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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Entries in beautiful gardens (2)


Garden Design and Personal Artistic Expression

A horticultural society has invited me to speak on garden design next week. With most of my notes stored in Word, I thought it would be wise to review them, just in case some important thoughts, still hibernating in my brain, need to be awakened. As I read through the stored ideas, I came across details about garden design that I was certain would not sit well with some of my garden blogging colleagues. It is the subject of personal style.

My front lawn perennial garden makes some of my neighbors swoon. It also makes some of them cringe because perennial gardens are inherently messy. The contradictory reactions surprised me because I was certain that I had followed some of the basic principles of garden design. I used repetition and rhythm to arrange plants and colors; I mixed the textures, shapes and heights and ensured that attractive flower combinations would be in bloom all season long. Sprinkled in among the plants are some miniature evergreens and ornamental shrubs that act as a foil to make the flower pop. During the winter, they offer visual interest while the perennials are dormant. The color scheme is pastel dominant because the grey stone exterior of my home is a perfect background for this family of colors. I have only once broken the rule of mixing colors and intensities. I planted a bold scarlet red oriental poppy Turkenlouis because I think it is awesome. Fortunately, it blooms early enough not to interfere with the overall color scheme.

The incentive to pay attention to all of these details is rooted in my desire to create a garden that will bring pleasure to anyone who visits my home. Not all of my colleagues share that value. Many have related how proud they are that their garden is a reflection of personal taste, style, and idiosyncrasies. What others think is of no concern to them. I must assume that they live in neighborhoods where individuality is respected or in areas where the gardens around the home are sufficiently distanced from others, so that there is no opportunity to be judged. I have the greatest respect for independent minded people that stand proud for what they believe in. I too stand proud for my beliefs, but in the garden, I care very much how my compositions make other people feel.

I admire the gardeners who consider the landscape that surrounds their homes to be expressions of their individuality. I recognize that they are excited by the spontaneity created by their personal style even when the gardens appear to be chaotic or too bold for others. It is fascinating to learn that if their flowerbeds have a positive effect on others; it is considered an unexpected bonus, never an intended goal. Individuality plays an important role in the evolution of our rich North American societies. Follow the news in all media, and it feels as if we are celebrating personal uniqueness almost on a daily basis. No other place on earth offers such opportunities for this liberty.

However, an exception to this liberty must occur if one earns a living by landscaping other people’s properties. In that case, ones private garden may be needed to showcase ones talents. Then, the overall appearance of the garden must appeal to a wider population, if it is to help generate business. Under such circumstances, the garden professional has no choice but to tone down personal taste to emphasize universally accepted standards of beauty. Even I am compelled to suspend working on a client’s property and take precious time to tweak my own garden, before a future client drives by my home to see an example of my work.

Another exception to independant style gardening sometimes occurs in densely populated neighborhoods where neat front yards define the character of a community. An otherwise free sprited  homeowner may reluctantly agree to landscape in a style that respects local standards, if only to help maintain property values in the neighborhood. That is hard to do. It requires gardeners with no ego, or those who understand that there is a time and place for personal principles and ideals. Hopefully, they will compensate for their compromises in the privacy of their own back yards.

We cannot garden as we please if we are committed to impressing or pleasing others, especially those whose tastes, as yet, we do not know. We must also respect good garden design if we want to utilize our landscape to its best advantage. It has to satisfy all of our needs for outdoor living, personal refuge, and aesthetic standards. On some level, garden design is akin to wish fulfillment.

Beautiful gardens and flower beds do not occur by themselves; there can be no haphazard or defiant installation of patios, paths and plants. Nature is not that talented to correct our whims or our mistakes. It is a widely held belief that gardens can be beautiful simply because flowers are pretty and that by adding more plants, the garden will be even more beautiful. I disagree.

For a garden or a flower bed to be successful, it must be well thought out, well planned, and well designed. All that advance work must be completed before the tip of the shovel hits the earth for the first time. During the installation of a garden, there will always be unexpected surprises, requiring on the spot changes and snap decisions. A good master plan, i.e. a well designed garden, makes unforeseen obstacles easier to overcome.

