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Progress on the Side Slope Design

February 20, 2016

Since I posted two weeks ago on beginning to design the side slope planting for my new front garden (see Year 2 Plans for the New Front Garden), I have continued to work on it. At the same time, I have been reading Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West (Timber Press, 2015). I will focus on this book in an upcoming post; its relevance here is that it has influenced my design for this site.


If you compare the design plan above with the earlier one, you will see that the basic structure laid out in the initial plan remains. One change is that, while I still want this design to “read” horizontally across the slope, the horizontal lines in this version are not as severe. First, I realized that I didn’t need to line up peonies and Baptisia in a straight row across the top because the walkways and the retaining wall running from the corner of the patio to about the middle of the patio border provide a strong horizontal edge at the top of the slope. Then, in reading Rainer and West’s book, I discovered that the kind of horizontal legibility that I want in this planting is characteristic of grassland and meadow archetypes; and those are not characterized by crisp horizontal lines but by horizontal drifts of plants. So I smudged the horizontal line of switchgrass and Amsonia and added some Liatris as part of this horizontal drift. For practical reasons, I also added a horizontal line of 1’ square concrete paving stones leading from the stairs into the middle of the planting. (These are the same paving stones used in the walkways and patio at the top of the slope.)

There is still a strong horizontal line at the bottom of the planting because these plants will form the edge that separates the garden from the driveway. Hosta may seem like a surprising choice for this mostly sunny location, but this particular hosta is a self-effacing medium-sized green plant (maybe H. fortunei) that my mother gave me divisions of when I first moved into this house and which has been growing happily in similar conditions on the nearby back slope for twenty-five years. I can take divisions from those hostas, which need to be thinned, and thereby provide continuity between the two plantings that border the stairs up from the driveway. In addition, these hostas grow widely along rural roadsides in my area (often with the common orange daylily, Hemerocallis fulva), where their tall wands of lavender flowers sway gracefully in mid-summer breezes; using them here links my garden to the local vernacular.

Once I established the structural plants and edges for this design, I filled in using a limited palette of plants and emphasizing both plants that grow well in my garden and plants that are growing on the nearby back slope. The top part of the planting includes peach-hued daylilies, blue balloon flowers (both of which are already growing on the back slope), and hardy geraniums. The geraniums used here, pink-colored Geranium x oxonianum and blue-flowered Geranium x ‘Brookside,’ are clump-forming plants that send out long graceful flowery arms to drape over nearby plants and that bloom throughout the summer in my cool Maine climate.  The bottom half of the slope will repeat three plants growing on the back slope: yellow daylilies, tradescantia, and Siberian irises.

I know that I will continue to tweak this, both as I think about it more and when it actually comes time to adjust the plan on paper to the peculiarities of the site, but I am feeling quite happy with this as a basic design.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2016 12:38 am

    Thank you for sharing! I have also been reading Planting in a Post-Wild World and trying to map out a new plan for an area of my yard. If you don’t mind a question, what program did you use to draw your design plan?

    • February 21, 2016 5:15 pm

      Deane, Isn’t Planting in a Post-Wild World a thought-provoking book? It is really challenging the ways I have thought about garden design.
      I don’t use any fancy computer-assisted design program, just the drawing tools in Microsoft Word. You can add a grid to the page view (in this case, I used a 1/4″ grid, because each 1/4″ represents 1′ in this planting) and then add basic shapes to the grid. Since 1/4″ = 1′, I used 1/2″ diameter circles to represent plants that have a 2′ spread, 3/4″ diameter circles to represent plants with a 3′ spread, etc. Once I have created the right size circle for a plant, I like to fill in the shapes with colors and textures that will represent the foliage or flower color of the plant. I enjoy this process — sort of like playing with crayons. 🙂 I especially like how easy it is to drag and move plants around within the design. The hardest part of this plan was getting the basic shape of the planting area down on my grid (which I did first before I started adding plants). Because the shape of this is so irregular, I had to use a combination of rectangles, triangles and lines to approximate it.

  2. February 21, 2016 8:29 am

    It seems that many of us are reading Rainer and West’s book. It is very interesting and helpful and I am liking it a lot. I also like your developing design, Jean. You approach this so systematically and I admire that — I wish I could do the same.

    • February 21, 2016 9:51 pm

      Pat, I’m learning a lot from Rainer and West’s book, although it is really challenging some of my gardening habits. Perfect timing to open my mind as I am about to start the Master Gardener class this week (which I also expect to be challenging).
      I think we all have to make use of our own strengths in our gardens. Since I’m not strong on the kind of creative intuition that shape the designs of many gardeners, my systematic and methodical approach to just about everything in life compensates. 😉

  3. February 21, 2016 11:10 am

    I am a new reader of your blog. I’m inspired!

    • February 21, 2016 9:52 pm

      Welcome, Jude, and thanks for leaving a comment. I rely on garden blogs, garden books, garden lectures and garden visits for inspiration.

  4. February 21, 2016 3:43 pm

    I love how you incorporated the idea of the horizontal drifts, Jean…Looks so natural, and it has given me much food for thought.

