best garden design advice of 2018: signature style, making tapestries and more

THE GARDEN MIGHT be mostly sleeping where I live, but it’s not out of mind by any means. I keep going back to a couple of conversations that I had on my public-radio program and podcast with guests this last year, discussions aimed at helping all of us who garden to think about tying things together better visually—about making more successful design decisions.

I think that’s one big area that stymies a lot of gardeners, myself included, and I looked back on highlights of what I learned from interviews on the show in 2018. Where to put what–a bed, a border, a patio, or even several different plants in relationship to one another—can be elusive, to say the least.

I rounded up some favorite advice into the latest radio segment (and if you missed the full conversations with the designers quoted here, the links to those are at the bottom of the page and offer loads more design advice).

Read along as you listen to the Dec. 24, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

best of 2018 design ideas

ONE CONVERSATION that really stayed with me, and also one of the most popular interviews of 2018 with listeners, was my chat with Susan Morrison, a California-based garden designer and author of “The Less Is More Garden,” a book that really helps us try to identify what our signature style is.

In an anecdote in the book’s introduction, Susan talks about visiting two women’s gardens near each other on the same day, each with its very own distinctive style despite the fact that each garden was relatively small–and again, practically neighbors. They could not have been more different–one was all about color, the other nearly flower-less and all about textural plays.

To me that really speaks to what the goal is, bottom line: to establish what Susan calls a signature style of our own. I love that idea. Not to mimic something in particular, or follow some set of rules from some lofty textbook on landscape architecture, but to put OUR signature on our garden.

I asked Susan about what happens the first time she walks through a garden with a prospective client—and what she tries to get them to think about as the focus of the exercise.

That first visit involves slowing down the owner’s thinking, something we all would benefit from doing as we look around our own places with an eye to improvement. Susan tries to get at what she calls “the three W’s”—she’ll explain them just below—and other strategic insights that are especially critical when thinking about a backyard-sized garden of the proportions common to most American homes, where you simply can’t do everything. So where does this evaluation process begin? Here’s how Susan described it to me:

Susan Morrison. “Well, one of the things that I find is that when I meet with a new client in their garden, there is a tendency to focus on the practical. And so they want to jump right in with, ‘Well, Susan, we pictured having a gazebo over here, and we thought we could have a hot tub over here.’ And I don’t like that.

Margaret. [Laughter.]

Susan. I don’t send out a questionnaire in advance. I kind of feel like we’re asked to answer surveys all the time any more. I feel like I can’t get a bottle of shampoo without being asked about my experience.

But I do, once I get there, like to drill down. And what I try to do is move people away from what they want in their garden and instead start with what I call “the three W’s.” And those W’s are: what will you be doing in the garden, when will you be outside, and who will be with you? So in essence, we want to start with your lifestyle, your experiences. How are you going to use this space? Don’t tell me what you want, tell me what you want to do. And then together we’ll figure out what that means.”

IN SUSAN’S WRITING, and in our interview, I picked up on another phrase of hers that stuck with me as a goal for my garden, and might help you, too. One of her mantras I really loved was the idea she calls, “less space, more enjoyment,” again a tactic that zeroes in on realizing the action-packed potential of the average American yard. I asked her to explain that to me:

Susan Morrison.  “And it’s basically taking a negative and making it a positive, because there are so many fantastic things about a small garden. You’re right up close to all of the action all of the time. You never miss anything. And you can really spend a lot less time in your garden and still have something that comes out really beautifully.

And again, the idea of the three W’s as well, I use that with all of my clients, regardless of the size of their garden. But in a small garden, you do have to work a little bit harder to create what you want because you just don’t have an unlimited canvas, and so those ideas become even more important.

And in fact, I think of those three W’s, the most important one is: what do you want to do in the garden? Imagine you have a smaller space, and to help you get started, I would start to ask you those questions. What is it that you like to do when you’re outside?

An example that I give in the book, because this actually comes up fairly often, is someone will tell me that they like to cook outside. And so if I get that question, then I’ll ask them a series of questions back, like how often do you like to cook outside? And do you do it year-round or just some of the time? Is it just you and the family, or do you entertain?

Margaret. Right. Big difference, right?

Susan. It’s a huge difference because what makes the three W’s so powerful is the more you drill down in the detail, the more you’re going to personalize the space. So if they say, ‘We grill all the time, all week long,’ then I’ll make sure that the barbecue area is close to the kitchen door. And as you know, design is also about allocating your budget in a smart way.

Margaret. It is.

Susan. So I know that we’ll put more money against that. Yes. And if they barbecue year-round, I’ll make sure there’s protection from the elements. And if they like to entertain, I’ll make sure that it’s a social area and that they can grill while they’re still hanging out with their guests.

