In the past few columns, we’ve visited the finer and perhaps more colorful of the garden’s inhabitants. These are the icing on the cake, so to speak. But there needs to be structure and strength before you add icing. This is what gardeners refer to as the “bones” of the garden.
Imagine beginning with a pasture or meadow. You add a lovely perennial bed, filled containers or a cutting garden of annuals. As charming and useful as these are, something is missing. The backbone of your landscape is simply a flat parcel. Here’s where we should have the “bones.” Preferably, the structure should be added first, and you build the design until you can add the frosting. It doesn’t always happen in this order, but don’t let that hold you back.
Trees, both large and small, shrubs of various shapes (and colors) and grasses can change the landscape into something far more interesting. Don’t forget about hardscape. Stone walls, structured paths, boulders either brought in or left in place, sculptures, fountains and pools are all hardscape features to consider. Now we are beginning to see an interesting garden that exhibits the gardener’s personal style and makes it unique. Garden furniture falls somewhere between hardscape and the icing. Providing resting places for reflection or relaxation adds to a sense of the garden being a destination. Consider size as well as placement. Decorative items seem to become even smaller once placed outdoors on your property.
Here is a good place to mention resources for choosing structural plants. Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, by Michael Dirr, is the champion, first published in 1997. The photos were all taken by Dirr over the years. His style is straightforward. Another favorite of mine is The National Arboretum Book of Outstanding Garden Plants. My copy was printed in 1990 but is well illustrated and I have turned to it often. And finally I want to mention a booklet published right here at the University of Vermont and revised by Charlotte’s own Professor Emeritus Norman Pellett and Assistant Professor Mark Starrett. It’s titled Landscape Plants for Vermont. Check the UVM Extension Service for availability on this one.
Personally, I have a hard time with straight lines in the garden. Mother Nature rarely makes one. She loves the curve. Go and do likewise.
If your budget allows, adding rock gardens, berms or small hillocks can transform a plain piece of land into something exciting. Water features are another idea to consider. Not only does water add visual interest but sound and movement as well.
We all garden in different places and conditions. Making the best use of what you are given is the most satisfying work. My present garden was begun by someone else, and I have always been grateful for their efforts. We’ve added, edited, pruned, learned and most of all enjoyed the journey here for 21 years so far. I am amazed at some of the plants that are still thriving for all these years and delight in adding something I’ve always wanted to grow. If a plant doesn’t work out and it’s right for the climate, try it in another spot with different conditions.
For me the joy of gardening is becoming intimate with certain plants and finding them again after a harsh winter or a particular windstorm or a construction project. This is the life of a garden. Those who garden as an avocation will understand.