For every bed and every border, there must be a reason. Wendy Burroughs–self-taught gardener turned sought-after design pro–says you have to figure out that raison d’etre before you even shape the garden. “Is it an entry garden?” she asks. “Does it have to have a high-season splash of color? Are fall and winter interest important? Does it need to be low-maintenance?” More questions: “Do you want a specific kind of bed or border: English cottage garden? Mediterranean? Are deer a problem? Is water?” Only once you have asked yourself all these questions, and more (and, yes, answered them), can you begin to plan the shape of your gardens, Wendy says. And only after that can you start to figure out what plants you want and where you want them.
Wendy’s drive-side bed and border started out as shade gardens. Then a violent winter windstorm felled many of the 80-foot firs towering above her plantings. So the shade gardens had to become sun gardens. And the plants had to be removed and replaced. Is your planting area in shade or sun?–another question to ask yourself.
Wendy has another tip for you. You’ll like this one especially.
“It’s never a bad thing to make mistakes,” she says. “You learn by trial and error. I am completely self-taught by my mistakes. I don’t mind–I’m not a perfectionist. When something doesn’t work, I change it.”
If you need to move a plant, move it. “But after I move a plant three times, it goes into the compost pile.” Because sometimes a perfectly good plant turns out to have no earthly reason for being in your yard. “If it doesn’t look good, excuse it from the garden,” she says. “I used to have a big moral problem with that. Then I took out six crab apples.”
One more thing, Wendy says. Perennials aren’t the only answer. Make sure to integrate trees and shrubs into your herbaceous beds and borders.
Wendy started her drive-by border with a triangular anchor of trees–cherry, magnolia, and liquidambar. Then she introduced a slow-growing conifer–a golden Hinoki cypress–which gave a yearlong glow to her wonderful garden.
The addition of trees and shrubs does two things. One, it gives layers to your garden. The beds rise from ground-huggers to the coif-toppers, a must if your backdrop is–as it is for Wendy–filled with tall objects. But, two, the structural aspect of the woody plants gives you something pleasing to look at in the off-season–that oft-bandied term “winter interest.”
“In winter, when everything else is gone, those architectural plants are still holding it all together,” says Wendy. “I just love four-season borders.” If you plan well, she says, you will include some colorful berries; trees with striped, peeling, or glossy bark; yellow and blue evergreens; broadleaf evergreen shrubs; and deciduous woodies with interesting branching habits.
“I haven’t completely eliminated all-perennial gardens,” Wendy says. “I have some clients who still want them.”
Why Wendy Likes To Think Big
Seasoned gardeners know to do things in a big way. Paths shouldn’t be a stingy 2 or 3 feet wide; that’s a dog path. Paths should be 5 or even 6 feet wide. Two people should be able to walk side by side without tripping over each other. Benches, if they are to accommodate anyone but love-struck teens, should be 5 or 6 feet wide. For two more level-headed people to sit agreeably, 4 feet is too close for comfort. Elbows collide; drinks get spilled.
And then there are flower borders. “I used to think of borders as 4 feet deep,” Wendy says. “Now I make mine 10 to 12 feet deep.” That’s how you get all those ornamental trees and flowering shrubs in there. And, says Wendy, “It really knocks your socks off.”
A Few Parting Words From Wendy
Put some edibles in your landscape. “The kids graze all summer long, and we have apples all winter.”
Plant lots and lots of euphorbias. “I just love every one of them. They’re especially good in flower arrangements.”
And don’t spend too much on your garden too soon. “I first bought inexpensive trees like you can get from any drugstore. They were like pencils. When a local nursery moved, I pulled trees out of their Dumpster. I learned on cheap plants and moved up from there.”
And Now a Few Words About Edging
Wendy first edged her oval island bed with rocks she collected on the property. Funny thing though–weeds don’t know they aren’t supposed to grow in and among stones. In fact, weed seeds like to lodge there. Worse, it is hard to weed out rogues around and under rocks. So what started out as a weed-suppressant idea became a weed-germination nightmare. Solution: Wendy pulled back the stones, had a concrete barrier laid, and set the stones back in the concrete:
If you have flowerbeds next to your lawn, edging (such as flat stone or bricks) can provide double duty. This soil-level barrier not only keeps your lawn and your perennials from encroaching on each other’s turf, but also acts as a mowing path. Run the wheels of one side of your mower right on top of the stone or brick. The grass will be cut at a uniform height, and there will be no telltale line of towering stragglers along the edging. Nope, no hand shears or weed trimmers needed.
From the Beginning: Think About Your Soil Before You Plant
Back in 1988, Wendy’s five-acre property was “choked with woods,” she says. “I grew up in the woods, but this was 8 feet of debris, tree trunks piled high. There was no light–not even blackberries could grow there.” When she had the trees thinned, “it was the biggest land-clear the guy had done on the island.” The marketable logs were taken out, and the rest of the stumps, logs, and forest debris was burned. “My husband could see the fire from his office in Seattle. It burned for a week.” Then came the storm of ’93, and shade turned to sun. “I was so naive: I bought packets of seed and scattered them in the turnaround without amending the soil or anything.” Pffft: zilch. So she amended the soil with peat from an island bog. “They brought it in by the truckload. It was goopy, oily, thick pudding,” she recalls. “And hard to work with. But it worked like steroids on my plants. Now I always spend as much in soil amendments as I do in plant material.”
Most yards start out as a standard rectangle. It is up to you to break out of the box. But unlike Wendy’s garden, yours probably needs to have some lawn. Kids, croquet, whatever. Here are four starting points (page 171) to get you thinking about what kind of shape or shapes you might want to impose on your landscape. Rather than just line the edge of the property with a hedge, think of the boundary as opportunity for border gardens. And maybe that’s all the gardening you want to do. For now. But gardening has a way of becoming an itch you just can’t help but scratch, and somewhere along the line you may decide more is better. The shape you stamp on your backyard is one of the greatest injections of personality you can make on your garden. Just remember: These shapes should have a reason too. Think: How do I use my yard?
The Garden Retreat This plan features a wide flower border on the left and an entertaining area (or a spot for seclusion) way out back.
The Cottage Garden An ambling, free-form lawn seeps like a slow river through undulating flowerbeds. Ah, to be in England.
The Formal Garden Circular turf areas give strong geometry in a dramatic space. Ample areas are provided for ornamental plantings.
Room for Kids Here children can get up a full head of steam and still avoid trampling on the flowerbeds. So they can play while you plant.