by JANINE LATUS
illustrations by WALT TAYLOR
A lawn. A couple of shrubs. Maybe a clump or two of gerbera daisies and a spring-flowering tree. That’s a garden, right?
Perhaps, but the best ones are so much more. They’re rooms where you want to sit and read a book or gather family and friends for a glass of wine or a long, slow meal. They’re places of mystery, with something new to see around each bend in the trail. They’re an extension of a home, a gift to the neighborhood, a space designed like the interior of the house, with busy areas for entertaining and zenlike spaces for quiet contemplation.
They have doorways and windows, and soft floors of turf or ground cover, or hard ones of brick or wood or paving stones. They have walls and actual furniture but also furnishings that meld and complement like the wall coloring and upholstery and objets d’art inside a well-decorated home, and just as you thought through the floor plan of your home and where you’d put the couch and the bed and the prized vase, so you can’t create your private Eden by simply impulse-shopping at a big-box store on the weekend.
You need a plan.
LAY IT OUT
Start by spending time in the space and writing down what you see, says landscape architect Jane Cantin, of Cantin Stubbs Landscape, in Norfolk and London. Look for the view you want to frame and the one you want to hide. List the plants you love and the ones you no longer notice. Consider the view from inside looking out but also from the outside looking back. Look at archways and window shapes and blank expanses of wall that could serve as backdrops. Look at the existing palette of colors, whether beachfront browns and grays or bright expanses of golf-course green.
Then think about your dreams. Do you want a space to entertain, or a secret refuge where you can nestle away from the world – or both? Even small spaces can have multiple rooms.
“I’ve always designed outdoor spaces similar to designing a building, with a sequence of articulated rooms and hallways,” says Doug Aurand of Norfolk’s Siska Aurand Landscape Architects. “That’s what makes a garden feel comfortable or exciting.”
So where will people enter your rooms, and where will they move from there? Consider their feet and their eyes – where they will go physically but also how their eye will be drawn along a path to the view, whether of something in the distance or of your chosen centerpiece. Stand at the driveway and the sidewalk and the door. Imagine stepping from the kitchen to your outdoor eating area, from the back deck to your quiet reading chair.
Do you want a shazam centerpiece? If so, will that be a pool, or a fountain, or a pit for fire? Will it be a patio with a pizza oven, a prized plant or a great piece of sculpture?
Now think about shape. Great gardens, like great music, have repetition and rhythm, and you can get that by choosing a shape that complements the surroundings and then repeating it over and over, in the architecture of the rooms, the borders of the beds, the accents of furniture and plants. If there’s a curve to the top of your doorway, consider making your shape a circle as an echo to that arch. If your house is a box, then anchor it and mirror it by making your spaces square.
Amorphous beds might look good initially, says Brian O’Neil, director of horticulture at the Norfolk Botanical Garden, but they don’t stand the test of time; someone sprinkles a little extra grass seed here or there and what was a kidney bean becomes a blob. Instead, pick your shape and then border your beds with something solid, like brick, to create a stable structure as the plants themselves grow and change.
Says Cantin, “I’m looking for some sort of harmony between the house, the garden, the owners and the surrounding landscape. I have to have all of that before I can even think of pretty stuff like specific plants.”
WALLS & DOORWAYS
What is a wall but an encloser of space, whether real or illusory? Inside a home walls are usually solid, although furniture can be arranged to imply separation, one segment of a room from another. Likewise, walls in gardens can be as real as the back of a house or as insubstantial as a pair of banana trees.
If you’re lucky enough to have a real wall, consider embellishing it with espaliered shrubs or flat-backed baskets dripping flowers, or a trellis spilling over with roses or vines.
Anything vertical can serve as a wall, and with the introduction of hybrid Asian boxwoods, the old-fashioned hedge may be making a comeback, whether tall around the periphery of a property or knee-height as a room divider.
“People stopped using them because they have to be trimmed,” O’Neil says, “but if you think of what you’re creating as a living space rather than just a garden or a yard, you’d be more inclined to do the maintenance.”
