Balance order and chaos

An important part of the ‘look’ of this garden is the use of shaped ‘negative’ space and the use of edging materials.  Both contribute to providing definition to the spaces and a feeling of control to balance the exuberance of the plantings.  Ones’ mind craves variety but it also craves order.  The clean, somewhat formal, elements of the rectangular lawn in the backyard, and the brick edging and grass path in the front garden are important providers of order to balance the ‘chaos’ of the informal mingling of the plants.  Interestingly, both the brick edging and the rectangular lawn came about initially to reduce the maintenance requirements of ‘trench edging to prevent grass from spreading into the garden beds.  By putting a path on the outside of the beds in the backyard, the lawn grass was separated from the garden beds.  A quick and easy touch up in spring (described in the rectangular lawn section of the backyard detail below…) is much less work than the previous two or three times a season refreshing of trench edges for the garden beds.  Similarly, the brick edge (described further in the related section of the front garden description below…) eliminated the need to trench edge the front garden, a chore that had become decidedly onerous.

Once the decision to eliminate trench edging was made, it became clear that it was important to give careful thought to the shape of the beds and space.  The brick edge, in particular is a fair bit of work to change because it is necessary to lift and move the metal grass barrier that lies between the bricks and grass.  The concept of shaping ‘negative’ space became the driving force.  The ‘negative’ space in this context is the space left over after the garden beds are made.  Usually one focuses on shaping the beds; switching the focus to shaping the ‘left over’ space produces striking results.

In making the rectangular lawn in the backyard, we shaped the lawn and adjusted the beds to fit around it.  Similarly, the grass path in the front was shaped by measuring a distance from the edge of the main front bed.  The ‘moat’ bed then became the space that was left between the grass path and the top of the ditch.  The shape of the ‘teardrop’ bed was also adjusted by the shape of the grass path.  The path at the back (driveway side) of the ‘teardrop’ was converted from grass to bark mulch.  The change in surface material clearly defined the back path as secondary, and kept the focus on the clean sweep of green of the grass path.

These are old pictures now, but the overall layout hasn’t changed much.  In this view from mid-April before plants are in active growth, the layout of the front garden is clearly seen.

A month later, the plants have filled in substantially, but the sweep of the grass path is still clearly visible in this ‘bird’s eye’ view:

and even more dramatically in this view looking south from the north edge of the front garden:wisteria bed May 16 2010-1

The rectangular lawn in the backyard is the most striking feature of the backyard garden at any tine. These pictures are a few years old now – we have since removed the log edge on the south side, adding a path to complete the circuit around the lawn and shorten the long side of the lawn to improve the proportions.





(All those fallen ash leaves are added to the garden beds.)

The result of the shaping of the ‘negative’ space is that the lawn in the backyard and the grass path in the front yard became ornamental features on their own, and not just the relatively unimportant residual background space.  The greater prominence of the negative space and its somewhat formal geometry imposes an important sense of order to counterbalance the exuberant riot of plants.  It was a relatively simple change that had a dramatic effect on the sense of the garden as a coherent and distinctive space.


Garden Objectives and Philosophies

While a garden is generally considered to be something that enhances the house (i.e. that the house is of primary importance), I see the garden as an objective in and of itself.  My objective is not to have a house with a nice garden, but to have a nice garden that has a house in it!  In either case, the house and garden need to work together harmoniously, but the emphasis and point of view are somewhat different.  My objective is to create a garden that flows coherently from one space to the next to produce a sense of the garden overall being one integrated space.  While various areas have their own character, one of my goals is that they should all link together – both physically through the use of paths, and more subtly through such things as common elements.  Those elements include one or more of: plants, materials, colors, or a variety of other possible means.

The overall layout of the garden with its network of connecting paths and shaped spaces is key to the objective of having the garden be a single entity.  The following plan diagram shows the entire garden with labels for the major parts:

Planting and maintenance are guided by several practical philosophies.  They can be summarized as:

  • Don’t make work for yourself!  Benign neglect works.

 People, particularly non-gardeners, look at our garden and say ’It must be a lot of work!’  I think one of the reasons that people get discouraged from getting more involved in gardening is the belief that it’s a lot of work and complicated (…all those Latin names – eek! :- )  While undoubtedly there is work involved in the garden, it is my firm belief, backed by practical experience in the garden, that there are much simpler ways to manage many of the garden maintenance tasks that are equally, if not more, beneficial to the plants than more traditional ‘proper’ approaches.  There is definitely a week or so in the spring and again in the fall that are busy chore periods but during much of the rest of the growing season garden chores are not onerous and are, in fact, part of the pleasure of gardening.