Some individualists might be unhappy to defer to good design principles. They should not be. For within the guidelines of good design, independent minded gardeners can still put their personal mark on their garden when they select and arrange their plants. There is always room for personal expression. Ask any successful artist, and they will confirm, that no matter how avant-garde or esoteric the style of their paintings, they all began their careers by first studying the rudiments of design, before they put paint brush to canvas.


Planting in Odd Numbers; the Secret to a Beautiful Garden

Photograph is the copyright of Claudia de Yong Design, years ago, conventional wisdom held that perennials should be planted in groups of three. The reasoning behind that advice was simple: Planting one perennial would look scrawny. Planting three in a grouping would show better.

That makes sense if one has a large estate with flower borders 8 feet deep by 20 feet long; such gardens can accommodate elaborate plant groupings. However, some gardeners have small urban lots that cannot hold most of the perennials on their wish list, let alone three of one kind. Other gardeners have strict budgets that barely allow for the purchase of one new perennial each season. Could there ever be a compromise on this matter?

Instead of a compromise, there has been a revolution. A new generation of gardeners, that had been raised by irreverent parents, who, themselves, were encouraged to do your own thing, are realizing that there are no rules of gardening; we all can do as we please. Our gardens are private oasis for lovers of plants. Inside these retreats, gardeners make their own rules to create personal spaces that make them happy. Some rebel gardeners have resorted to planting only one of a plant, simply because they can. Others do the same because space is limited.

If we want beautiful flowerbeds, however, there is one rule that needs to be respected. Gardeners who have the space and the budget for more than one of the same perennial are encouraged to plant them in odd, instead of, even numbers. That is, unless they are creating very formal gardens that rely on symmetry. While there is no consensus as to which field of science this rule belongs to, there is consensus that it is a fundamental rule of design. Here is what we have come to understand:

In determining what makes a garden beautiful, we take our inspiration from nature, which has a natural chaos about it. Nature appears less ordered and has a less managed look. However, the human brain instinctively tries to impose order on chaos. It does so by pairing up even numbered items to create formal patterns, because even numbers are easy to divide in the brain.

Because nature embraces chaos, odd numbers look more natural. At first, odd numbers of an item appear unbalanced; they are more difficult to divide because the eye is unable to pair them. When the eye tries to group an odd number into pairs, there is always one left over; the eye continues moving everywhere looking for a mate. This creates a pleasurable dynamic situation. The resulting phenomenon is that odd-numbered groups are particularly pleasing to the eye.

Theories vary as to why. One theory is that having an odd number forces one to view the objects as a single group, rather than visually dividing them into two separate sets. Another theory is that odd numbers look less regimented than even numbers. Twined objects appear static; odd numbered groupings come to life, resulting in compositions that are more aesthetically pleasing. Because the brain automatically breaks down what it sees into pairs, if we plant only two, our eyes will be fixated on the pair and we will ignore the rest of the garden. An odd number of plants stimulate the brain to look everywhere.

In adapting this rule of nature, it is not always necessary to plant in groupings. Successful compositions are possible when three, five or seven of the same, or similar, plants are sprinkled throughout the flowerbed. This creates a rhythmic repetition that draws the eye through the garden, while at the same time, unites all of the plants into a successful and eye-catching composition.

Creative gardeners, with long wish lists but limited space, may opt to plant odd numbers of different kinds of perennials, all of which share a similar color and bloom time. The brain will see an odd-numbered grouping of flowers in the yellow family, for example, before noticing that the flowers and their colors are not identical. Jean Potuchek used this technique to great advantage when she planted yellow Hemerocallis in her blue and yellow border. Click to see the picture of this composition in the photo-banner at Jean’s Garden. It reinforces how effective odd-number planting can be.

A general rule of thumb is to use even numbers to design a formal garden and odd numbers for an informal one. Many gardeners fume whenever they read or hear advice about planting in odd numbered multiples of three, five, or seven. They believe this to be just another silly rule that has become outmoded. Not so! The rule should be respected because it makes our gardens beautiful.

The copyrighted photo, at the head of this post, that illustrates the effectiveness of using odd numbered items, is the work of UK garden designer Claudia de Yong of Claudia de Yong Design, who also blogs at The Garden Spot.