some essentials of garden design, a q&a with ken druse

A NOTE FROM A LISTENER addressed to me and my Urgent Garden Question-answering sidekick Ken Druse asked our advice for planning a garden from the very beginning, while his home construction is under way. Well, when Ken and I began discussing possible answers, the subject quickly mutated to garden planning in general, and the things we wish we’d included in our places right from the start, and that every gardener should make room for whatever stage his or her garden is at.  (This means you.)

Ken Druse, author of nearly 20 beautiful and inspirational garden books, including “The New Shade Garden” and “Making More Plants,” helped me tackle the subject of garden design from the ground up, and which must-have elements even established gardens need to find room for. Things like views from indoors, and lots of well-placed outdoor faucets (like the one with accompanying hose reel, above, at his house) and electrical outlets, among other essentials.

Read along as you listen to the May 27, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

garden design ideas, a q&a with ken druse



Margaret: Ken, hello. How are you?

Ken: I’m excited, Margaret. [Laughter.]

Margaret: Good. Because of this question from Kyle that we got?

Ken: Well, this is like planting a seed, this question, and now it’s grown into an entire garden in my head, starting with breaking ground for Kyle’s house. It’s very exciting.

Margaret: [Laughter.] What I’ll do is to fill everybody in, our listener Kyle’s question that set us off ruminating about the essential elements of a garden and dot, dot, dot, dot, dot. It read like this:

He said, “I’m purchasing eight wooded acres in upstate South Carolina, building a new home. Of course, I want a lot of landscaping and gardens but I’m going to have to focus on getting the house built first. Because of that, I’m going to need to take a phased approach outside. Do you have recommendations on how to prioritize garden projects when starting with a blank canvas? And, also, where to budget versus where to splurge?”

I think that’s the part of it that got me going, Ken. [Laughter.]

Ken: I just want to say something about building the house, if I may. Just have a place to stage the materials, and don’t let machinery near the bases of any trees that you like.

And there’s never enough hose faucets and electric outlets [laughter], that’s what I want to say, outside. Inside too.

Margaret: Spoken like someone who’s been through it. Listeners may not know, Ken, how many years ago you redid your house within a garden. Tell us just the brief version of that.

Ken: The house was a mill store, I think, from about 1840. The roof could not be repaired, and the house was falling down. We tore down the house to the foundation, and built a new house on the foundation [above], and added not enough electric outlets, but, yes, enough hose bibs. I was concentrating on that.

Like Kyle, in a way. I’m close to the road and I’ve already got a garden. Tearing down the house couldn’t have any machinery; just had to do it by hand. Well, I didn’t do it, but it was done by hand.

It was an interesting case. I learned a lot. I was going to say if I knew now what I knew then, but no, other way around, but I didn’t make too many mistakes actually. I just want to say electric outlets, hose bibs [laughter], and keep the machinery away from trees.

Margaret: Do you want to see anything about electric outlets or hose bibs? [Laughter.]

Ken: It’s on my mind for some reason.

Margaret: Yes, I know. Because we seem to forget. Look, even if someone has a very established garden, like I do, every time I drag a 100-foot hose up the hill I think to myself, “Margaret, why in the world did you not run water up here?” Do you know what I mean?

Ken: Yes.

Margaret: And why aren’t I doing it now, and why do I say it to myself every year instead of doing it? Some of this stuff, with minimal disturbance we can retrofit, and we should retrofit to make the garden function better and to be able to take better care of it.

Ken: That’s a whole other story. Yes. [Laughter.]

Margaret: Seriously, some of these tips are not just for getting started. You were saying things like when one is getting started, or someone might be building a garage and that’s going to cause disturbance in a part of the garden. It doesn’t have to be a house from scratch. Not letting machinery near the base of trees is one of your top concerns or was one of your top worries.

Ken: Yes. Well, I’m just saying that to everybody, because I see it all the time. They put a fence 3 feet away from the base of a tree, and park all the machinery under the tree. They don’t want it to be in the sun.

Margaret: So…

Ken: What’s next?

Margaret: Yes. Getting started, again, when there’s construction involved, there are these sort of defensive and strategic tactics we need to take. Right at the start you said a staging area, and by that you mean?

Ken: A place for the materials. Just something to think about. We can move on from that, because there’s so many things to think about with a garden and with a wooded site. I’d say observe the site, and if you can do it for a season, that’s great. Most people don’t. I’ve seen people dig up really fantastic shrubs because they don’t realize they’re fantastic when they moved in, in November.