    • February 21, 2016 9:53 pm

      Donna, I knew my first attempt at this was too regimented and stiff; it just took me some time to figure out how to change it up effectively.

  5. February 21, 2016 5:33 pm

    tall graceful wands of lavender – for a sense of place – sounds perfect!

    • February 21, 2016 9:55 pm

      Diana, Most people grow hostas for foliage, not for flowers; but when big clumps or rows of these common ones bloom, the effect is lovely.

  6. debsgarden permalink
    February 21, 2016 5:43 pm

    I admire your thorough planning, considering growth habits and color. I like the idea of horizontal drifts as opposed to planting in horizontal lines. It should be wonderful!

    • February 21, 2016 9:57 pm

      Deb, I knew the horizontal lines were too severe and would need to be changed. I learned that lesson in my first year of gardening, when I planted a bunch of tulips, which bloomed in the spring looking like a regiment of soldiers on the parade ground!
      One of the things I love about using the computer to design is that it is so easy to shift plants around and see what happens.

  7. February 21, 2016 11:01 pm

    I like the additional level of complexity you’ve added to your planting plan, Jean. I noticed that you often group plants in sets of 3, as I also do, but I like the way you’ve varied the form of your threesomes – I can learn (steal) from that! I remain tremendously envious of the peonies.

    • February 22, 2016 10:34 pm

      Kris, I do like to use groups of three, and often three groups of three. I often combine different varieties of a plant in a grouping. For example, each of those groupings of daylilies will include three different varieties — usually plants in similar colors with overlapping bloom times.

  8. February 24, 2016 8:52 pm

    Looks good! I like how you anchor the corners with the ninebark and rose. Interesting how you have considered the horizontal lines you are creating – I don’t think about it so much because our land is flat.

    • February 26, 2016 5:28 pm

      Jason, the entrance to my house is a full story above the driveway, and the slope up to the entrance area could seem like an unwelcoming barrier. Emphasizing the horizontal lines of the slope is a way of making it seem less like a vertical barrier.

  9. February 25, 2016 10:49 am

    I am so inspired by your plan – and by your ability to lay out such a plan. I also have read Planting in a Post Modern World and will have this by my side as we launch into a major planting project this spring – along with Rick Darke’s The Living Landscape. My challenge is my wet site. But I am optimistic.

    • February 26, 2016 5:31 pm

      Pat, I also see Planting in a Post Wild World as related to The Living Landscape. Both books start with the premise that we can create better gardens by learning from the layered structure of natural plant communities — but they then take that insight in very different directions.

  10. February 28, 2016 10:31 am

    Lots of interesting aspects to your design, although because my season is somewhat different from yours, I wonder how you’ll do for bloom throughout the season. You’ve some nice texture in foliage going on, but what about early colour? I’m interested in your use of G ‘Biokovo’–I found that intensely disappointing last year in a garden design for someone else (the plants did not prosper) so I plan to replace with ‘Rozanne’ this year. But someone else I know who is a very good designer and lives here in NS loved her results. All this to say–congratulations on the new design, and it will be fun to watch it unfold!

    • February 28, 2016 11:30 am

      Jodi, One of the things not yet added to this design is an underplanting of bulbs and groundcover plants. I am planning to plant the whole slope in crocus bulbs for early spring color. I’m also considering Phlox subulata as one of the groundcover plants, which would also add spring color. My guess about the geraniums is that your client and I have different growing conditions (different types of soil?). My choice of ‘Biokovo’ is a practical one; it grows so enthusiastically and spreads so rapidly in my garden that it always needs to be thinned. I started with two $5 clumps of it about 15 years ago and now have it in almost every part of the garden (all divisions from the original clumps); that’s not even counting the divisions I added to my Gettysburg garden and all the divisions I gave away. My two jokes about ‘Biokovo’ are that it is a groundcover with ambitions to cover all the ground on earth and that if my retirement investments had multiplied as rapidly, I would now be a very wealthy retiree. I never had any luck with ‘Rozanne;’ I planted it a couple of times, but it never survived the winter here. I use ‘Brookside’ instead. (But I have a gardening friend who lives only about 10 miles away from me who swears by ‘Rozanne’ and has not been happy with the performance of ‘Brookside.’)

  11. February 28, 2016 8:01 pm

    There is always such much to learn related to garden design, I really appreciate that you are sharing the detail of this wonderful project.

    • February 28, 2016 11:03 pm

      Charlie, Trying to explain what I’m doing and why helps me to sort it out and improve the design — so sharing is very much in my interest.

  12. March 4, 2016 6:13 pm

    Hello Jean, this is so well organised, detailed and planned I can only hope to come close to how well you design. I’m hampered by continually shifting ideas, garden centre bargains, fitting in plants that people donate or off-load and it’s a much more “ad-hoc” way of going about things. I can’t wait to see the diagram above grow into life on the ground and develop in years to come. I’m very excited for you!

    • March 4, 2016 9:56 pm

      Sunil, I’ve never been someone who can design the whole garden at once. I have to design one area and then, when I create the next one, design it in relation to the previous sections. For the new front garden, I had some help from a landscape designer in laying out the big picture. Even so, I can only deal with details of one garden area at a time.

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