And from a style standpoint, I would take it even a step further and say, ‘Let’s show off the fact that you’re an outdoor cook and you’re a chef.’ And maybe we’ll put a container with a citrus or fruit tree here. And maybe we’ll have a little raised bed close by that’s got a lot of exotic cooking herbs. And so that’s just a way … Now your garden is useful, and it’s practical, but it’s also personal, and that’s what you want.”

USEFUL, PRACTICAL AND PERSONAL. Exactly. And speaking of personal, then there is the matter of color. I often say that I have a high color tolerance, because my very dark olive green house has orange trim, and I am perhaps also too enthusiastic about gold-leaved plants, of which I have many. They scream.

I don’t think I really thought about establishing a palette as much as found myself unable to resist certain plants like those and worked backwards from there, but again Susan has a saner way to go about this than on mere impulse as I did:

Susan Morrison. “There’s an opportunity to sort of create your own color story in the garden, and that gets back to what you said about creating a personal style. And so even though I don’t do a questionnaire, I will probe a little bit, and it’s what I know I would encourage anyone listening who’s doing this on their own to do as well, is sometimes you can get rid of that intimidation factor by kind of coming up with an overall strategy or an overall organizing principle. And there’s a couple that I have found work for clients.

And one is to come up with sort of a theme. It doesn’t need to be a color palette, but a theme that helps you decide how you’re going to relate to your garden. And a very common one that comes up, because people want their garden to be an oasis, is their inspiration is a favorite vacation spot.

And so here on the West Coast, a lot of people love to go to Hawaii regularly, they love to go to Mexico regularly, and so they want that garden to feel like that vacation experience. And so I’ll use those colors and that feeling in the garden in terms of what introduce.

But it doesn’t even have to be … If you’re looking at a place, if you’re using geography for inspiration, it doesn’t even have to be a place that you’ve been. It can be a place that you want to go. Maybe you want to live in the South of France, or you want to live in Italy. So pulling those colors out and making them your own is, again, it’s a great way to personalize a space and to ensure that you’re going to spend time in it.”

SO WHERE DO YOU want to be, and what is the palette of that place? It’s something to think about as we stare out the window this winter and imagine the garden-to-be in the new year and beyond. …

Another integral piece of the art of making gardens that hang together is what I call “making mosaics”–mixing up the underplantings beneath trees and shrubs to be more than a solid mass of one boring thing.

And to be much more than a solid mass of bark chips or other bagged mulch!

A conversation from late 2017, actually, bears recalling here; it was with landscape architect Claudia West of Phyto Studio, co-author with Thomas Rainer of “Planting in a Post-Wild World.” Claudia’s key phrase that I cannot and must not forget: “Plants are the mulch.” Here’s what she means, from a chat we had:

Claudia. I think every gardener intuitively knows that, because we gardeners and landscape professionals are inspired by natural plant communities that we may see out on a hike in a natural area, or on vacation. Very rarely do we see bare soil anywhere in natural, wild ecosystems.

I think one of the core principles of the natural world is that plants cover soil. (If you are in a really arid climate, you would have a lot of desert-scape bare-soil landscape.)

I think that the same principle is extremely powerful in a garden setting, and it produces much, much more sustainable landscapes if we meet nature halfway and work around this concept that plants cover soil; that nature abhors a vacuum.

I think that instead of mulching with wood [laughter], working with plants like they are designed in evolutionary terms to grow on this planet is beneficial in many, many different ways. It doesn’t only look more inspiring and beautiful to create lush, dense planting that mimics how plants arrange themselves in the wild, it also provides a habitat for some of the beautiful wildlife we so enjoy in our gardens.

And it soaks up the rain. We talk about rain gardens or sponge gardens a lot, and the more biomass we can put into our gardens, the more rain gets absorbed—put back into the ground to recharge the aquifer.

So I think on many different layers, working with this natural principle is beneficial and just so fulfilling and so meaningful for gardeners and designers.

Margaret. So nature doesn’t go to the garden center and buy bagged mulch? Is that what you are saying? [Laughter.]

Claudia. [Laughter.] That’s exactly what I am saying. I don’t know where this almost perverse tradition came from, but I am hoping that collectively the green industry and gardeners can move away from that again, and put what really belongs on the ground back into our landscapes, and that is thriving plants.” [Below, Physostegia and Amsonia and more on a bank.]

GOOD NEWS: Claudia emphasizes that the offseason…like right about now…is maybe the best time for figuring out what enhancements would benefit the garden. And more good news: We probably don’t need to rip everything out and start from scratch; not by any means. Her insight:

Claudia. I think every existing garden can be massaged into the planting that you envision, that resonates personally and creates a wonderful outdoor space that enriches our lives. It helps breaking up the different tasks into individual, achievable steps there.