The single most work-minimizing change is to stop clearing all the dead foliage out of the garden in the fall – or spring.  Nature certainly doesn’t do that and plants grow just fine.  The dead material ‘composts in place’ and feeds the soil and subsequent years’ plants.  Pests can over winter in it – but so do the ‘good bugs’.  I find that, on balance,the good bugs benefit more.  It probably helps that this is a cold zone – the laissez-faire approach might be less successful in a warmer zone where winter cold is not sufficient to act as a control on pests.  And one does have to exercise some discretion by removing foliage that is known to be disease prone (e.g. peony foliage).  But it saves a lot of work if you are not clearing all the dead foliage away, only to have to replace it with compost to provide organic matter and nutrients the plants need.

And the weeds are worse if you leave the soil bare since that allows light to reach the weed seeds and assist in their germination.  I learned my lesson on that the first year in the garden here.  I had a ‘tsk-tsk’ moment at how messy it was under the white pines.  We cleared 24 large bags of leaves and needles out – and I spent the rest of the summer constantly weeding out wood sorrel!  Never again…  There is still wood sorrel in the garden – mainly in the front bed where there is more light – but it hasn’t been a problem under the pines in years since the ground is never bare there (other than on the paths).

Because I use a number of self-seeding ‘filler’ plants, I don’t apply any traditional mulch which might bury the seeds too deep.  The dead plant material provides all the benefits of mulch without smothering the seeds I want to germinate.

I don’t disturb the soil by digging, other than to dig planting holes for new plants.  Digging can damage the beneficial fungi in the soil and plants can be unhappy with digging in their root zone.  We now have thriving colonies of trilliums that are spreading by both offsets and seeds.  Trilliums have a reputation of being difficult to grow in the garden.  I don’t find that to be the case at all.  I’m firmly convinced it’s because I give them conditions that are as close as possible to their natural ones – under trees; buried in leaf litter; soil rarely disturbed; no water in their dormant period other than natural rainfall.  End result – spectacular spring flowers for no work at all.

Aside from supplemental water in their first year (two in the case of trees and shrubs – sometimes), I expect plants to adapt as fast as possible to surviving on natural rainfall levels.  In the first couple of years here we did use soaker hoses to get things established and save on the need for hand watering (I do recommend using soakers when establishing a new bed – more efficient and easier than other ways to provide supplemental water…)  The soaker hoses in the established beds have not been used in many years and most have now been removed.

Plants (perennials and shrubs particularly; annuals are too demanding for the most part in my opinion!) are tougher than you might think.  In combination with a ‘Darwinian’ mindset (see below…), benign neglect will take you far.  By benign neglect I mean deal with the issues necessary to make the plant work in your space and otherwise don’t fuss over it!

  • A ‘Darwinian’ approach to life in the garden

‘Survival of the fittest’ is the ultimate selection criteria.  I try to select plants reasonably suited for the climate here and plant them in place where most of their cultural needs are met.  I use a mycorrhizal fungus supplement (see the ‘tools and supplies’ section later in the manual…  I use the supplement less now as the soil is healthier now than it was when we started the garden.) to try to give plants a boost to get them off to a good start.  I provide supplemental water in the first year – or two in the case of trees and shrubs.  And then things are on their own to survive – and hopefully thrive – or die.  If they die, clearly they are not meant for this garden!  The plant tag binders include more than a few things that have died out here.  Things rarely get a second chance – there are lots of other good plants to test out when one fails.  Plants that survive but not thrive may get a second chance in another location but are equally as likely to just get evicted.  Overly aggressive or too finicky in care requirements are also characteristics which may result in eviction.

  • ‘No Bare Ground’

 I plant very densely, using self-seeding ‘filler’ plants to fill in spaces around bigger perennial and shrubs.  Many weed seeds need light to germinate.  Shading the soil with plants helps reduce weed problems.  In addition to adding more color and interest to the garden, the ‘filler’ plants thus help control weeds.  By keeping plantings dense, the plants also have to compete for light, nutrients and water.  Weaker plants will fade away (see Darwinian gardening above…) Vigorous ones may be slowed down a bit and/or need dividing less often.  I do not use traditional mulch (e.g. bark) because it deters the self-seeding I rely on.  Because I allow much of the prior year’s dead foliage to ‘compost in place’, that decaying material acts as mulch and provides needed organic matter to the soil.  If you like the look of widely spaced plants surrounded by a sea of bark mulch, you’d hate the look of my garden!  A textbook for a Landscape Design course I once took said ‘There’s no excuse for over-planting’.  While I understand that point of view for a designer working within the context of a client’s budget and, often, for clients who are not serious gardeners, in my view, there’s no excuse for under-planting in the garden!

