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Don’t Be Small-Minded: Design Lessons from My Mistakes

January 14, 2010

The back slope (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)This is the third in a series of posts about garden design lessons I’ve learned by making mistakes. The first was It’s Good to Repeat Yourself and the second was It’s Not Just About Flowers.

This post focuses on the importance of scale in garden design. When I first began gardening, I read (?) a piece of design advice that you should always be able to reach all parts of a flower bed without stepping into it, so borders that can only be accessed from one side should be no more than 3 feet deep and island beds should be no more than 6 feet deep. I’ve put a ? after “read” because I now consider this such bad advice that I’m wondering if I misread it or misunderstood what I read.

But whether I misunderstood the advice or not, I tried to follow it. The circular bed was 6’ in diameter, and both the iris bed and the bedroom border were no more than 3’ at their deepest points. The results were not very satisfying. The iris bed, which was crammed full of two different varieties of old-fashioned siberian irises, was lovely during the two weeks each June that the irises bloomed, but was pretty uninteresting the rest of the time. The flower beds that aimed for more variety and an extended bloom period looked perennially thin and haphazard. I mean, if you think about it, it’s hardly a surprise. What makes a perennial garden lovely is that lush sense of layering that comes from different types and heights of foliage and from variety and repetition of plants. Given that the average perennial has a 2’ spread, how much of that can you accomplish in a flower bed that’s only 3’ deep?

I got my first clue about what the problem might be when my next door neighbor mentioned that her favorite part of my garden was the back slope. The back slope?? This wasn’t actually a flower bed; I mean, I hadn’t dug or designed it in any intentional way. When I bought the property, there was a steep grassy slope that separated the driveway from the back door, with no easy way to get from driveway to door. My father and I built a wooden stairway into the slope, but the stairway cut off one section that was about 10’ wide and 16’ from top to bottom and just about impossible to mow. So I stripped off the grassy top layer and started putting in plants higgledy-piggledy to hold the sandy soil in place. I planted a rhododendron seedling and some hosta divisions that my mother gave me on the top half of the slope, and I let the wild strawberries that were already growing on the bottom part of the slope extend to cover more of it. As the years went by, I stuck in more plants that were gifts from friends (chives, lilies, daylilies) wherever they fit; and as plants from other parts of the garden (siberian iris, Coreopsis verticilata, Platycodon, Tradescantia, oregano) needed to be divided or produced volunteer seedlings, I added those to the back slope, too.

Layered foliage on the back slope (photo credit: Jean PotucheIt was a bit disheartening to hear that this admitted hodge-podge was the most successful part of my garden! But when I stepped back and looked at it through new eyes, I could see what my neighbor meant. In a wild way, the back slope had that lush, layered look. Over the years, the rhododendron had grown to become a substantial foliage presence, even when it’s pink flowers were not spilling down the slope. And that foliage overlapped with the very different foliage of hosta, platycodon, daylilies and siberian iris in a pleasing way. There were flowers in bloom on the slope through much of the garden season, beginning with rhododendron, chives and strawberries in spring and ending with Platycodon and reblooming daylilies in fall.

Deck border (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Once I could see the beauties of the back slope, I began to notice that the flower beds that I found pleasing in others’ gardens were much deeper than the 3’ rule allowed. When I began to design the deck border, ten years after I first began gardening here, I threw out the 3’ rule once and for all. This border, which extends more than 40’ along the back of the house, has a curving front edge that is 11’ deep at its deepest point. The large size of this flower bed has allowed me to use large plants (including some shrubs) and to create a layered look that incorporates both repetition and variety.  I worried that such a large planting might be out of scale with my small (less than 1000 sq. ft.) house; but, on the contrary, the large flower beds enhance the house and give it more presence.

Once I had this success with the deck border, I rethought the size of all my garden areas. In the years that followed, I have increased the diameter of the circular bed to 8’ (with dramatic results), added another large border (the blue and yellow border) across the walkway from the deck border, and recently completed a new semi-circular fence border that is 18’ long and 8’ deep.

What about the problem of stepping into my flower beds? It turns out not to be a problem. I have included some stepping stones (broken pieces of flagstone that I can buy at my local Agway for 20 cents a pound) to provide access. But even where there are no stepping stones, I just need to be careful where I step.

What did I learn from my early years trying to follow the 3’ rule? To create successful perennial gardens, I needed to stop being small-minded and think big! (Oh yeah, and don’t believe everything you read.)

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2010 3:20 pm

    Some of my borders where possible are deep too and it certainly adds more drama and theatre in the garden. I just watch where I walk especially when the bulbs are starting to appear.

  2. January 14, 2010 5:22 pm

    Hi Jean, what good advice, thanks! So glad you were able to have that nice slope to fill with layers of plantings and a nice neighbor to show the way. Your bed sizes sound enviably large and lush and the photos prove it. Well done! 🙂

    • Jean permalink*
      January 14, 2010 5:56 pm

      Leavesnbloom, I hope it didn’t take you as long as it took me to discover the benefits of depth in garden beds.

