Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Basics of Garden Design: Scale

The Basics of Garden Design

Part II


Scale is the relationship of objects to one another. For instance, the height of the ceiling in your house may be 8, 9, or 10 feet. This is a comfortable space for an individual human or a family group. The h

eight of a ceiling in a department store may be 10, 12, or 15 feet. This is because the space accommodates many more humans and things, in this case merchandise. The space feels comfortable and appropriate for the use.

When designing your garden, you should consider scale in several ways. First, how much of the exterior space of your property will be garden compared to house size or lawn space? Second, what plants-due to their hight and width-will fit comfortably in your garden and work with the size of the house? Size of the house in particular being height, and secondarily mass. Third, which of the plants you choose will be massed to create one large form and how big will that form be to balance with the size of your house or property? In the example at right, the yard space between houses is narrow. The space was divided into different elements to create the illusion of a larger space. The ‘room’ area of the back deck is a space its own, and the size of the deck does

not overwhelm the space as a whole. The pot on the terra cotta colored pedestal is just about eye level. This brings in a ‘layer’ under the

taller trees. It too is sized proportionately to the space, not too wide, not too tall. The amount of green groundcover around the pedestal balances the white patio stone and the size of the deck. The small fountain in the foreground complements the size of the entry to the garden. Any larger and it would take all the attention away from the other elements of the garden.

Let’s begin with the first consideration of garden size to house size. If this is a project you plan to implement yourself, meaning you are performing all the labor, then your garden may be predicated on how much work YOU can comfortably accomplish. My advice to everyone: start small, be reasonable. This will help you accomplish a goal in a reasonable period of time. It will also keep you from be overwhelmed if you have a large piece of property. With these thoughts in mind, where do you want to begin? Around the front door, around the mail box, at the end of the driveway, or across the front of the house? Take out your garden hose and outline the space you would like to design. Leave the hose in place for a few days and walk around it to see if this size feels comfortable. Take a digital photo of the area and its surroundings. I will give you instructions on how to use this later in the article.

Next, let’s consider the plants you may want to use. You may have seen plants in other yards in your neighborhood or on your travels around town. Write down all your plant names and begin to research their sizes. If you are in the central Texas area, the Landscape Guide to Plants produced by the City of Austin’s Grow Green program is a first, easy, free, resource for plant growth conditions. Here is where you want to consider height and width of plants in size and their relation to your house or other structures. A common example I use is to think of the size of a

bald cypress which can grow up to 60 feet tall. Now, if it were planted near a small cottage or bungalow style house, or any one story home which is commonly only 12-15 feet tall, that huge tree would feel completely out of place. (Unless you happen to live next to a river where these magnificent trees are growing naturally). If you want a tall tree for shade: monterrey oak, chinquapin, burr, etc., be sure you have the width to your property as well. Additionally, to bring these taller trees into scale with your house, plan for space for shorter trees and shrubs downgrading in size as they lead to the house or outdoor living space. Alternatively, if you are working on a plan for a courtyard, be sure of the mature sizes of trees and shrubs in relation to the amount of space you have.

In the example to the left, a standard southern magnolia is the shade tree and featured element of this front garden. This magnolia is in front of a two story house with a steep pitched roof. The roof reaches up tall next to this tall evergreen tree. The plants in this garden graduate in size from the magnolia giving the eye a full screen of interest from top to bottom. Next in size down from the magnolia is a bay laurel. At maturity it will be several feet taller than shown here, standing solidly next to the magnolia. Down from the bay are spring bouquet viburnums. Viburnums are large shrubs in this setting. And at the foot of all are bi-color iris.

Now back to the digital photo of the area you want to plan. Print out the photo and tape a piece of tracing paper over the photo. Draw in the outline of the garden bed and start to sketch in the new plants you want. Use nearby

plants in the landscape for scale, i.e., height and width as a reference for how big to draw your new plants. For instance, in t

he photo below we have a topiaried boxwood that is three feet tall. Now, if you want to plant a sweet olive next to it, by research you have found that this small tree can grow to 10 feet tall but is a slow grower and is going to stay about six feet tall. So you would draw an outline of the sweet olive about twice as tall as the boxwood. This reference from this point of view will give you a better feel for how your new garden will feel when full.