Sometimes the best time to analyze your own garden is to wait until winter, when you can see trees and shrubs more clearly, and some of the ground vegetation has died back just a little bit to give you a little more clarity over the framework of the design.

That sometimes allows you to edit a little bit—to either insert more trees if you would prefer a more shaded, sheltered landscape. Or if you prefer a little bit more open space and room to see, and maybe putting up a wonderful birdfeeder and enjoy them in an open clearing on your property, then that is a good time to edit away some of the obstructions there.

So that is something that could be done in the time of year when we tend to do a little less gardening—some editing. And then other times of year, I think a wonderful exercise is to analyze your events, your seasonal themes in the garden, to see what you have blooming at certain times of year and how you could enhance these events strategically by placing either more of the same plants in there, or more of a similar color to strengthen these themes even more.

So by breaking this big task up into smaller goals and actions, it often becomes a lot more clear and achievable to edit an existing garden. But by no means do you have to start over, or start from scratch.

Margaret. Thank goodness, Claudia, because I’d be up the creek if I had to start over.

Claudia. Sometimes it’s as simple as maybe adding a little groundcover under your other perennials, your shrubs and your trees. Maybe that’s all your garden needs.”

THE TRICKY PART of course is how to put the living mulch–the ground-covering underplantings – together? Claudia West would say at least in part to look for inspiration in how nature forms plant communities–what kinds of things knit well with what others functionally in meadows and on the woodland floor, for example.

An interview in 2018 reminded me of what to keep in mind as we prepare to combine things. It was a chat with Marietta O’Byrne,  a garden designer and hellebore breeder from Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene, Oregon. She calls her mixed plantings tapestries (and her recent book is titled “A Tapestry Garden”).

Marietta says the first consideration in choosing groundcovers is to make sure they are not too aggressive–like the old standbys vinca or ivy proved to be–so that you can edit your tapestry easily,  and so the other elements don’t get overrun.

Here’s part of what Marietta said when we chatted together about making tapestries, starting with a basic background plant and then layering in seasonal bulbs or perhaps perennials that break up the monotony in some appealing way:

Marietta O’Byrne. “If we’re speaking of underplantings, I mean first we start with shrubs, etc. But if we speak of underplantings, they can be aggressive.

But they have to have an easy root system. For example, Lamium ‘White Nancy.’ I love that, that silver glow. Well, it spreads fast, but you just lift it up. If it’s too far, you don’t want it, you can lift it very easily and re-mulch every year with a compost.

That’s why I mentioned vinca. Once you have vinca, deep-rooted, you’ve got it. You want to get rid of it? You never will.

And, it’s aggressive. So, you have to choose a little bit at the beginning when you start: What is the root system of this groundcover? Can I edit? Can I, if I don’t like it, even take it out, or is this something that’s going to overwhelm me? That’s, I think, to start.

And then we start with seasonal ones. Bulbs like trilliums, lots of trilliums in spring. They don’t look so good when they go over, and you can’t just cut them off, but then there are other plants like epimediums, which I highly recommend, every kind. Very drought-tolerant and beautiful all season long and even in winter.  And other groundcovers that will hide the going-over of the early ones.

Anemone nemorosa, another favorite, all the various colors: blue, pink, white, even green. Beautiful in spring, then they’re finished blooming, and slowly the foliage dies; by July it’s pretty much gone. But there are some dying, not-so-pretty-looking leaves at the edges, but I just take my hand, I just rip it out. Then, it goes underground with its rhizomes, and waits for next spring. It’s easy.

Or, you have, let’s say, an Epimedium grow over it that you’ve shorn in early spring or late winter, and then that hides it. Or I of course, I have big-leaved Chinese mayapples [below], which hide everything. [Laughter.]

Margaret. Oh, they’re so wonderful …

Marietta. Oh, I love them.

Margaret. … in some of the pictures. Podophyllum[above], yes? Is that what …?

Marietta. Yes. Once they start running, eventually, when you’ve have them for about six, eight, 10 years, then they start multiplying. But you don’t want a leaf somewhere? You pull it out. It’s no big deal.

Margaret. So that brings up then, you’re talking first about choosing for sequence, and one kind of hiding the gone-by remains of the other, or you do some editing and cleanup yourself to help hide it. So you’re talking about sequence, picking for sequence. And then you just hinted with the mayapples about sort of the boldness. If people don’t know that plant, the Chinese mayapples, I mean they’re really bold.

Marietta. Yes, it is bold.