Margaret: Let’s pretend then we’re starting a garden, the construction aspect aside about a house. It could be a new garden from scratch or it could be a new bed or whatever. Let’s talk about some of the planning tips that are irregardless of the construction, or lack of construction. What do you think about first when you say, “Hmm, I’m making a new garden”? Or if you were helping someone do so.

Ken: I guess maybe make a list of the kinds of things you think you want. Maybe a dream list, because you might not be able to do everything, you know, have a fantastic outdoor grill with a complete outdoor kitchen and a fireplace. It may not happen, but make that list. Make that dream list. What do you think?

Margaret: Sort of like what do you want to do out there and when.

Ken: If you had a magic wand. Well, I wouldn’t say when yet, just make that big list and then you can start to edit it down to what’s possible, and ultimately where you’re going to start. As Kyle says, where to splurge.

Margaret: I think about even starting just a new bed, let alone a whole new garden or when people ask me who move to my area, and they’re like, “What should we do first?” The first thing I always say almost like a reflex is: “Start small, and start near the house.” Again, this assumes, unlike Kyle, that there is a house.

Ken: [Laughter.]

Margaret: Because I went into that Manifest Destiny mode 30-something years ago when I was like with sod strippers, and marking off with twine and stakes to make beds all over the property.

Out of sight, out of mind. You do something that’s too far away and you don’t have to walk past it each day, and there’s no incentive to go check on it each day or each week, and therefore weeds get going, and you forget to water. You know what I mean, when you’re beginning? When you’re beginning stuff, I think it’s good to start small and start near where your most activity is till you get a sense of the bigger place. Does that make sense?

Ken: Sure. As you’re saying that, I’m thinking about views from windows, maybe even to narrow it. [A view from Ken’s window, above; from one of Margaret’s, below.]

Margaret: Super-important. That funny story you probably remember, the one about our friends Glen and Charles from Seattle, Glen Withey and Charles Price. They had come to visit me and I’m standing in the kitchen with one of them. We’re cooking dinner after a day working in the garden together.

He says to me—we’re looking out the window, there’s two windows flanking the stove in my house—and what’s there was my driveway right next to the window, and my car. He goes, “Do you really like the view of the side of your car doors?”

Literally he’s stirring a pot and he doesn’t flinch, he doesn’t miss a beat. It was so deadpan, and it shamed me so much that I learned that lesson. If you want to make a garden, go inside and look out the window and create axial views. Right?

May 14 view out my windowKen: Yes. Well, we’ve become house blind. We don’t even notice the car doors. It’s a good tip. Think about the views from the windows, or the windows to be.

Margaret: When you redid the house, were you doing that in reverse? Were you thinking about where you would site things to be getting the best views of the existing garden?

Ken: That’s interesting, because the original building had windows on the road and stairs and no windows on the garden. We just flipped it all around. We put the stairs on the road, and, as you said, we put the windows strategically to have views, and even built a room with windows with views of the garden. It’s a reverse thing, but it certainly was a priority.

Margaret: I think another thing is: Who are you up against? I’m in an area where the herds of deer can be 40 animals. You don’t kid around where I am. It’s a rural area. It’s a state forest. When you started making your garden where you are, even before the house was redone, did you have a sense of the place in other ways like things like deer?

Ken: Well, the garden is an island in a river. The original bridges when we moved here had open grates. The deer wouldn’t cross the grates, so that was great.

Margaret: G-R-E-A-T not G-R-A-T-E.

Ken: Right. Then they repaired the bridges and paved them.

Margaret: Oh!

Ken: Yes, it was open house, so we have deer fencing on almost all parts of the garden except where the river is really fast, and there’s a wall and they can’t get over it, except for once every other year when somebody gets in and something horrible happens. In general, yes, deer fence went right to the top of the list.

Margaret: I’m not a believer in… People take exception when I say this, I know. I mention it in lectures and so forth. I’m not a believer that we can make gardens without protection against deer if we’re in an area that has deer. I couldn’t fight them. You know what I mean? It wasn’t possible. It was one thing if they hate a hosta and it would grow more leaves, but the woody plants were being disfigured. That was years of time that was lost, and some of them were so disfigured they couldn’t be corrected. That was really harsh.

