look out the window: garden design 101
I AM NO GARDEN DESIGNER OVER HERE, but this much I know: Look out the window if you want to make a garden. That’s Step 1; that’s where the siting of a successful home landscape should begin. After all, as a gardener, when was the last time you viewed the garden from outside, when you were in it? If you’re like me, you’re bending/weeding/mowing/digging, not viewing when you’re outdoors. With that in mind, here’s my pretty basic Garden Design 101 for Real Gardeners:
Ask yourself this: Where do you see your garden from most often, and at what time of year? Where does the magical light happen, and catch your eye? For me, it’s a few places:
The best seat in the house is the dining-room table (above), where I often plunk my laptop and heaps of messiness when writing and just generally like to be. (So does Jack the Demon Cat, who adores the west view.)
I can see a long way due west from that old Chinese wooden chair, and also pretty far south, with a short east snapshot as well…so those directions, starting at the point of my favorite chair and emanating outward, are the primary axes of my garden. From my bedroom window, I see the bird’s eye view of a similar westward scene (top, shot through the screen the other day). The garden stretches out to the west from where I see it, and gets backlit in the afternoons to boot. Nice.
Along that axis are some spring things (viburnums and lilacs, for instance) to draw the eye right now. I put a potted red-leaf Japanese maple on the one corner of the terrace to pull the eye out all season long, echoing the little red shed door, and then way in the distance, some other carefully placed gold-leaf shrubs (like Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’) will signal to me April through December after the close-in things have had their moment. (Sorry it cannot be seen in the top photo.)
Being greedy, I want good company when it’s not “gardening season,” too, so even after the leaves have fallen, a mass of maybe 20 winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata) shouts from all the way at the back of the top photo, by the unseen gold Spiraea, forming a wall of red–my long-distance view from October to January or so.
Due south from the best seat in the house is the frogpond, watched over by a big old Indonesian Buddha who stares right back at me through closed eyes, and uphill from him an increasingly massive copper beech I planted 20 years ago. I don’t have to move to see them (and from upstairs I see the view above of the same area–just a different vantage point).
When I work in the kitchen, I am treated to the scene of a nearby magnolia (above) that’s underplanted with many treasures (including orchid-pink Primula kisoana, below) that entertain me whether it’s March or November, and the magnolia’s massive gray trunk itself is beautiful 365 days.
And then there’s one particular living-room window that catches my eye most of all when I come down the stairs, as if to say hello. To heighten its importance, perhaps 15 feet beyond it lives a four-season shrub: the red-twig dogwood Cornus sericea ‘Sunshine,’ whose gold leaves scream in fair weather and red stems pick up the job in foul. (You can see ‘Sunshine’ in this slideshow.)
Did I know this when I started here 20-plus years ago–to look out the window and plan the garden accordingly? No, not at all.
But in hindsight (which is famously 20-20), I realize this was what was at work unconsciously: I was building a garden that I could enjoy, because it could be seen from where I really live when I’m not out there in the moment of doing it. (Even little “views,” like the one out the upstairs window on a snowy morning, above.) I instinctively placed beds and created axes in spots I related to, being not just the gardener here but also the resident of the house’s interior. I have never regretted these somewhat accidental gut decisions.
Whether your best seat in the house is a deck or a den or a favorite reading chair for winter afternoons, or even the place where you stand a few minutes each day and brush your teeth, plant yourself some well-placed pictures to greet you, and you will be well on the way to a garden that works.
One more thing: Sometimes people do visit, of course, and I guess I almost forgot my tip on that score, when it’s not all about me. :) Gussy up the front walkway–the first thing people who don’t live in the house will see–and not just in spring, but through the season, too. Then once inside, invite them to sit in your chair. That guarantees them the best view of all.