Margaret. Our American one is, too, but these are really even bolder, and so what about texture? Is that something else? Do you make these mixed tapestries with texture in mind?

Marietta. It’s very important, texture. For example, I love Pulmonaria. They make a very nice groundcover, too. You choose silver ones, for example, then you can mix those with a silver fern, Athyrium niponicum, the Japanese silver fern, the painted fern.

Margaret. Yes.

Marietta. You have similar colors, but totally different textures. Your eye just zeros in on that. You can’t walk by there like—saying vinca again.

Margaret. [Laughter.] Poor, old vinca.

Marietta. You have to look at it, you know?

Margaret. Yes.

Marietta. It’s just beautiful. Every time I walk by, ‘Oh, that’s really pretty.'”

NO, YOU CAN’T just walk on by one of Marietta’s tapestries. So what do you think: are there areas of your garden that could be enlivened by mixing it up a little more in this mosaic a.k.a. tapestry manner, where plants are the very appealing mulch?

Do tell me, please–whether in comments or using the contact form, or tell me on Facebook or Instagram–tell me what stymies you design-wise in your garden. Your input will help me plan what experts to invite and what topics to cover in the year ahead, so I’d much appreciate hearing from you.

Before I say goodbye for today—and almost for 2018!—one more quick tip from Susan Morrison and her book about signature style: The tip is, ask for help! Even Susan with all her expertise likes the benefit of another set of eyes. We were talking about what the first thing people ask her is when she visits them, and here’s what she said:

Susan Morrison. “I think that people ask this question in different ways, but the Number 1 thing is people say, ‘My garden doesn’t hang together.’It’s some version of, ‘I have these things that all work fine, but I don’t feel like they go together. I don’t feel like I really have a garden.’

And it makes sense that that would be where someone would say, ‘O.K., I need a fresh set of eyes to come in,’ because you look at your own space for so long, and you know it’s not quite right, but you can’t figure out what it is. And so I’d say that’s the Number 1 question.

And that’s where, even if it’s not a designer, if that’s your question, bringing in any set of fresh eyes is really important. And I have to tell you, I actually have a new home that I moved into two years ago, and designers are obsessed with asking every designer who comes over to their house what they should do.”

SO GO AHEAD: Invite a friend over for that extra set of eyes, and look over the garden and the views from inside together, and make some plans.

read or hear the full shows with these designers:

  1. Bill says:

    I feel that you garden with the hand you’re dealt whether it’s a granite outcrop, a low wet area, an open area or as in my case a mature woodland.

  2. Lauren ? says:

    Margaret! Is that photo of the garden with all the bright colored flowers, the multicolored container, and the painted railing, is that YOUR garden???!!!

    1. margaret says:

      No, Lauren, it’s from an artist’s garden in CA that Susan Morrison visited. Her name is Keeyla Meadows, and she’s an artist and a sculptor and also a landscape designer.

  3. Alyson says:

    I recognize that garden in the top photo (hosta, green chairs, etc). It’s the garden of a Portland OR artist and it is often open for garden tours. It’s one of my favorite gardens in Portland.

  4. Carol Hancock says:

    Margaret this was just what I needed! I have been the coordinator and chief bottle washer at a beautiful community garden in the Southeast. After several years of bringing it and a committee along, I need to step back and have been trying to figure out how to approach this with the group. I was inspired by Susan Morrison’s 3 W’s as a very applicable approach to brainstorming a new chapter for our food/native plant /spirit nourishing garden. So…expanding past individual’s garden spaces to community space —I think it will be such a good starting place. Many thanks to you both??

  5. Heidi Mass says:

    Great way to tie things together and think about next year. I’m often asked for advice and will add these tips to my list! Thanks!

  6. Louise says:

    In the Catskil mountains, zone 5B I have a wet side that’s shady near the house and sunny farther back. The rest of my yard is part sun and better drained. I have many ferns and never planted one. Do you have ideas for making the fern area even prettier?

    I have fall planted many seeds outside as summer ends. That’s how so many flower bloom where they thrive. Do you have other ideas for shady and sunny wet soil? .

    Now I want to think about bring colorful art, pots and furniture to make it even better. Any Advice?

    Thanks for posting this, Martha.

  7. Kari says:

    Topics that would help me would be, (1) managing the transition between ground covers and grass for less maintenance time to keep the grass from taking over, and (2) suggestions for planting a (sewer) drain field mound that doesn’t upset the working of the mound but is attractive and can visually blend into surrounding island beds and ground covers so it isn’t so obviously “a mound”.

  8. Robert says:

    I don’t hear much about native plants here. I know it’s a variable factor depending on region, but it should be a consideration.

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