Ken: I can’t remember what you just said, but it made me think of screens. Maybe there’s some things that you don’t want to see out the window, like the neighbor’s blue tarp on their boat or something, or the plastic children’s play area.

Margaret: Both look out the window in order to decide what to showcase and what pictures to paint, where, for your enjoyment, and also for what to erase. That’s another thing.

Maybe that goes back to that list that you said at the beginning. You said the sort of what do you want to do out there. What do you want—make that dream list. Maybe one of the dreams is, “I don’t want to look at the blue tarp on the neighbor’s boat.” Do you know what I mean? Maybe that’s one of them. That’s important.

Other practical things that you wish you’d made room for right away that maybe you’ve added later?

Ken: Well, when we first came here, the first thing we did in the sunniest part, and it’s not very sunny here, was make a nursery bed. We could buy plants for what we could afford, often small trees even, and plant them, and then figure out where we wanted them. By the time we had figured some of that stuff out, we could shop in our own nursery bed. Because you could move almost anything.

The things were not tiny anymore. Things like roses or climbing roses had become plants, and trees were flowering. I would start a nursery. Ours is long gone, that nursery bed. I still have what I call splinter nurseries around the property. They’re pretty. They’re a couple of plants that I intend to use somewhere if I can figure it out. I want to get some meat on them. Especially when you buy a 7-inch tree [laughter], which we did a lot.

Margaret: When we were young, we were young once, Ken, we bought 7-inch trees.

Ken: Younger. [Laughter.]

Margaret: We believed in things like that. Yes. You’re absolutely right, and this gets back to Kyle’s question. I loved the punchline of his question, about what to budget on and where to splurge, what to budget and what to splurge on. There’s a big difference between a small woody plant especially, and then a “landscape size,” field-dug, ball-and-burlap, whatever. It may be only a few years of difference in the thing’s life, but the price difference is phenomenal.

You can have the very special things if maybe you grew them on yourself, you’re saying, in this little nursery.

Ken: Well, time is money and there might be something you’ve dreamed about. Certainly, for me there is, something I’ve always wanted to grow X. Or, this is going to be the big ticket item, one special tree that’s going to be a specimen. Even though people should have patience, and don’t ever think it’s too late, but maybe you want to buy a 20-year-old tree.

Margaret: I did in the beginning splurge on a few things. I bought a copper beech tree, and not a giant one obviously. Well, I guess you could get one moved in on a trailer truck or something if you were a …

Ken: Helicopter.

Margaret: … multi, multi, multimillionaire. This was, maybe it was, I don’t know, 5 feet tall or something. It was expensive. It was expensive. It was a little bit bushy and 5 feet tall. It was expensive. It had a big root ball and burlap and stuff. We dragged it up to the top of the hill and planted it, and so forth.

I did that right at the beginning, because I didn’t know much, but I knew to look up which things grow fast and which grow slowly, and to put my dollars toward slightly bigger versions of the slow growers, because that cheated the time factor.

I wasn’t going to buy a big, huge willow, say [laughter], because those grow about 10 feet a minute. But I was willing to give that beech, which was relatively slower growing… It doesn’t turn into a majestic creature. It doesn’t even start making nuts until 30 years into its life. That was worth it to get, say, 10 years head start. That was worth it. I wish I’d invested more in conifers earlier on instead of later.

Ken: What do you do for conifers with the deer?

Margaret: Well, I have a deer fence. I have an 8-foot fence around the whole place. Because it would be hopeless otherwise, definitely. I think one of the other things to think about, so we’re looking out the windows, and we have our list of what we want, our wishlist. There are practicalities, like we have to think about what are some of the obstacles. I think another one of the obstacles is just how the light moves in the place, and the wind moves.

Ken: Wind. Right.

Margaret: I didn’t know anything about that. I didn’t know how windy certain areas of my place were. I didn’t know.

Ken: As you were saying, where’s the south? Where’s the north? Where’s the east and west? Of course, sounds simple and sounds obvious, but that might be the first thing to do.

Margaret: What are the prevailing winds in your area, which, I mean I didn’t look that up. Then did you remember to plant big things on the right side of littler things, so that you did or didn’t shade them? Do you know what I mean, that you did or did not deprive one or the other. To explain that, for instance.