Here are some more photos representing scale. Notice how the structures are comfortable sizes compared to garden size. Also notice the ‘layering’ where there is plant interest throughout the

vertical plane. In the photo with the tiered fountain, there is a short picket fence in the background. The height of the fountain is approximately 5’. If this were a taller fountain with more tiers or wider, it would overwhelm the space it is in. The large fountain would be cumbersome, hard to work around, and take all the visual appeal up for itself. With this fountain sized just right, your mind is available to view the entire scene, to sit back and relax and see who else is visiting the flora.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Destination in the Garden

Your garden may be large, small, medium, divided, split, on the side, in the back, or in a courtyard. Where ever your garden grows, there is a reason for visiting it. This is the focal point, or destination. It is the attraction that draws your neighbors to meet you, to stop on their walk and admire, to sit a spell.

Pictured here are a couple more examples of focal points in the garden landscape. To the left is a simple stone bench with a piece of stone the garden owner considered important. The gardener set the white stone off, i.e. highlighted the white, with the dramatic dark green spikes of coral yucca and its coral, hummingbird attracting flowers. Imagine you are looking at this garden from the street on your evening walk and you are caught by the stone and yucca. You slow down, if you know your neighbors, you stop to sit at the bench-exactly what it is for. By sitting on the bench you can enjoy the rest of this bountiful garden. You want to enjoy it to learn what these great hearty plants are blooming in the heat of Austin's summer. In the foreground from left to right: lipstick red canna lily, fall aster (to bloom end of summer), a single purple coneflower in the foreground with the flower above the purple heart, purple heart, sago palm, datura (night blooming for moonlit garden strolls).

Also notice in this plan the ample pathway. The path serves as a way to move through the garden as well as a line of sight or "axis." More on axis and line of sight to come. But understand this, the path or line of sight generally leads your eye to the focal point.

Here is another example of a focal point. What is drawing your attention in this garden? Not only from the point of view of the photo, but from the house. The house is on the right, imagine you are looking into the garden from the back porch of the house, what would you be looking at? The blue pot on the pedestal with a pindo palm planted in it. The focal point is something very different from the rest of the garden. This object is clearly important and an object that most of us would want to inspect more closely. What kind of palm is that-you don't see one of those everyday? What is that pot sitting on (a block of limestone)? Is that a ceramic pot or plastic pot? All questions subliminally worked into the wonderful plan to get you into the garden.

Again, with this example, there is a nice wide path to maneuver through the garden. The path also allows a line of sight to the entertaining area as well as space to move food and/or drinks to the dinning area. Another basic idea of garden design is the 'gateway' effect, demonstrated here with the two fan palms flanking the entrance to the dinning area. This gate, or door way delineates one space from another. Thus, the idea of outdoor 'rooms.'

In most garden designs, the focal point, or destination, is where the plan begins. Think about what you want to do in your garden. Do you want a dinning area, a reading bench, or a water feature? Or, have you received a piece of garden art that needs a home. Walk around your yard, feel where you want that destination to be. Stand or sit in the rooms of the house you use most and look out the windows. Are there spots in the yard that you watch the most? Or are there spots on the other side of your yard you want to disguise or draw attention away from? This spot may be the place where you build your gazebo, pond, or plant that beautiful flowering tree. Mark that element on your site plan and then work your garden around that.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Beginning your new Garden Design

One of my jobs here in Austin is as a Garden Design Instructor at the Art School at Laguna Gloria and in the GoNativeU Program at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Over the years of teaching these courses, I have worked to simplify the design process for those homeowners that may not have a design background. These folks want to take an active role in creating their own unique landscape that suits their needs and beautifies the community. The basic concepts can help everyone understand what makes a good design plan and can get you on the way to re-working your outdoor environment.

There are three basics design principles to work with when planning a new garden. 1. Focal Point or Destination in the garden. 2. Axis, line of sight, or view corridors. 3. Scale, or relationship of size of objects to one another.

Before beginning the definition of these principles, have your property site plan at hand ready to sketch in the components. I recommend to my students that they start with the site plan they received when they purchased their property. Have this enlarged to a scale of 1/4" equal to 1'. This large size makes drawing and labeling plants and objects easy to read. We call the enlarged plan the base plan. We then will use tracing paper laid over the base to begin the idea process.

On your base plan, you will have to mark in the fixed items that will not be removed from your landscape. These would be items like mature trees, sheds, workshops, concrete patios, walkways, utility boxes, A/C units, or water faucets. The point being, you want to know where all permanent items are in your plan so you will not try to design over them. Next you will need to notate North on your base. This is in order to study and understand where the arc of the sun is on your property. The sunlight hours will greatly influence plant selection. Also notate where shade falls from the house and from large trees. Another important element to notate on your base is where water is common. Do you have rain gutters or not? Where does the rain rush or sit on your property? Or do you have slopes and outcrops to be aware of? Having a good feeing for the environment of your property will help you understand the work process on the land and help select plants that will thrive.

