Confessions of a Garden Designer
I haven’t done a lot of design work this spring…on purpose…other than my own space. I wanted to take a step back and reassess the work I’ve done and allow myself some time to work on my own garden. I’m not a fan of traditional landscaping…the perfectly manicured lawn (generally lots of it) and rows of neatly spaced shrubs. The same shrubs and flowers in every yard in the neighborhood with a similar design are just plain boring, unimaginative, and frankly, not very healthy. That’s not the kind of garden designer I want to be.
The landscaping and gardening industry has become a business of rules, somewhat governed by the frantic, instant-gratification lifestyles that we have all fallen into. It seems that we no longer take our clues from the greatest gardener of all…Mother Nature…instead, we follow the lead of the mow-and-blow crews that blast through the neighborhoods leaving a wake of uniformity. It’s all very neat, tidy, and the same. The same shrubs, the same flowers, the same little plant islands, the same mulch mounds, and the same shapes…all very round. What happened? Sadly, this is how many (most it seems) people think gardens should look like. It’s the rule.
I’m not buying it. I firmly believe that we are all going to wake up someday and say…”What the hell did we do?” And I’ve decided not to participate in the landscaping business that exists today. Why? Because we have a responsibility to the earth, ourselves, and our fellow earthlings to take care of our home, and the current practices of the landscape industry are more concerned about the dollar than the health of our planet. How very foolish.
There is hope. It seems that there is a very gradual change in the way people are viewing their yards and gardens. With all the media attention, the plight of the bees and monarch butterflies has been well documented this last year, and the general public is becoming aware of the importance of our pollinators and their connection to our food supply. There is an increasing number of people who are interested in growing their own food as awareness grows about healthy eating. The drought in the west is of grave concern and water is no longer plentiful in many areas of our country; therefore, waterwise plants and sustainable practices are gaining popularity. The best news of all is that each one of us can make a difference whether we have an acre, a small apartment balcony, or something inbetween.
We can thank people such as Doug Tallamy who translates the science of insects into everyday language and partnering with Rick Darke to show us how we can make our yards and gardens into healthy, wildlife sanctuaries. David Culp shows us how to mimic nature’s layers in the garden to benefit our own sense of beauty while benefiting wildlife. Or give a round of applause to Rosalind Creasy for demonstrating good design while incorporating edibles in our landscapes. Garden designer Pam Penick offers alternatives to the sprawling lawns that guzzle resources and time. All of these folks are demonstrating a better way.
I spent the winter studying the work of designers such as Piet Oudolf and plantsman Roy Diblik; both use good design principles but look to nature to create masterful gardens. Their style of design is stunning and a welcome change.
This is interesting design! Naturalistic plantings carefully incorporated into a formal setting. Design by Piet Oudolf. Photo: oudolf.com
Does it have to be messy or difficult? Are you limited to native plantings only? No! In fact, I would daresay that this will be the easiest way of all to have a healthy, beautiful garden; but it will take some rethinking, retraining, and time.
This spring an amazing carpet of violets have emerged in my beds. They are spreading like wildfire and I am happy, happy about that. Violets are native. They require no attention from me. They are an important butterfly host plant, and they spread to create a beautiful groundcover…the bottom layer. What did I do to make this happen? Nothing. I just allowed the violets to grow.
I am also allowing the plantain to grow. Who could possibly look at this plant and declare it a weed?
And the dandelions are welcome.
Before you start shaking your head and declaring that your homeowner’s association would never allow such “weeds”, take a look at my garden. It is in the very early stages, and good gardens take years, but it certainly is not without some design considerations. And besides, it is a homeowners’s association, which tells me that you, as a homeowner, have a voice. Use it.
The tide is turning in garden and landscape design and use. I’m there. I’m moving forward in the footsteps of the folks I mentioned above to create wildlife friendly, earth friendly gardens one layer at a time. That is the kind of garden designer I want to be.
Want to know more? Below is a collection of books that I highly recommend.
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Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy
The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden by Rick Darke & Doug Tallamy
The Layered Garden by David L. Culp
The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden by Roy Diblik
Planting: A New Perspective by Piet Oudolf & Noel Kingsbury
Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy
Lawn Gone! by Pam Penick
In what direction will you be taking your garden?