look out the window: garden design 101

May 14 view out my windowI 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:

headquarters-with-jackThe 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.

Out back window, AugustDue 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).

hylomecon-sheets-2When 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.

wave hill chairs in snowBut 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.

hakonechloa all gold fallOne 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.

  1. Amy says:

    Well, your garden is exquisite! — so your ‘system’ must work. Here’s hoping for a beautiful sunny day on Sunday.

  2. Juliettegold says:

    So much to enjoy and ponder!! We’re renovating an old farmhouse in the Berkshires with 5 acres, and now you have me thinking about the windows :)

  3. Turling says:

    Very beautiful. Our spot is the kitchen window or the window from our bedroom. So much so on the bedroom, that we are going to build a deck just outside it, so we can sit and enjoy the view.

  4. Deb Coyle says:

    Beautiful and very inspiring! I like almost all of the views to our outside garden except for the dark and dreary side yard where nothing grows. Lots of tree roots and hard, clay soil.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Deb. I’d be tempted in spots like that to put a “thing” out there…in one dark area for years I had a bench with a mirror hanging over it (true) and it glinted with the little light that hit it. I have three sets of bright-painted chairs that I move around to areas in need of a burst of color all season long. And so on. Hope to see you soon again.

      @Brian: Funny thing about the chairs (and the table). Of course the pea stone is too forgiving for the legs, so they all sort of settle in a few inches. Hilarious. Just like me to blow the chair/table thing after all this. Have to put down stone pads of some kind someday…but hey, I’m never going to sit there anyhow, I’m too busy crawling around edging (and yes, most of the effort if done from kneeling/crawling position). :)

      @Heidi: The bed is long and narrow and flanks the older raised vegetable beds. It had a giant clump of rhubarb in the middle, nestled around an old bench, and the rest is basically a collection of many Sedum varieties. They are profiled here.

  5. Heidi says:

    As always just beautiful. I have a quick question. Do you have any close ups of the garden on the right of the top picture? I am wondering about the plants in this bed.

  6. Brian G. says:

    My god, your bed edges are so crisp. You must get on your hands and knees to get the mulch perfectly placed.
    Someone finally put some chairs and a table on her new terrace. Will she occasionally pause and sit on the chairs (at least one chair, anyway)? I hope so.

  7. Johanna says:

    Your garden is just lovely, every season of the year! I really like this philosophy. I kind of used it last year for the window near my computer. My house sits almost right on our northern property line, and the next door property is unused and left wild. When I cut my grass it leaves a wall of tall grass, prickly weeds and scrub. So last year I cut about a ten foot angled path (leading to nowhere). Now when I look out this window there’s an inviting path into a mysterious place — infinitely more interesting!

    I’m going to investigate other window view opportunities now that I’ve seen your views!

  8. Rosella says:

    Margaret, your garden is exquisite and I wish I could come visit it in person. After reading this, I have begun to look out my windows with a new eye. And I shall certainly adopt your idea of a potted red maple — my big beautiful Japanese maple has given me several volunteer seedlings, one of them with beautifully-cut leaves, and I think it is about to be moved into a pot!

  9. Walter Lott says:

    Your comments are well put. They remind me of what Michael Pollan said in “A Place of My Own” (I think). Too often, particularly in suburbia, we landscape for others. Our effort is in creating a front yard which as a picture, is there for others to admire. Our time would be better spent in developing gardens that we can gaze out upon and be fulfilled.

  10. Deb Coyle says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Walter. I have expanded my typical front garden so that when I sit on the porch I can actually see my flowers! My neighbors always commented on how beautiful my garden it, but I could never see it!! Margaret: Thank you for your kind welcome. You have given me some ideas about “things” for my side yard. Time to pull out the garden books and magazines!

  11. John Wm. Rommel says:

    Your point is well taken, that we must see the “overall” and perspective of a site, and I am reminded of my first garden, a visit each weekend for a full day…I would walk the garden and choose the “Plant of the Week Award”, given to the plant(ing) that was “performing” that particular day…I would do this first, because as soon as I got busy, my mind would not see the garden but be organizing tasks, problem-solving and generally distracted….or should I just say engaged, as 25 years later I still garden, but now for others on rooftops scattered across Manhattan…and still take that first opp’ty onto a site to “see” what is really working!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, John. I love your “Plant of the Week” idea. Wonderful tactic to try to “see” clearly before getting too absorbed. Hope to see you again soon.

  12. Deb says:

    Dear Margaret:

    First let me thank you for the inspiration you give to each of us! I look forward to each post in anticipation of unknown beauty. Could you offer some insight as to how you have such clearly defined borders, do you have material in place, or use an edger (I didn’t say weed eater-ha!)? I adore the clean look of it and I surely could improve my own garden. Thank you.