Now that the base is set, here are the basics of design that will give you an understanding of what makes a great landscape design. A focal point is the object of interest in your garden. What is the reason you like to go into your garden? What is the destination in your garden? Examples could be: gazebos, sculpture, fountain, fancy pot, reading bench, entertainment area, or a specimen plant. A specimen is a special plant that normally would on be one of. Normally this would be something really showy, or something very unusual. For instance: a redbud, peach tree, or weeping yaupon. Have you received a nice chair, pot, or tree as a gift lately? Or have you had a special item or spot in mind in the yard that you have wanted to place or beautify? This would be your focal point. Now, where do you want to see that focal point? Do you want it to be found from the front sidewalk? Do you want to see it from inside the house? Where ever you want to see or experience your destination, mark or circle that area on your base site plan.

I will continue additional steps in future posts.

If you are interested in personal instruction, I encourage you to look at these websites to learn more about classes offered in the Austin area.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center hosts the GoNativeU program which is coordinated by the UT Informal Classes. Class times and descriptions can be found on the Willdflower Center web site:

The Art School at Laguna Gloria is part of the Austin Museum of Art. In addition to Garden Design Classes, the Art School offers a variety of traditional and computer based art classes for adults and children. I have a weekend class coming up in April.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Now Blooming, Rosemary Even in Winter!

Nature is truly a wonder. Here it is, the middle of winter in central Texas, and there are plants blooming. This month, rosemary is demonstrating it's durability in the cold air. This winter has given our area several blasts of freezing air to remind us winter is still possible. Even though Austin and surrounding areas have sustained temperatures in the 20's and even into the high teens, there are plants that can look good and provide interest year 'round.

Rosmarinus officinalis not only is a dependable plant in the heat here, but sturdy to most of our winters. Its first and foremost use in our landscapes is as a heat tolerant, low water use, evergreen, deer resistant, small shrub. As can be seen in these photos, it provides good green in the winter in addition to the blooms. Rosemary is commonly found in two varieties, upright or Tuscan, and prostrate or creeping. This plant can be left to grow on its own, or shaped. Rosemary does not mind being sheared into somewhat of a hedge, or trimmed for shape and size.

Since our winters consist of see-sawing temperatures, ups and downs, many pollinators live all year in central Texas. These include bees, some butterflies, occasional hummingbirds, an numerous other birds. Since the temperatures are often over 65 degrees, the bees manage to stay active here all the time. With rosemary blooming in winter, this provides a great nectar source for the insects.

Rosemary, of course, provides a delicious benefit for humans. The leaves are one of the basic herbs every kitchen should have in stock. Having a bush or rosemary to pick from for dinner preparations is a nice convenience. Fresh rosemary leaves can be used to flavor soups, stews, salads, salad dressing, and breads.

If you would like to incorporate rosemary into your landscape, it is very easy. Rosemary needs to be in a sunny location, 6 or more hours of sun, and afternoon sun is ok. Its roots prefer good drainage, but decent soil so be sure to add some compost to the location when you plant. Plant one as soon as you can, before it gets hot. Once the weather heats up, it can be hard to keep this (or any plant) watered enough. The leaves will turn pale green when it needing water. In extreme heat, entire branches with turn brown and die off. If this happens, trim the entire branch off, it will not grow new leaves. If you need to trim the plant for size, trim branches at joints. If you want to shape it or shear it, trim in cool seasons. After spring rains and after fall rains are best. If the leaves start to look yellowish, this is usually sign of needing fertilizer, something acidic - acidified liquid seaweed is perfect.

There are two photos here of rosemary in situ. One features prostrate rosemary growing along a street curb. This shows its heat tolerance level! Prostrate rosemary is perfect for planting on retaining walls, terraces, and large pots. It spills over and seems to just love the heat and air circulation. The other photo shows upright rosemary growing in a xeric herb garden in the Lake Travis area. In the foreground is artemesia and near the rosemary the grass looking plant is lemongrass. This is a summer photo as lemongrass is not cold hardy below 30. Rosemary can be used as a "fence" to deter deer from other plants you do not want deer to eat. It is highly aromatic and that is something deer do not like.