Garden Design Tips

A garden has many purposes. It's a place to grow delicious tomatoes and mouth watering fruit picked ripe off the tree. It's a place to read your favorite book on a comfy chair in the shade. It's a place to watch birds and butterflies when they visit the flowers you've planted just for them. It's a place that you go when you need to get away from all the hustle and bustle of daily life. And it's a place of healing.

path to shed

This week I lost my little cat, Jasmine.  I forgive her for the occasional bird she caught. She really wasn't a hunter. Mostly she liked to just lay around in the shade. There is so much life in a garden. For now, mine will be a healing garden.

Gardens serve many functions. With our lovely summer weather they are truly another room – an outdoor room. We all recognize a well designed garden when we see it. All the garden's individual parts make sense together. They feel right. That's why some gardens not only look better, but feel better than others, too.

There are several design principles that you should use to get your garden to look its best. Once you have them down, a garden practically designs itself.  

First of all you want to create unity within your garden. Plants and other hardscape elements in a

garden, like decks, paths or even rocks, have visual weight  that needs to be balanced so everything appears in proportion. A tall tree and low mounded shrubs growing opposite a group of airy perennials around a fountain looks natural and random but balanced. Think of a mimosa tree underplanted with Gulf Stream nandina opposite a group of monkey flower.

Your garden should include a variety of textures, seasonal interest and color to hold your attention and create excitement. Things should stand out from each other. Choose one or two contrasting elements, like the small green leaves of loropetalum against  broad, variegated hostas, or a tall, vertical thuja Emerald Green against low, mounding abelia Kaleidescope so your garden doesn't turn into a jumble.

A garden needs at least one object or area that is noticed first and most often. Your focal point can be a red Japanese maple rising above a low, wild ginger groundcover or a water fountain that instantly gets your attention. The sound of water is soothing and it's fun to see all the birds and butterflies that come to visit.

Because our area is nested among the trees or other wild areas I think an informal, naturalistic garden looks more like it belongs here. Curved paths and planting beds move the eye more slowly through the landscape and invite you to come and explore every corner and curve. Stillness and reflection result  when gentle rhythmic, repeating groups of plants curve toward a tall garden arbor, for instance. Create smooth transitions from one area of the landscape to another.

Repeating forms, textures, colors and sizes makes a garden easier to look at. Repetition sets the rhythm for the eye to move around the garden. Evenly space plants produces a predictable, well-controlled, peaceful feeling. A staggered, uneven repetition will have a bouncy, energetic effect.


Lake Tahoe vs Santa Cruz Mts

Lake Tahoe

Boy are we spoiled living here like we do. Our climate is just cold enough in the winter to grow delicious fruit that likes a bit of chill but not so cold that we're forced inside during those months. Our summers are warm and long allowing vegetable gardens to thrive as well as people.

Not so at Lake Tahoe where I recently spent some time. Here cold winters make snow sports reign supreme and summer brings a short growing season. Locals told me that their lilacs are just now blooming, the peonies are in tight bud and many gardeners don't bother growing vegetables. Late snow often in June and early snow sometimes in late August make gardening in the Sierra so much more difficult.

I visited a beautiful nursery in Tahoe City, the Tahoe Tree Nursery to get a feel for what's popular in these parts. This destination nursery is landscaped for weddings as well as bringing in perennials, trees and shrubs to sell from their growing grounds in Loomis in the central valley. Quaking aspen grew in lovely stands providing shade for ferns, hostas and ligularia.  Favorite perennials are echinacea or cone flower and were offered in all the hot new colors: Hot Papaya, Raspberry Truffle, Marmalade, Primadonna White as well as the beautiful magenta standard, Magnus. Many varieties of coreopsis, stachys, lonicera, rudbeckia, kniphofia and hardy geranium are also popular. Rugosa roses do well in this climate also.

On a hike to Shirley Lake in the Squaw Valley area the wildflowers were in full splendor. Fields of

Shirley lake
Indian paintbrush, mules ears, penstemon, lupine, phlox and delphinium and Mariposa lily covered the slopes. Early summer starts off this areas growing season and everything was lush with new growth and color.

In our part of the world, our early wildflower season is almost over but perennials and flowering shrubs are at their peak and need a bit of attention about now. Here are some tips of what to do in the garden in July.

Make sure vines have support. Some grow so fast that if you look away for a week they become a tangled mess. A little maintenance goes a long way in this department.

Trim back early flowering perennials to encourage the next flush of blooms.

Turn the compost pile often and keep moist.

Add additional mulch to planting beds to keeps roots cool and preserve moisture.

Check ties on trees to make sure they aren't cutting into the bark.

While your out in the garden, take some cuttings from favorite plants like roses, hydrangeas, geraniums, trumpet vine, blackberries, lavatera and salvia. Softwood cuttings are taken during the growing season from relatively soft flexible growth.  Gather 8-12" cuttings early in the day. Discard flowers, buds and side shoots. Then cut the stem into 3-4" pieces, each with at least 2 nodes. Keep track of which end is the bottom and dip in rooting hormone. Poke holes with a pencil in a rooting medium such as half peat moss or potting soil with half perlite, vermiculite, or sand or use perlite or sand only and insert cuttings. Enclose each container in a plastic bag to maintain humidity, opening the bag for a few minutes each day for ventiliation. Place the containers in bright shade.

Some cuttings take 4-6 weeks to root while others take longer. Once they have taken root and are sending out new leaves, open the bags. When the new plants are acclimated to open air, transplant each to its own pot of light weight potting soil.

Enjoy your garden even more this summer by rooting your own plants for yourself, to give away or trade. This is how early settlers filled their gardens, too.