Ken: In that first nursery bed, the tallest plants, the trees, went on the north end of the bed. It was just a rectangular bed probably 25 by 30 or 40 feet. It was just with rows. The trees went on the north so they wouldn’t shade the other plants. Also, I don’t think I had a shade nursery in the beginning, but later on I did. Maybe a nursery bed in the sun and another nursery bed in the shade. It sounds ridiculous, but it was wonderful. Then three or four years later, they were empty.

Margaret: Well, and another thing you can do with it is when you have certain types of plants that self-sow and give you baby plants, but they do it often in the cracks in the driveway or in between paving stones or places you don’t want them. Rather than discarding them, you can accumulate them for use later when you start the next bed or whatever. I like to do that as well.

Frankly, I never made … I wasn’t smart enough to make a separate bed, but I do use a bed in my raised-bed vegetable garden as my “nursery.” You can activate one of your vegetable garden beds for this purpose.

Paths, how did you figure out … That’s the other thing that’s just really mystifying, especially if you have a blank canvas or if you’re going to put a new garden, a garden in a new area that isn’t a natural path from here to there. How do you figure that out?

Ken: Well, I was wondering if Kyle had a dog. [Above. Ken with his recently adopted puppy.]

Margaret: [Laughter.] I don’t know.

Ken: Because dogs make their own paths, and I always think, look, watch where the dogs walk and make those the paths, because they’re going to walk that way whether you like it or not. If you plan to have a bed, well, just put a simple utility path that the dog can walk through, if you have a dog.

As you were saying these things, when we came here, we observed the whole place, which was all overgrown. There were some special trees in kind of a circle. So the garden design was inspired by what was here, because things had been here a very long time.

Margaret: Those you took as the pillars of the place.

Ken: Right. Some of them are 150 years old, but some of them have died in the last 25, 30 years. That inspired it and that ended up having a round garden with mostly, strangely, old Japanese trees. I don’t know who planted them. I couldn’t find out. There was a selection of some American but mostly Japanese big trees. As I said, one is probably 140 years old, I would say.

Margaret: I wish that I had buried some fencing right at the beginning, done some more trenching, besides putting that water going up the hill, making a trench and doing that. I wish I had buried some fencing to thwart Mister Woodchuck, for example.

Ken: You mean for the vegetable garden.

Margaret: Yes. I wish that had been one of the things that I did. Did you do any of that?

Ken: Well, I don’t have enough sun for vegetables. I do some vegetables, mostly fruits, like tomatoes on the driveway where it’s sunniest in containers. I’ve got a couple of berry things, which aren’t really bothered that much. I can’t grow that much food, but I always tell people to do that, to bury that. We certainly had woodchucks for many years, but I think that the dog, again, the newer dog, dog Number 2 [laughter], we don’t seem to have woodchucks. Woodchucks are worse than deer, I would say.

Margaret: They are pretty voracious. In the last minute or so, Ken, are you doing any projects, additions, subtractions, changes, anything under way right now at your garden?

Ken: Well, it’s been raining a lot this year.

Margaret: Have you noticed? Yes.

Ken: Yes. I’ve been weeding. Then sometimes I weed, and occasionally I weed, and then I weed if it’s not raining. I don’t know if we’ve talked about it, but there’s a new puppy, and that’s like 24/7.

Margaret: You’ve been babysitting, pet sitting.

Ken: I’ve been, yes, babysitting and pet sitting and the puppy digs and the puppy eats plants. It’s life-changing.

Margaret: That’s keeping you busy. That’s keeping you busy.

Ken: Very busy.

Margaret: Well, thank you, and it’s always good to talk to you, of course. I have to come visit.

Ken: We could talk forever. [Laughter.]

Margaret: I know, but I have to come visit and see the garden this season.

Ken: Wow. Do it. Please.

Margaret: Maybe we’ll swap visits, what do you think?

Ken: Excellent.

more garden-design ideas

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 27, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Linda Wurm says:

    Years ago, an elderly neighbor told me to check where the light falls on the night of a full moon. That is where the sun will fall 6 months later. I have used that trick many times. You do have to take into account that trees will be leafed out in June, but not December!!
    Linda (who is now an elderly gardener!)

  2. Ann says:

    Very clever with that hose holder! So true with dog paths! They are like deer trails. I really don’t like using hoses.

  3. Catbiscuits says:

    Oh no! I missed the opportunity to ask the question I have been dying to ask Ken. After listening to one of Ken’s real dirt podcasts, I decided I wanted to buy a medlar tree but where in the world (or at least greater nyc/ northern nj) can I get one? I can’t find any!

