguish between the two groups.

The pruning on this tree helps to define the landscape.

The pruning on this tree helps define the landscape.

Humans also influence plant growth by pruning and other practices. For example, a gardener may prune off all the secondary stems of a shrub, leaving one to three main trunks, thus creating a "standard" (tree-form shrub). A gardener may also repeatedly cut back young trees, forcing them to branch at their base, turning them into shrubs. Nature does the same thing. Some plants that normally grow as trees will take on a shrub form at the northern limits of their range. Each winter their top growth is pruned back by cold, causing them to develop multiple branches rather than a main trunk. Subshrubs are plants with woody stems, yet they die back at least part way to their roots each year. Subshrubs are usually treated as perennials. Some true shrubs, such as butterfly bush, will behave as subshrubs in cold or extreme climates.


Vines can be separated into three main categories: woody vines, with permanent above-ground stems; perennial vines, which die back to the ground each winter and then sprout again in spring; and annual vines, which start anew from seed each year. A woody vine can be considered a shrub that needs some sort of support to grow well. Some woody vine (including many types of clematis) die back to the ground each year, just as subshrubs do, especially under harsh climatic conditions. Only woody vines are covered in this section.

Deciduous or Evergreen?

Trees, shrubs, and woody vine are classified as either deciduous or evergreen. Deciduous woody plants usually lose their leaves in the fall. In warmer climates leaf loss can occur at other times in the year, notably at the onset of the dry season. Evergreen plants remain clothed in foliage throughout the year. They do lose their leaves, but gradually rather than all at once; they are never completely barren. Some woody plants are classified as semievergreens. Their leaves are persistent in most conditions but fall off in harsh ones, especially in cold or very dry climates. Deciduous plants often have attractive fall colors. Evergreens present a continuous display of green foliage, even when deciduous plants are bare.

The term "evergreen" is often mistakenly thought to pertain strictly to conifers (cone-bearing plants). This is not the case. There are broad-leaf evergreens, including boxwoods and most rhododendrons, and deciduous conifers, such as larches and bald cypress. In many plant catalogs, woody plants are divided into three categories as to their foliage: deciduous, broad-leaf evergreens, and needled evergreens.

In the next section, we'll show you some design ideas to incorporate trees, shrubs, and vines into the garden.

Tree, Shrub, and Vine Design Ideas

Designing your landscape is much like decorating your home, but you need to plan even more carefully. After all, you can always move the sofa or change the picture on the wall until you get just the right effect. However, you can rarely move a tree, shrub, or vine once it is established. You should plan your landscape on paper first if you want it to be effective.

Use graph paper to update your yard.

Use graph paper to map out your yard.

Start by mapping out your yard. Graph paper is perfect for planning: It takes much of the difficulty out of measurement (each square can be a precise measurement, say 1 foot by 1 foot) and makes drawing straight lines a snap. Draw in the permanent structures first: the house, the garage, the sidewalk, the driveway, and anything else you will not be moving or changing in a major way. Include such features as windows in your house, which help determine special views you'll want to enhance. Draw these in pen.

Next consider any plants or secondary constructions (fences, garden walls, lights poles, and the like) that are already in place and not likely to change. These can be either penciled in or inked in, depending on how sure you are that they really will be conserved. Remember to add utilitarian constructions such as telephone poles, tool sheds, and fire hydrants that you may want to make less visible, as well as any features of your neighbor's yard that you want to either continue to enjoy or hide from sight. Don't include anything you intend to remove. You now have the base on which to develop your plan.

The next step is to start testing your landscape ideas. Make several copies of your base map so that changes are easy, and you have a clean copy for your final plan. Pencil in a few shrubs or trees (or cut out their forms in paper and paste them in place). If the initial results look good on paper, try putting more plants elsewhere. Any time something you add doesn't please you, just erase it and start again. Consider your family's needs both now and in the future; the plantings should mesh with these requirements. For example, if you have young children and intend to install an above-ground pool to keep them busy for the summer, don't plan to plant tall trees nearby because their shade simply won't be welcome.