      Frances, You are right; thank God for my neighbor! I’m such a rule follower that without her comment, goodness knows how long I would have tried to follow that silly 3′ rule! Although my house is small, my property is fairly large (about an acre and a half) and because this is Maine, the most heavily forested state in the US, there are tall trees everywhere except the clearing that was created for the house. So, I’m finally realizing that the scale of the surrounding woods requires a fairly large scale of planting to keep the house from looking like a pimple.

  3. January 14, 2010 6:10 pm

    Hi Jean,
    The more research I do on horticulture, the more I realize that most rules about gardening are closer to myth than to fact.

  4. January 14, 2010 6:27 pm

    This is a great post Jean, my beds are too shallow in may places, where they are deep, they are generally shaped around a mature 8’x8′ shrub. I’m having some trouble expanding due to the placement of underground sprinklers, since you really can’t grow anything in their paths, at least not close to the sprinkler heads. I’m going to have to do some creative expansion this year, now that the beds are full.

  5. January 14, 2010 6:38 pm

    Bigger is better! Not just for beds, but for big drifts of plants as well. Great and very informative post, as usual Jean.

    • Jean permalink*
      January 14, 2010 7:48 pm

      Allan, This is a useful insight. Now that I have more than 20 years of gardening experience, I am becoming more willing to trust my instincts. I’m finding that writing this blog, which helps me to get in touch with my own garden knowledge and garners helpful feedback, encouragement and support from others, is really helping with that process.

      Rebecca, I’m lucky in that the only impediments I have to expanding my garden are my own time, energy, and some mild problems with my back. Since my “soil” here is pretty much pure glacial sand, it requires a lot of amendments. So, it typically takes me about 2 hours of labor and hauling about 40 lbs each of manure and compost for each 6 square feet of new garden area. The deck border took me three years from start to finish, and the new fence border took two years.

      So, since I’ve learned that Deborah is right and bigger is better, I have to pace myself, limit myself to one new garden area at a time, and realize that it will be many years before I can complete even the projects that I already have in mind. But, then, as all gardeners know, if you ever actually finish the garden, you have to put your house on the market and start over somewhere else!

  6. January 14, 2010 8:00 pm

    There is no project too small to be made big. I love big. That is what worries Pat. Your yard is wonderful, wonderful.

  7. January 14, 2010 8:04 pm

    Oh, I love this post! Your advice is wonderful, and I will definitely keep it in mind as I put in more beds around my home. Pretty pictures, too.

  8. January 14, 2010 9:08 pm

    There really are no shortcuts, are there? Pun intended. I think just as a toddler has to stumble a few dozen times before walking proficiently, so too with gardeners. Most mistakes are easily rectifiable. In a way I think it’s good to start out narrow and enlarge areas as our ideas and abilities grow. From these photos, it’s obvious the results are a huge success.

  9. January 14, 2010 9:30 pm

    Your garden is beautiful, Jean! It is so lush with interesting foliage. I am trying to get the layered look. As I keep learning and my plants keep growing … it is slowly turning into something that I like. Enjoyed your post.

  10. January 14, 2010 10:14 pm

    Hi Jean,

    I think that most design rules should be viewed as guidelines that can be changed depending on the location. I have broken many rules – some with great results. But there are a few that I never break…

  11. January 15, 2010 12:01 am

    I love the deck border! Rules? I don’t like that word much. Tends to get my hackles up. I too have learned a lot by trial and error, as many of us have.

    • Jean permalink*
      January 15, 2010 8:15 am

      Jim, I love this motto; too funny! You and Deborah are on the same wavelength here.

      Grace, I agree that experiential learning is critical in gardening, as in much of life. (As a teacher, I know that students learn more deeply from participating in labs, discussions, and practicums than by listening to lectures.) On the other hand, wouldn’t it have been nice if it had taken me less than 10 years to figure this one out!

      VW and Amy, I’m glad you found this helpful; I like to think we can learn some things from others’ mistakes as well as our own.

      Deb and Noelle, I like the idea that there are no rules in gardening, only guidelines; it’s an important reminder for someone like me with a tendency to follow the rules. On the other hand, I’m not sure this 3′ thing should even be a guideline; I’m having trouble imagining situations where it would be good advice.

  12. January 15, 2010 10:53 am

    ESPECIALLY don’t believe everything we read! I always say that the plants can’t read either, so we’ll follow our instincts, and remember there are no gardening mistakes, only experiments. I’m constantly experimenting….;-)

  13. January 15, 2010 11:27 am

    great post, I am going to break some rules this summer. And make my border BIGGER!

