Design Starts with Styles and Shapes

I was so thrilled to hear that Country Mouse is ready to work on the pool garden this fall. And when I saw the plant list, I almost left a lengthy comment on her post. But then I remembered that I'm a blogging mouse as well, and I might as well write a post. I'm thinking back to the great garden design class we both took with Fran Adams so many moons ago, and here's what she said.

1. First pick a style. Collect photos that inspire you! Dream in color! Try on different styles for size.
Maybe mediterranean (photo here from East Ruston Old Vicarage).

Or maybe a cottage garden (picture below from SimpleGiftsFarm). I could imagine Dahlias, zinnias, hollyhocks, and some lettuce and tomato plants tucked in.

Even a more formal garden might be an option, Or, for optimum fire-safety, a tropical garden with birds of paradise and other big-leaf plants and a waterfall or other water feature. (Picture from Kriyayoga).

So, before you narrow down the plant list even more, work on your vision. Think big picture first.

2. Include plants from different groups. In the class we took, the first step was to choose the style, and then Fran suggested we include plants from different groups. My handouts are in storage (sigh) but maybe you still have them. She included a groundcover, a tree or large shrub, a fern-like plant (which did not have to be a fern but shaped similarly), a big-leaf perennial, a grass-like plant (again, the shape was important). I found it very helpful to think of plants that way, as design elements. It's really what's required to end up with a garden and not a habitat.

(Nothing wrong with a habitat, but I'm assuming you want a garden).

3. Decide on a color scheme (optional). For me, gardens are most appealing if they use color well. That could be a focus on primary colors, or pastels, or just part of the color palette such as yellow to pink. I do think, however, that a color scheme is optional, and I've seen many wildlife gardens that mixed things up a lot. Still, I remember how much you enjoyed a combination of gray-leaved plants in the pool garden, so some attention to that question might be fun. I like this post for some more info. Gardening Gone Wild has a complete set of posts about color in the garden here and a big batch of other garden design posts in their Garden Blogger's Design Workshop.  (The photo below is from Nancy J. Ondra at

4. Think rhythm and flow. When we handed in our final homework for the class, Fran paid special attention to the rhythm of the shapes. Just putting tall plants in the back and short plants in front is not enough. For an informal design, group and repeat plants, for a more formal design, work on symmetry. Look at the line that results at different depths in the border. Variation in height is pleasing to the eye.

Ahhh, what fun! I can't wait to hear about the style you pick, and see it comes to life next spring.


antigonum cajan said…
I have to congratulate you.

Most people with gardening blogs are infatuated with the superficial beauty of this or that.

I on the contrary look
for composition,
what a garden is should be or become.

Yours is a work of art and effort.
Country Mouse said…
Thanks for the "deep breath" post, TM. As I propagate sedge and grass this weekend I'll let my imagination wander in different garden spaces.
One other thing I want to do is connect this space visually with spaces beyond to north and south, where there are lovely views (i.e., keep the views open).To west is the privacy screen, and a more intimate bounded feeling, but to the north is a lovely woodland with madrone, redwoods, douglas fir, oaks. To the south is a distant vista of hills, past the south garden. I was also referring to my class notes from Fran's class.

Fran is teaching that class this fall, for the last time, before retiring. It's through Palo Alto Adult School. Highly recommended!!!
Elephant's Eye said…
How interesting to read what drifted thru my mind when planning the rose garden - nailed down so clearly and precisely. There are a few holes in the formal geometry, and I am missing actual plants that fit some of the mental boxes I have drawn. But planning the garden while I waited out that first year in a rented house, then waited some more till the house was standing and we were in, was fun!