  13. Lisabeth Davis says:

    I read your piece about garden design from the windows with some interest, as in my last garden, I was fortunate enough to have a designer who sited the garden from the windows of the house. She was able (mostly) to restrain my impulse to have one of everything (the lollipop theory of garden design). Since that garden became one of mostly maintenance (and therefore fairly boring), I have been seduced by the best garden soil I have ever encountered. Currently I am hacking a garden out of a wilderness – a site that may have been farmed 40 years ago; but where I am working, it is an alluvial riparian site along a tiny New Mexico trout stream at 7000 feet elevation. I treat this garden as a zone 4 altho is might be a 5. Everywhere I want to dig, I find river boulders that require a 10 lb. digging bar to dislodge and that sometimes defy the tractor’s post hole digging apparatus. We just try to move over a few feet or inches. I can see my vegetable garden from my upstairs studio – peas, lettuces and spinach are just emerging. From another window, I see a new pond where my son pulled out a 9 lb., 25″ rainbow trout on Mother’s Day – caveat: you should see our feed bill! We have dined on asparagus a couple of time from the second vegetable garden plot and there are still a few daffodils blooming where they have been naturalized in the lawn. Most of the perennial ornamentals are up and reminding me what I planted last fall. The free range chickens occasionally find a newly planted thing to disturb; and we have yet to start fencing the 3 sheep into irregular patches of lawn for them to mow and fertilize. I am hauling some vegetable starts in and out daily to harden them off and protect them from unexpected frost – altho our frost free date in about June 1st. The hummingbird feeders must be filled daily – we are currently using about 1/2 a gallon a day but will be up to 3x that much during the middle of the summer. All this to say that I have a rocky hillock that I need to landscape and don’t have much of a clue as to how to start except that I want to work with the wildflowers that bloom abundantly all over this site. I dragged home too many plants from a couple of nurseries yesterday that I will try to fit in somewhere. Having hosted garden tours (both AHS and Santa Fe Botanical Society) at my previous garden several times, I can send my sympathies your way – it is sort of like having the Queen visit – hours of work for a few minutes of basking in praise. This is too long and I have too much work to do…..thanks for this interesting site.

  14. ferrisanne says:

    Would you post about the vernacular in garden artifacts – not to carp but as I read all these comments, not one mentioned something seen that was particular to your region of the country. Here in the PNW, the most interesting garden designs rotate around the found objects, or topography of our region. What makes gardens interesting to me is what makes individual.

  15. Chris Nicholson says:

    For several years I have been working on turning a steep hill descending from
    the back corner of our house from Thistles, nettles, tree of heaven, romping honey
    suckle to large sweeps of colorful easy stuff. I’ve used purple coneflower, Achillea
    Gold Plate, two big miscanthus, sweeps of daylily, hollyhocks, gooseneck, campanula glomerata, ox-eye daisy, black eyed susan and in the shady part archangel, myrtle. Forget-me-not, columbine, sweet rocket, digitalis lutea, have
    arrived by themselves. The idea was to plant in large enough sweeps, things which could be seen well from about 100+ feet West on the other side of a half
    acre pond which lies at the foot of the hill. It’s working out pretty well, sequence
    isn’t quite what I want yet. The surprise is that the best view of this steep hill is
    not from the far side of pond as designed, but from the window of my husband’s
    office one story up from the back corner where the garden starts.

    I have begun the habit of starting the morning while the coffee drips by taking a look
    out, north, east, south and west and seeing what each day has to offer. It helps in
    prioritizing my work and helps me to remember to give thanks.

    Thanks, Chris N.

  16. Andrea Verberkmoes says:

    Thanks, Margaret, for your lovely pics.
    I recently did something that worked- I chose the wallpaper for an upstairs bedroom to compliment the gorgeous colors of a tri-colored beech tree just outside the window.
    Sort of what you are talking about, except in reverse!

  17. Brenda Rose says:

    I spend most of my time looking out the window in winter (longingly), because In good weather I am always outdoors. So a couple years ago I started focusing on my winter garden. River birch for the bark, Harry Lauder’s walking stick for form, various evergreens for structure and weight, and miscanthus for beige color and movement in winter. All those pretty flowers and bushes just disappear for much of the year.

    I think I must be maturing as a gardener, interested in form and structure and foliage, rather than just the pretties of summer.

  18. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    So beautiful Margaret. I can’t wait to see your garden this Spring – if it ever arrives. I, too, have subconsciously planted from the views indoors since it is a big part of our season here. I never thought about axis but should. I think this year I will focus on yes, focal points. Your garden is such inspiration! One day I will see it in person I hope.

  19. Usha says:

    Your garden design 101 resonated with me because at least six months out of the year, my garden is viewed from the many windows I have, and even in summer months, my visitors generally look down at my garden from the windows and decks. I have a narrow and long garden so I have separated them into themes which can be enjoyed as I move from my living room to dining area to kitchen. I have put mirrors strategically to expand the garden view when we are walking in the garden.. So in addition to capturing reflected light, mirrors also help widen and expand the views if they are placed such that we forget that the garden we are looking at , is the mirror image. It is wondrous!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.