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How to Design Gardens

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.