Bones in the Garden - A Tale of Garden Planning, Part 1
by Carol Wallace
There is NOTHING I love more than planting. And nothing more exciting than planting a brand new garden. Since common sense (and my husband) told me that I should probably put a hold on digging more beds in my own yard this year, I was absolutely thrilled when Audrey, my neighbor across the street, had her entire front lawn dug up for some foundation repair. I plotted and planned ways to convince her to replace a lot of that lawn with garden, but when I wandered over one day prepared to do my worst she surprised me.
"I'm thinking of not putting a lawn back at all," she told me before I was even all the way across the street. "What do you think about making this whole front yard a garden."
Naturally, I was thrilled, because since her sons grew up and moved to Boston, her yard has basically been MY garden. She likes the look and experience of a garden, but isn't really much into the plotting planning and planting that I thrive on. So here was my dream - not only a nice, blank canvas, but one I would see every day looking out the front window.
"Better worry about winter," my husband remarked to me as I began to plan. "If she looks out her window and sees nothing but bare dirt she's going to change her mind really fast." He was nodding sagely at our own side yard, which is full of hostas and other things now dormant and invisible.
As a result I have spent much of the past month with books on winter gardens piled around me. And finally I have begun to draw up a plan.
First - the basics. In the fall I made sure that the contractors put down good soil and dealt with any drainage issues. We have clay soil around here, and so a good bed of gravel and deep tilling are essential. We then spread a good pile of mulch and manure over the front yard. In spring this will be ready for planting.
The next thing I needed to plan was the "bones" of the new garden. Garden bones are not as spooky as they sound. They are the permanent and obviously structural things in the yard - trees, hedges, paths, and benches.
The importance of bones cannot be overstressed. My own yard would look dead without them, buried as it us under a thick blanket of snow right now.
As it is the dwarf conifers, the weeping tree skeletons, arbors, gazebo, stone walls and pathways provide some kind of winter interest, even if it is in black and white right now. This is why winter is a great time to plan a new garden. It's also the perfect time to look around the neighborhood and see what looks interesting, even in winter under snow. Some things I can learn from my own yard, others from neighboring places, and a few by visiting the local nursery which prides itself on having an interesting garden in winter as well as spring, summer and fall.
It's also a good time to notice the things in your existing garden that have gone dormant and left big blank spots. While these plants have definite uses, you don't want to rely too heavily on them if this is a garden the world will see daily as it drives by.
In this particular garden we already have one good feature. The yard is bounded on three sides by stone walls. To the left of the house as you face it the wall is quite high and full of planting pockets for rock garden plants and succulents. The walls closest to the street are lower, but still attractive. The fourth wall, unfortunately, is plain concrete. That one will have to be hidden with a permanent planting. The front of the house also has a fairly boring concrete foundation that screams for something permanent to hide it. I make a note: Look into evergreen shrubs and plants.
Another pre-existing "bone" is the front walk, which forms a somewhat sharp diagonal leading from the street to the front porch. The fact that is is laid at a slant means that the garden-to-be is divided into two unequal portions, one appreciably larger than the other, The larger part, the side I will concentrate on in this article, is quite deep, which would make it impossible to access much of the garden if it were planted as one large bed. So the need for a second path dividing this into manageable sections becomes immediately apparent. I decide on fieldstone, because it practically grows in our yards and will be both inexpensive and a perfect match for the rock wall it is leading us toward.
The front yard is already slightly shaded by a neighbor's large tree. The one existing piece of plant material I must work into this scheme is yet another tree which will eventually make one half of the yard even shadier. Audrey's son, a landscape architect, insists that the front left corner of the yard needs a white birch. While it will be years before this creates appreciable shade, it is wise to plan for that now. So the deep half of the garden is essentially to be a shade garden. Although the birch itself won't take up much room these first years, I pencil in a green oval to indicate where it is likely to shade things. With that in mind I plan a grouping of azaleas and rhododendrons in the corner formed by the house and wall. The azaleas go along the wall, because their more open foliage will allow glimpses of the stonework. The rhododendrons will go closer to the house to help hide the concrete foundation.
In the opposite corner where the birch will be I pencil in red, oval blobs to indicate where two Cornus alba 'Argenteo-marginata', Variegated Red Twig Dogwood, will go. In the winter these have bright red twigs that will show off nicely against the white bark of the birch. In summer they have leaves variegated green and white - a cooling picture on a hot day. Eventually these grow quite large, so one will be transplanted to the backyard. (Or maybe MY yard!) This leaves me with a nice open spot between the greenery and at the end of the path, The perfect spot, in fact, for a small bench or chair in which to sit and enjoy the shade.
So there you have it - garden bones. Some of them living, some merely structural, but all of them things that will look good in summer and winter, give some height, depth and structure to the garden, and add visual interest even under snow. Next week we'll plan the plants.
About the Author
Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.