IN THE GARDEN | Designing your spring garden

Spring is close at hand and with it, the opportunity to renew our gardens and bring our winter dreams to life. 

Making a garden is a complex endeavor. It is like designing a house, as you create spaces for outdoor living and, at the same time, work in the manner of an interior designer, furnishing those spaces with pattern and texture. 

And it is like creating music or dance because it moves through space and time as the seasons and the years march on. 

You, the garden designer, are the architect, choreographer, bandleader and horticultural expert. I know you are up to it, or you wouldn’t be reading about garden design.


The art of garden design

Since gardens are an art form, we can look to the other arts for insight. 

Think of your favorite song: The melody, the rhythm, the words all work together to make a whole. The linear forms of beds, paths and terraces represent the melody. The rhythms are the repetitions and patterns of plants, and the words are the story you tell with your garden, what you want it to do for you. 

In beginning architectural design classes, we call this the “program,” the list of activities. You might list outdoor dining, level play space for children and a place to putter with perennials. Take that list, and decide where these activities fit best. The plan begins to emerge.

How do you get it all to go together? This is where the art comes in. Take a clue from successes that you have had on the inside of your house. You may have matched a pillow fabric with the wall color or created a quiet corner in a busy household. In your garden, use the design sensibilities that you have developed inside your home.


Attention to details

When you design your garden, you must look both with a bird’s-eye view and a close-up one, with an eye for the overall plan and one for the enriching details. 

I always find it useful to work with a plan view sketch of a garden, including the house and existing features and plants — that gives you the bird’s-eye view. Sketch out several possibilities as you work to fit your program to the site. 

I also find it important to mark out the design on the ground, with a hose or line of wood stakes laid on the ground like dashed lines, so that you can test out the shape of a bed or a path. I do not think it is as important to draw a detailed planting plan. 

After the major features are in place, gather a group of plants (paying attention to their cultural needs for light and water) and compose them in place in the garden. Work with the interplay of leaf texture and color, along with the colors of the flowers.

The most satisfying gardens have these in common: There is a sense that someone cares about it and puts some thought and effort into the design. The garden has a sense of place, with a center or heart. Details hold our interest, such as a variety of plant materials providing textures that give unity and variation. 

It is really important to have a comfortable place to be outside, for dining, for relaxing with friends. A garden is for living in, not just looking at. 


Practice makes perfect

Becoming a good designer in your own garden takes practice. Experiment, and be willing to make changes if the first attempts do not work. 

Another key is exposure to the efforts of others, through books, magazines, garden talks and actual garden visits. Look at what you like, examine what elements appeal to you and work them into your own plan. You may be attracted to the paving on a path, a great plant combination or a shady arbor.

For garden talks, garden tours and plant sales, here are three organizations in Seattle that will lead you down the garden path. Check out the websites, attend a talk or plant sale and become a member:

•The Northwest Horticultural Society:;

•Hardy Plant Society of Washington:; and

•Northwest Perennial Alliance:

PHIL WOOD is the owner of Phil Wood Garden Design in Seattle.

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