Once you have your plan, it is time to start shopping for plants, but again, only on paper. At this point, look for shapes, forms, and heights rather than specific species. Try to visualize the height of the plants you want, and the space they'll take up. Include some variety in your plan but don't hesitate to use the same plant in different places or in mass plantings. The pattern thus created will help unify the landscape. Plantings of totally disparate trees, shrubs, and vines will look like a hodgepodge collection. Consider contrast and balance, texture and color, scale and form. If you have large trees on your lot, remember that the scale of your plantings will have to be much larger than in a yard with no trees or only young ones. Large trees tend to dwarf other plants unless the other plants are large also. You might want to color in your plan at this point with different shades of green or spots of color to represent flowering shrubs, trees, and vines.

Planning on Paper

Use graph paper to develop a scale drawing of your house and yard. Ink in permanent structures, then pencil in those features that you are considering planting. Make ample notes to help you better organize your thoughts. When you've developed a plan that seems to meet all your needs, you can begin to look for the proper species to plant. Pencil in potential plantings until you have a design that suits your needs.

Putting Woody Plants to Use

Accent Plants

An accent plant usually stands out from the other plants surrounding it because of an unusual feature. Don't overdo accent plants, or they lose their effectiveness. They are designed to draw the eye, and the eye can't look in several directions at once. One accent plant per major garden feature per season is plenty.

Accent plants stand out from other trees, shrubs, and vines.

An accent plant stands out.

Many woody plants are well-suited to serve as garden accents: incidental features that highlight part of the landscape and draw the eye to it. Unlike annuals and perennials, which certainly make excellent accent plants when they are in bloom, many woody plants can offer season-long interest. It may be a special shape or texture or foliage of a contrasting color. It could simply be a plant that would be quite ordinary in other circumstances but stands out because it is different from the surrounding plants. For example, an upright shrub would make a good accent in a bed of low, spreading ground covers. Small weeping trees often make excellent accents, since they are tall enough to be visible year-round, and their pendulous branches look intriguing even when they are not clothed in leaves.

Shade Trees

Shade trees need to be carefully placed, or they will quickly crowd each other out. Check eventual width and plant them so they will barely touch at maturity. Try planting shade trees about 20 feet from the house on the southwest or west sides. They make convenient air conditioners, lowering the indoor temperature by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Deciduous shade trees have the advantage of blocking excess summer sun but, when their leaves fall, they let in light during the winter when it is most needed. Place them at the corners of the house rather than directly in front of the windows. This ensures they don't block your view, and trees that frame a house make it look more attractive.

When planting shade trees, remember to leave some room for sunlight in your yard, especially if you have or intend to have a swimming pool or a flower, water, or vegetable garden. You can plant shade trees to the north or northeast of these features, where they will cast minimal shadows.

Flowering Trees

These are usually smaller than shade trees and are not as likely to overpower the landscape. They make excellent accents when planted singly, and this is often their best use on small lots. On larger ones, you can try mass plantings or repeating them to define a straight or curved line. Many flowering trees offer all-season interest, with spring flowers, green or bronze summer foliage, colorful leaves in the fall, and bright berries or attractive bark in the winter.

Shrubs are quite easy to incorporate into the landscape as long as their eventual height and width are taken into account. Don't fill up a planting space with young shrubs for an immediate effect. Although it will look good at the moment and perhaps for a year or so after that, it won't take long before the area is terribly overcrowded. Instead, place the shrubs so they will create the best effect when mature; fill in the gaps with mulch or temporary plantings (annuals, perennials, bulbs, and the like). When used as hedges, shrubs can be planted much closer together than they normally would be.

Shrubs can be planted singly, as accent plants, or in borders, often to form a background for other garden plants. Although a shrub border can be composed of mixed plants, you'll get better results by grouping several of a given type together or by repeating a particular shrub elsewhere in the border rather than by using one of a dozen different types of shrubs. Mass plantings of the same shrub are also attractive.

Vines are a great design piece because they cover ugly elements.

Vines add height and beauty, while disguising
elements you want to hide.

Foundation Plantings

Most houses, with their rigid construction and geometric outline, look peculiar if surrounded by lawn only. Houses can best be integrated into the surrounding land through foundation plantings. Plant shrubs and vines, possibly even small trees, near the walls of the building. Do not place foundation plants too close together or too close to the walls. Find out their full diameter at maturity and space them appropriately. Shrubs, even narrowly upright ones, should be planted at least three feet from the walls. If you have an overhang on your roof -- plant the shrubs completely outside the drip line of the overhang. Roots under roofs or porticos will not receive any rain water.