A couple of views of ‘no bare ground’ (except for paths…) in the garden with lots of ‘fillers’ visible:

In the front garden at the end of May:

In the woodland garden under the oak in early June:

  • Pruning –‘Keep it natural and keep it clear’

I generally dislike the look of most closely clipped plants, preferring instead to prune to control size and/or promote flowering while still allowing the plant to retain its natural shape.  Early on we planted a yellow honeysuckle vine on the iron arbour in the front garden.  I required far too much pruning to control.  I concluded it must be ‘Hall’s’ honeysuckle and removed it.  It was replaced with ‘Emerald Gaiety’ euonymus and ‘Henryi’ white clematis.  (These are also red clematises there that survived the removal of the honeysuckle….)  My intent is to train the euonymus tight to the arbour to eventually result in an evergreen arbour – it’s going to take many years to cover the arbour!

An over-riding purpose of pruning is to allow clear passage on all paths.  If, on my almost daily walks around the garden, something gets in my way, it gets lopped off!  I try to adhere to the ‘keep it natural’ objective when doing the on-the-spot ad hoc pruning, but ease of travel is the prime objective.  The ‘Paul Farges’ clematis (see South alley section) is most often the plant treated to the ‘whack it back’ pruning approach and the ‘Galore’ purple clematis on the house side of the south alley has also become one that needs frequent pruning to control rampant growth.

  • Winter interest

 Winter interest tends to be most often associated with evergreen shrubs and, often these days, with ornamental grasses.  I like large evergreens as backdrops – the white pines in the backyard and the large white cedar clump in the main front bed both provide that green backdrop.  But I find evergreen shrubs, particularly coniferous ones, to be less interesting and frequently prone to looking like undistinguished dark blobs in the winter landscape.  Broadleafed evergreens appear more vibrant to me so I do use a few of those.

Ornamental grasses though just don’t appeal to me..  I could see them is a more ‘prairie’ landscape, but that’s not what this garden is about.  Also, I am highly suspicious that grasses will eventually become a problem with self-seeding.  On the few, small grasses that I do grow, I remove the seedheads when they start to ripen; since the seedheads are considered part of the winter interest of ornamental grasses, removing the seedheads reduces their winter appeal.  The other strike against grasses in my opinion is that the clumps, once they get large, can be very difficult to dig up and divide because of their deep roots.  So, you will not see many grasses in this garden.

Unlike many people, I do not find the look of the garden in its brown late fall/early spring periods to be unattractive.  A sleeping beauty needs to rest….  The contrast between the smoother surfaces of the paths and lawn areas and the uneven surfaces of the garden beds in their slumber state is surprisingly interesting and attractive.  The pattern of the garden becomes more visible when the plants are in their resting phase.  Once the snow comes, the ghost of the garden is still clearly visible with the snow lying smoothly on the paths and mounding unevenly on the beds.  The garden structures (e.g. the arbour and tuteurs) as well as deciduous trees and shrubs, projecting above and cast interesting shadows on the snow.

A little snow magic:

Here you can relate the above pictures to the backyard plan (The red Xs indicate where dead or dying trees were removed a couple of years ago….):

I find the varied textures, shapes and shadows of the varied materials in the garden to provide more interest in winter than exists in a garden dominated by coniferous evergreens.  Evergreens have a role, but it’s a far less prominent one here than is given in many gardens.

Below is the view out my office window as I type this (the original….) post in late fall 2010.  The ‘borrowed view’ of the neighbours’ evergreens are a nice backdrop.  Most of the interest within the oak garden seen in this view comes from the visibility of the paths and the contrast between the relatively smooth paths and the uneven textures and colors of the faded and fading foliage of the garden plants.   The garden is definitely in a ‘quiet’ stage but I still find it attractive as it is a natural and necessary part of the annual dynamic transformation  garden cycle.

I know that my opinions on these issues puts me out-of-step with conventional recommendations in many regards.  People who like very neat-and-tidy closely controlled gardens may find my somewhat idiosyncratic style not to be to their liking.  But, if you want a relatively large, colorful and easy-care garden, I assure you that my approach can work well for you.