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How to Design Gardens

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.