Poisonous Natives / Deer Resistant Natives

July already. Plants are growing like there's no tomorrow. The hummingbirds are my constant companions in the garden and the resident deer population comes by daily. There are two spotted fawns that now accompany their mother along with a couple of her sisters. Life is good.

I see them sampling plants what the older deer are trying. There are native plants that are poisonous for us but only some of them are avoided by deer. It got me thinking. How do deer eat poisonous plants without apparent ill affect?  

Deer are browsers. They thrive on a mixed diet. You've seen them eat a few roses then saunter over to the abutilon and then on to the daylily flowers. Deer will eat almost anything, even plants with a strong scent like catmint, lavender,  or thyme when they are hungry or need water. They can even eat a few bites of various toxic plants.

According to Tom Hanley,  a wildlife biologist with the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, "There seems to be threshold levels for the toxicity of different plants, and as long as deer eat below that threshold, they're okay."  Plant toxicity varies with the time of year also and flowers may be less toxic than leaves or roots. They just mix it up.

That explains the eating habits of deer but what about us?

Many of us are including native plants in our landscapes to attract wildlife and save water and resources. Here are some common native plants that you should be aware of if you have small children.  This list comes from
Borstein, Foss and O'Brian- California Native plants for the Garden.

Coffeeberry- leaves, berries and bark
California buckeye- all parts  (poisonous to bees also)
Western azalea- all parts
Elderberry- all parts except ripe berries and fruit
Solanum-all parts
California buttercup- juice of the plant
Berberis- roots and leaves
Prunus ( cherry )- seeds
California poppy- all parts
Lupine (annual)- seeds, fresh leaves and stems.

Mostly though, native plants make great additions to the garden. They tend to be well behaved and are rarely invasive. Birds and butterflies rely on them for food, shelter and nesting. And best of all they are beautiful.

When I'm designing with native plants I find the following plants are fairly safe around deer. They are not perfectly safe at all times of the year but they are usually avoided.

Artemisia also called Ca. sagebrush
Asarum – Wild ginger
Baccharis – Dwf coyote brush
Ceanothus  'Julia Phelps'
Eriogonum – Ca. buckwheat
Douglas iris
Mimulus auritanicus – Sticky monkey flower
Monardella – Coyote mint
Ribes speciosum – Fuchsia-flowering gooseberry

Enjoy your garden. Let the deer browse elsewhere and be aware of plants that may be toxic to children.


Ahbkazi Garden – Victoria, BC.

Ahbkazi garden path
How many beautiful gardens can one visit on one vacation? I spent a whole day at the spectacular Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island. a couple of hours at St. Ann's Academy heritage garden and the lovely Empress Hotel rose garden is a nice place to watch the sunset over the harbor.  But I wanted more and on the outskirts of Victoria in a residential neighborhood I found the perfect garden.

Smaller and more intimate, Abkhazi Garden offers a fine example of what you can do with a large lot full of rocks and trees if you put your mind to it. Now owned by The Land Conservancy of British Columbia, the property was bought in 1946 by Peggy Pemberton Carter who recognized the possibilities on this last undeveloped lot in the neighborhood. This independent minded woman traveled to the west coast after WW II from a prisoner of war camp in Georgia, using funds she had hidden during the war in talcum powder. She married Prince Abkhazi, a Russian fellow prisoner, when he joined her in Victoria and they began to build the summer house and lay out the garden together.

Over the next 40 years, Prince and Princess Abkhazi  designed, planted and maintained the property. Peggy had lived in Shanghai before the war and it was this influence that plays out in the garden. Chinese gardens are essentially places of meditation, places to withdraw from worldly cares. This must have been very appealing to the Abkhazi's  after their experiences in prisoner of war camps. Nothing in a Chinese garden is hurried or blatant. Paths are not just a way of getting from one point to another, instead they are a way of exploring changing views that slowly shift as you walk through the garden.

As I made my way between massive glaciated rock outcroppings and under mature native Garry oak trees gorgeous views of the snow-covered Olympic mountains and the Straight of San Juan de Fuca could be seen.
Each garden "room" utilizes the natural lay of the land and has a welcoming bench for sitting and taking in the flowers. Lots of birds and butterflies were busy feeding and going about their daily activities.

Purple allium flowers the size of grapefruit caught my attention. Growing nearby, pale yellow

Candelabra primula
Candelabra primula[/caption]Japanese iris bordered one of the paths. Fragrant dianthus, several varieties of campanula and euphorbia, lady's mantle and candelabra primula were all blooming and the weeping Crimson Queen Japanese maples were pruned to perfection.

More than just a collection of plants, this garden flows with the natural contours and blends the house with it's surroundings. it is a stunning example of West Coast design. The garden flows around the rock outcroppings, taking advantage of deeper pockets of soil for conifers, Japanese maples and rhododendrons. The original Lily-of-the-Valley beds still carpet a slope. Alpine plants are placed like little jewels around the boulders and woodland plants border the undulating lawns.

A small waterfall flows into a pond where 2 large turtles sunned themselves on the rock edge while a third rested on a waterlily pad, it's red ear markings picking up the dark pink color of the waterlily flower. A stand of stately white calla lilies emerged through a piece of drifwood near a resting spot. The garden is magical. One that you could imagine on your own property if you had the next 40 years to plant and maintain it.
It would have been  a terrible loss if the property had not been purchased in 2000 by The Land Conservancy. After the death of the Abkhazis the land was slated to become a townhouse development. This unique garden
is truly a place of wonder. a place to meditate and to withdraw from worldly cares.