Low-growing and spreading shrubs are ideal subjects for foundation plantings. Vines growing up trellises also make excellent foundation plants. Don't be afraid to mix in perennials or substitute a beautiful perennial garden for shrubs.


Climbing plants are ideal for landscaping because their height and width are limited by the structures on which they grow. Unless climbing plants "escape" by reaching into nearby trees or other structures, they'll remain within bounds. Be careful about planting clinging vines, such as English ivy, up against the house itself. If the mortar is weak, the vine can damage the house's structure. (Scrape at the mortar with a key: If it resists, there will be no danger of damage.) Just in case, consider training vines up trellises set about a foot away from the house.

In the next section, we'll discuss how to design a garden for shade.

Designing a Garden for Shade

Most gardeners consider full sun to be six hours or more of direct, uninterrupted sun per day; beyond that, all definitions fail. To some gardeners, three to six hours of sun is "partial sun" and less than three hours of sun is "light shade." What about gardens where plenty of light filters through overhanging branches over a long period of time? Some people call this "dappled shade" and, while such a site is certainly "shady," it may receive enough light to allow some sun-loving plants to thrive. No direct sun means you have deep shade.

For the sake of simplicity for the purposes of this chapter any garden that does not get full sun will be considered a shade garden. The degree of shade will likely change from spot to spot and season to season. As you work in the shade garden, you'll soon learn what can and can't be successfully grown where. No plant will grow in total darkness, but a great many will grow with only a faint glimmer of natural light. These plants are the ones to choose for the shade garden.

These vines thrive in a shady garden.

These vines thrive in a shady garden.

Many shade gardens are naturally cool and moist. They are usually surrounded by deep-rooted trees and copious amounts of natural mulch from fallen leaves. Their soils are normally rich, deep, and easy to dig. These are the easiest shade spots in which to garden, as shade plants thrive under such conditions. In such places, plantings can be made directly into the ground with little special preparation.

Other shade gardens are also cool, but dry rather than moist. These are filled with shallow-rooted trees and shrubs that soak up every drop of rain. The soil is often poor and hard-baked, depleted of nutrients by gluttonous roots. These gardens represent quite a challenge for the gardener. Digging is difficult. If you carefully cut away sections of root-clogged soil and replace it with good humus-rich earth to nurture a special plant, the invasive roots of nearby trees and shrubs will soon be back.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment to the new owner of a shady yard is that lawns are difficult to grow. The lawns grow quickly at first, needing frequent mowing, but they are sparse and subject to dieback. These lawns generally require regular overseeding to retain even a semblance of thickness. Some gardeners believe that fertilizing or watering abundantly will help, but to no avail. The only way to get a reasonably healthy lawn in a shady spot is to use lawn seed mixes designed for that purpose. These mixes contain a larger percentage of shade-tolerant grass species than regular lawn grasses. Some of the best lawns for shade are planted with sedges rather than grasses. But even with special lawn seed mixes, results are often mediocre in truly shady spots. Lawns and shade simply do not mix.

It is often because of poor lawns that many people stumble upon the concept of shade gardens. They replace part of the lawn first with one plant, then another, and soon find their yard looking better than ever even though little green grass is left. If you insist on a low-growing carpet of greenery in a yard where lawns do poorly, consider shade-tolerant ground covers. They make nice, even carpets in various tones of green, and most require little maintenance.

It is sometimes possible, although rare, to increase the amount of light in a shady garden. Painting nearby walls white or using white lawn furniture can dramatically increase the light in the immediate vicinity: White reflects light rather than absorbing it. If overhead foliage is dense, you might be able to remove a few overhanging branches and bring in more dappled sunlight. But new branches will grow back in. There isn't much else you can do to increase the sunlight in the garden. Neither of these methods will create a fully sunny garden, but they can help bring in enough light for you to be able to grow a favorite plant.

How to Beat Roots in a Shade Garden
  1. There are three basic ways to beat root competition in a shady garden. However, remember to keep the health and well-being of the trees as a priority; don't disturb too much too fast. One way is to dig down into the soil and insert a solid barrier, such as a plastic barrel with the bottom taken off, to keep the roots out. Fill the space inside the barrier with good soil.