  4. Lindley Rawlins says:

    I did a huge renovation a few years ago. I live in Stamford, ct where the glacier stopped and left every rock imaginable. My biggest regret was not supervising where the boulders/big rocks went. Once they’ve been placed, they aren’t moveable unless big equipment comes in which won’t happen after the driveway has been paved and gardens started. In addition, I finally cut down some trees which opened up a view and new garden area. It is easier to cut down trees before the house is built. Also the wood chips offer a quick coverup for the dirt/mud.
    Finally, when the big equipment is there, if you know where you want some specimen trees, have the operator dig a hole or two. It takes two minutes for them but hours possibly for you. (Margaret, I still am not sure I agree with you about not needing a big hole!). I spent money I didn’t have to replant the pachysandra that was dug up for a new septic system. No regrets on that. Finally for a nicer view of your property, bury the telephone/cable wires.

  5. Bill says:

    Your discussion brought back a lot of memories from a half-century ago when we bought a wooded lot on a new development. We tried to disturb as little as possible and to preserve as many of the native plants we could and add to them. I put paths through the woods, added a small pond and half a dozen years added a stone wall to separate the postage-stamp lawn from the front woods. The french doors in the living room looks out on a large flagstone patio, but as a visitor remarked “there’s a view from every window”.

  6. Kathy Martin says:

    Check to see if there is any water runoff creating its own path somewhere in the yard.Something I wished I had done was build up the beds a little, instead of just digging holes in the ground. I think it would have helped with weed control/grass encroachment more effectively.I agree with needing hose bibs. In my new-to-me older house, the front spout is on the inside wall of the garage. WTH? If you’re going to use planters, consider getting plastic (they’re easier to move indoors for the winter) and personally I like the look of using one color. Look around the neighborhood to see what’s growing and doing well before buying anything.

  7. Heidi Husnak says:

    I like the concept of observation of existing for a bit. A teaching method. Dog paths – yup – it is a thing. The time element also gives you the experience of water paths and critter issues. I live in a drought area (Los Angeles) – currently raining! Lost plants to frost in winter! (not at all common here). I agree on examining vistas from the inside outwards.

  8. Susan says:

    Ken, I as the owner of 4 dogs and a garden I have found that a big bag of frozen beef marrow bones can be an excellent distraction when the digging begins…veterinarian approved, but you need a butcher who will save and cut the bones into about 2” pieces.
    Enjoy your puppy!

  9. Stacy says:

    Live in the garden for at least a year. Many decisions become apparent and will save time and money.
    BTW that is one cute English Setter pup!

  10. Stella Neves Elbaum says:

    We built our home in North Stonington ,CT 16 years ago – another town on the glacier trail left with enormous rocks (hence, the name). The property had once been the site of a 5 acres chicken farm, and there were still cedars and hickory trees , so we started from day one to include most of the trees in our site plan. We also planted evergreens to block views of the neighbors. Once we moved in, we started the garden plans looking out from the house.
    We built a lot of raised flower beds for perennials ( the rocky soil was impossible). After a couple of years we put in our vegetable garden , with a back hoe removing the rocky soil ( our neighbors thought we were digging a pool) and replacing the dirt with soil. We fenced the veggies, but have struggled with our local deer herd, and last year the groundhogs discovered how to dig under our buried chicken wire to destroy the veg garden. We now have installed cinder blocks in the trench with the chicken wire around the fence. It’s an adventure. Gardens are not for wimps.

  11. Erik says:

    Margaret and Ken, I’d welcome some further discussion of garden paths. In particular, I’d love to know if you recommend bringing in/lining paths with materials like pine needles or wood chips etc. or if you just walk on the bare earth.

    We’re still in the early stages of our garden development which includes a “woodland walk” that slopes down away from the house. At the moment, it is just bare earth and we’re not sure what, if anything, we should do to define/stabilize it (in bad storms we can have an erosion problem). I know that we can probably source wood chips from companies like Bartlett or SavATree at little to no cost but is it safe (from a plant health perspective) to do this? Will I end up regretting spreading woods chips or needles (or whatever) around? How do you handle keeping the paths clear? Right now we can rake but if there is a material on top of the earth that we want to keep in place… it’s a bit overwhelming!

    Thanks for any advice!

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.