  14. Kate permalink
    January 15, 2010 12:38 pm

    Great advice. I’ve never put much faith in rules that restrict creativity. I think of them more as guidelines while we’re learning the basics. Then, they’re meant to be broken and experimented with.
    Happy gardening,

    • Jean permalink*
      January 15, 2010 7:48 pm

      We seem to be reaching a consensus here. There are NO RULES in gardening, only guidelines — and, as Kate has pointed out, those are made to be broken and experimented with.

      So, Rosey, I think you and I should go for it — go out there and break those guidelines (although breaking rules sounds like more fun)!

      Jodi, I love the idea that there are no mistakes, only experiments. Although I don’t think I’ll change the title of this series to “Design Lessons from My Experiments” — sounds more controlled and intentional than my stumbling around in garden design has actually been.

  15. January 15, 2010 4:10 pm

    Very interesting, Jean! It’s a good idea to step back and look at the garden through new eyes! I need to do it with my garden.

    • Jean permalink*
      January 15, 2010 7:50 pm

      Tatyana, Maybe someone can do a post on different strategies for looking at the garden through new eyes. I think it can often be hard to do. Although now that I think about it, it may be one of the things that blogging does for me.

  16. January 15, 2010 7:52 pm

    Hi, Jean, Bigger may be better in many ways, but it’s also more to look after… a real consideration if one lacks the time to manage it. I’m trying to corral my garden this year to balance impact with sustainability. But my thinking cap is absorbing all available insights, channeled straight into the little grey cells… thanks for this series.

    • Jean permalink*
      January 15, 2010 9:40 pm

      Helen, This is a dilemma that I’m just starting to grapple with. I do know that my flower beds “work” better when they are bigger, and because I have so much property, I have almost endless ideas for new planting areas. But how many of these big flower beds can I really manage on my own? I’ve been digging and planting new beds pretty much continuously for the past ten years, I have one more planned for the back of the house (probably a 2-3 year project), and then I need to do some serious work on landscaping the front. For the past two years, I’ve had a little trouble keeping up with it all; and as I look toward retirement in a few years, I need to think about how to create a garden that I can “age in place” with. I’d be interested in hearing/reading more of your thoughts about this as they develop.

  17. January 16, 2010 2:49 am

    This was so true for me, too. When I began planting one of my borders, I couldn’t put my finger on why it was lacking so much in appeal. I realized after studying many photos and reflecting on those that I found appealing, that I needed to think big not only in terms of the depth of the border, but also in plants. This was a wonderful and informative post.

    • Jean permalink*
      January 16, 2010 7:19 pm

      Liisa, We seem to be on very similar gardening journeys — which is probably one of the reasons your blog grabbed me the first time I visited it.

  18. January 17, 2010 5:13 pm

    Jean, a first-time responder here! Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I had read the same advice years ago, but found that it just didn’t work for me so I abandoned it, but I didn’t have a perceptive neighbour to point me in the right direction and so I struggled myself to work out what was wrong and many times my efforts didn’t work.

    Having reached a fairly advanced age, and suffering from knee problems, I am now at the stage of sustaining my gardens but not adding to them. And it’s hard to do — every instinct I have says “get out there and put in more plants”.

    Thanks for a very perceptive post!

    • Jean permalink*
      January 17, 2010 6:10 pm

      Rosella, Thanks for visiting. I’m so glad you told me that you once read the same advice; I was beginning to think that maybe I had dreamed it! As I mentioned in my response to Helen, I’m just starting to grapple with the tension between “bigger is better” and the limitations of my aging body. I’m thinking about trying to design the gardens at the front of my house so that they have more hardscape and fewer flower beds. That project is still several years in the future, so I have time to think about it.

  19. helen permalink
    May 15, 2013 12:38 am

    I would live to see a pic of your circular bed. My husband is building me one in our front yard. I know that I want some “Schreiner’s” iris in there but not sure what else. Hope to have blooms all season. Ideas?

    • May 15, 2013 7:23 pm

      Hi Helen, Click on my Garden Tour page to see pictures of the circular bed in three different months. You can also see some discussion of it in my post It’s Good to Repeat Yourself. I designed my bed as a set of concentric circles with plants that would bloom at different points in the summer. At the center is a tall Delphinium elatum that blooms in July. Surrounding the delphinium is a circle of five plants — a Siberian iris and Allium (that bloom in May-June), a Heliopsis (that starts blooming in July and blooms until Frost), and a Platycodon and Liatris spicata (that bloom in August). The next circle out consists of 9 plants — 4 each of daylilies (blooming in July and August) and hardy geraniums (blooming June-August), plus a tradescantia (blooming mostly in June). The outermost ring consists entirely of hardy geraniums that bloom in May-June and Alchemilla mollis (also blooming mostly in June). These plants also provide a strong foliage presence throughout the summer. It’s important to pay attention to foliage as well as flowers. My bed combines three different kinds of foliage textures (rounded like geranium and Alchemilla, spiky like daylilies, iris and tradescantia, and more oval like heliopsis and platycodon). I hope this helps you to think about what to plant in your own circular bed.


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