Stand-alone trellises can be walls, as can large pots full of striking plants.
“When in doubt, go big,” Cantin says. “Try not to clutter the space with lots of small pots. Big pots create boundaries, they make a statement, they bring in color, height, texture and variety – the passementerie of the garden.”
Your walls will be backdrops to repeating layers of height and color and texture, but they’ll need doorways. If your chosen shape is a circle, then echo the archway with an arbor over the entry. If it’s square, consider hanging a gate and flanking it with spiky plants standing sentry. It’s important to make an entrance.
Just as you have a blend of carpet and hardwood and tile inside your home, so should your floors outside be soft and hard. No wall-to-wall green carpet inside; no endless grass out. Instead, pick floorings that vary and repeat, balancing one another both practically and visually, and leading both eye and body where you want them to go.
At last fall’s East Beach Homearama, Cantin used blue-gray paving stones to tie in to the gray of the dunes and the blue of the nearby water. She started with 3-foot squares right off the deck to give people a place to pause to decide where to go, instead of “just being tossed into the space,” then used matching medium-sized pavers in the entertaining area to create a floor where chairs can slide in and out from the family table, and a smaller version to create a walkway from one room to the next. Tight lines of dwarf mondo grass create the mortar, both for visual softness and to let water percolate into the soil rather than run off into the Chesapeake Bay.
In one area of the Norfolk Botanical Garden, designers used herringbone patterns of brick outlined with old cobblestones to draw the eye to a central fountain. The cobblestones add color contrast to the brick but also give the garden a sense of place, since they came here as ballast on Colonial-era ships and for decades lined the city’s streets.
Houses and gardens need hard and soft, yin and yang. Both.
Your plants are the draperies, upholstery and furnishings in your garden home. They echo off one another, layering and repeating to create a mood, a sense of place.
You want a layer at ground level, one a little higher, one a little higher still – tall, vertical plants to draw the eye upward, low ground covers to form a carpet, feathery ferns in front of broad-leaved cast iron plants, trees with their lower branches pruned away to show off their lovely legs, shades of light green against dark. Layer upon layer upon layer, repeating and repeating, the silvery-white variegated Japanese iris stalks reflected in their counterparts down the path, then repeated in the whiteness of the flowers along the way.
“Everything ties together,” Cantin says. “The same paving material but in different patterns, the same species of plants but in different varieties. Otherwise it looks like you couldn’t decide, so you just got one of everything.”
Read the labels so you know eventual heights and growth patterns, and look for year-round beauty.
“It’s easy to fall into the rut of making a spring garden,” O’Neil says. “Azaleas, camellias and dogwoods are all well and good, but what happens the rest of the year?”
Go for long-bloomers and fall color, and plants that are interesting if they never bloom at all. Think, too, of the wildlife that plants attract – darting hummingbirds and butterflies like flittering blossoms, and – if you create a water garden – mosquito-eating toads.
Here are a few easily grown perennials (and one funky annual) for your consideration, provided by Brian O’Neil, the horticulture director at Norfolk Botanical Garden.
You can see samples of all of them and hundreds of other easily grown, striking plants there. No heavy chemicals needed, no intensive watering, no weekends spent on your knees weeding – not once a ground cover is established. Promise.
~ Purple heart Wandering Jew (Tradescantia pallida): A bright purple color that thrives in harsh, bright, well-drained conditions.
~ White velvet (Tradescantia sillamontana): A cousin to the Wandering Jew and just as sturdy in bright heat. Looks silvery because of white, fuzzy hairs on the leaves.
~ Asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus “springeri”): A feathery, frondy light green that dies down in the winter and comes back in the spring.
~ Japanese iris (Iris japonica): A great spreading and flowering ground cover that does well in the shade.
~ Mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonica): Small, fine leaves that make a carpetlike ground cover in shady spaces. Its relative, dwarf mondo grass, is great between stepping stones in the shade. Both tolerate root-filled, dry soil.
~ Persian chocolate moneywort (Lysimachia congestiflora): Creates a carpet of dark foliage that’s topped in the spring with star-shaped yellow flowers.