    Beat roots in a shade garden by planting a solid barrier.

    Insert a solid barrier to keep out the roots.

  2. Another method is to plant in containers. Pots, trays, and flower boxes set on top of the soil will stymie even the most invasive roots. This is often an ideal way to introduce annuals into the shade garden.

    Use container planting to stymie roots.

    Place container pots to beat roots.

  3. The final method is to install raised beds, filling each bed with at least 12 inches of top-quality soil. Do not do this over the entire surface of the garden all at once: The sudden change in soil depth can smother the roots of nearby trees. Instead, add raised beds gradually, in sections, over a number of years. Once the new soil has been added, make sure you water regularly as needed. If not, the water-starved trees will soon send new roots upward in search of water, clogging up the new bed.

    Use raised beds.

    Install raised beds.

Color, Texture, & Naturalizing

Even under the best circumstances, a shade garden cannot compete with a sunny garden for bright and gaudy colors. In fact, most shade-tolerant plants offer soft, subtle hues: whites, pinks, pale blues, and lemon yellows rather than garish oranges and reds. On the other hand, these subtle colors, often lost in the sunny garden, really stand out in a shady one. Nothing beats pale hues for adding color to a shade garden, and pure white is the brightest color of all in the shade. Look for these pale shades in the plants you select.

Foliage can also add color to the shade garden. White and yellow striped and marbled leaves, or silvery-mottled ones, can brighten even the shadiest spots. Leaf colors are more durable than those of flowers, lasting through the entire growing season. Variegated shade-tolerant plants can make an excellent long-term solution to overbearing shade. Finally, the shade garden, as subtle as it may be during spring and summer, often turns surprisingly colorful in fall when autumn leaves far outshine the best fall flowers the mixed border can produce.

Truly beautiful shade gardens often rely more on attractive combinations and contrasts of foliage texture and plant forms than on flowers. Light, airy fern fronds stand out from heavy, oblong hosta leaves, which in their turn can be highlighted by the small leaves and prostrate growth patterns of ground covers. Subtle differences in the shades of foliage green become more distinct when there are few flowers to steal the show. Nature provides a vast and pleasing array of foliage colors: blue-greens, apple-greens, dark greens, and more.

Violets add color to the shade garden.

Violets have great color and grow well in the shade garden.

Shade gardens can be planted just as formally as any other garden, but a more natural look is usually preferable. Both Asian gardens, with their sparse appearance, meandering paths, and small pools, and English gardens, with their beds overflowing with mixed plants of all sorts, make ideal styles for shade gardens. If your shade garden is already at least partially a forested one, however, consider establishing a wild garden.

You can easily establish a wild garden by planting hardy yet decorative shade-tolerant plants among the trees in an informal pattern. This technique is known as naturalizing. The goal is to introduce or reintroduce into the landscape plants that will be capable of growing, and even spreading, under existing conditions with minimal help from you. The plants you introduce will depend on many factors, notably your local climate, but look for plants that are capable of taking care of themselves. Consider both native wild flowers that may once have grown there and nonnative varieties of equal ornamental appeal. Avoid plants that are invasive.

Maintaining the Shade Garden

Shade gardens often require quite a bit of effort to establish, but only a minimal amount of upkeep. For example, with sunlight already at a premium, most weeds don't have a chance: Established shade plants and ground covers take what is left of the light, leaving nothing for would-be competitors. In fact, the major weeding effort often consists of simply removing the countless tree seedlings that somehow always seem to manage to break through the plant cover.

Water shady gardens frequently.

These plants need to be watered for two-
the shady plant and the main tree.

Fall leaves often integrate perfectly into a shade garden: Leave them where they fall, and they'll supply a natural mulch that regenerates and enriches the soil while helping to suppress weeds. Large leaves could smother growth, and these should be chopped up into small pieces (run a lawn-mower over them or rent a chipper) before being spread among the shade garden plants.

Shade gardens with heavy root competition will require special help. Water regularly during periods of drought. Remember, you're watering for two: the trees that cause the shade and the plants that grow beneath the trees' boughs. If you let nature take its course, the shallow-rooted understory plants will be the first to go during a drought.

You now have the tools to design the garden of your choice. Remember, a little bit of planning goes a really long way.