~ Asian star jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum): A rapid grower with foliage that looks like periwinkle. Does well in hot shade.
~ Banana plant (Musa basjoo): Gives a dramatic, tropical feel to a space.
~ Witch hazel (Hamamelis): Spidery, spicy-smelling fall-to-winter blooms in reds, yellows and oranges.
~ Candlestick (Cassia alata): The only annual on this list, it starts as a seed and sends up golden candlesticks of flowers in late summer and into the fall.
~ Hardy citrus (Citrus reticulata “Changsha”): A cold-hardy evergreen that produces bounteous mandarins.
~ Silver dollar eucalyptus (Eucalyptus cinerea): Great gray-green leaves that look like coins; bark that peels away in patterns; and that Vicks VapoRub smell.
~ Night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum): Scentless in the daytime and then generous with its perfume during the night, from late summer into the fall.
~ Passion flower vine (Passiflora x “incense”): Intricate purple-blue flowers that some people say tell the story of the Crucifixion.
~ Brazilian firecracker vine (Manettia cordifolia): Wiry, thin stems covered with small orange-red flowers that look like mini-firecrackers; hummingbirds love it.
~ Japanese ardisia (Ardisia japonica “Chirimen”): A low, spreading evergreen with corrugated-looking leaves and little red berries in the winter. It makes a great ground carpet.
~ Silver lance dwarf ginger (Alpinia pumila): A silver-striped leaf that does well in the shade, stays green even when temperatures fall into the upper teens, and produces a small, red-and-white-striped bloom in the spring.
~ Ferns: These offer a broad selection of textures and heights, grow well in shade and can provide a gorgeous textural contrast to broad-leafed plants.
~ Cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior): An evergreen here, with broad, shiny leaves, and so named because it’s so sturdy, even in poor conditions.
~ Crinum lily (Crinum): Long-blooming, fragrant and sturdy.
~ Japanese iris (Iris ensata): Has dinner-plate-size blooms late in the spring.
~ Anemone (Ranunculaceae): Great fall blooms of pink or white or red that bob on top of long stems; does well in partial shade.
~ Lenten rose hellebore (Helleborus x hybridus): Blooms in the winter and comes in a lot of varieties – near-black, yellow, singles, doubles, spotted flowers – and so hardy it’ll thrive in dry, rooty, shady soil.
~ Cigar flower (Cuphea ignea): Has small, tubular orange flowers with black tips that look like the ash on a cigar; blooms all summer and into fall; does well in hot full sun.
~ Uruguayan firecracker (Dicliptera suberecta): Has silvery-white fuzzy hairs on the leaf and an orange tubular flower that hummingbirds love.
~ Shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana): Creates pink-and-white curved flower spikes that look like shrimp.
~ Bear’s breech, or Grecian pattern plant (Acanthus mollis): Has glossy leaves and sends up a spiky spring flower.
~ Mardi Gras abelia (Abelia x grandiflora “mardi gras”): Has variegated foliage and white, tubular flowers from May until November.
~ Elephant ears (Colocasia species): Elephant-ear-shaped leaves range from 7 inches across to 5 feet, so this accent can be used in any layer.
~ Ginger lilies (Hedychium): Fragrant and flashy, and tall!
~ Encore azalea (Rhododendron hybrids): As the name implies, it blooms again and again.
~ Mexican bush sage (Salvia): A late-summer bloomer that butterflies love – including migrating monarchs.
~ Fatsia (Fatsia japonica): Tall and dramatic, with leaves that look like giant, eight-fingered hands.
~ Anise shrub (Illicium floridanum): Tall, broad-leafed evergreen.
~ McDonald hybrid azaleas: Special because they were developed and bred locally.
~ Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus): A relative of the artichoke, it has big, bold, blue-green leaves and in the late spring sends up a spire of thistle-like flowers that are blue at the top. Has a very dramatic texture for a sunny area.
~ Fire spike (Odontonema cuspidatum): Fiery-red flowers that bloom in the late summer and fall; attracts hummingbirds.