fine-tune your garden: designer katherine tracey helps us take a hard look

Avant GardensNEEDING TO FINE-TUNE your garden’s design, but not sure how to begin? Katherine Tracey of Avant Gardens helps us take a virtual walk through our gardens–suggesting clever tactics like looking through a camera lens to learn to frame better garden moments; creating a holding bed for onesies that just aren’t working where they are; and putting bluestone landing pads for colorful, changeable pots in key spots.

When Katherine Tracey and her husband, Chris, aren’t manning Avant Gardens,  their longtime retail and mail-order nursery in Dartmouth, Massachusetts–which I am proud is a sponsor of A Way to Garden, and a friend—they are out helping others make, and refine, their landscapes. Chris is a master dry-stone artisan, so his work is often one signature of their landscapes.

The “sense of place” of the nursery (which is also their home), as Katherine describes it:  “Intimate, but not fussy, with a wide variety of plants, but not one of this and one of that everywhere.”

In a Q&A, Katherine and I talked about taking a sharper look at our home landscapes with an eye to enhancements.

my garden-design q&a with katherine tracey

about_kathyQ. What are the most common reasons homeowners call for help with their gardens? 

A. Folks who have already established gardens are looking for advice on how to make their garden come together. They realize they have a collection of plants, but they are not arranged in a satisfying way.

Another reason: They may find that their garden looks great in May and June, and then it’s a dud for the rest of the season, and need help extending the color and interest.  Our personal garden has a lot of late-summer and fall bloomers–plants that wait until the end of the season to bloom, and usually look healthy and happy all summer.

Q. Let’s pretend we are walking through a new client’s garden, the first time. Where do you begin—indoors? out?—and what are some of the first things you as the adviser are looking for? 

A. Before I visit, I provide a questionnaire and ask the client to make a list of priorities, dreams, and what he/she loves/hates about the garden. I let the client guide me around the garden and tell me what was being attempted. I want to understand what they have been trying to do and what their desires are first.

Gardeners can do this themselves—to bring themselves back to sharper focus.

View out the window at Avant GardensQ. I always tell people to go inside and look out the window—to site gardens where they can enjoy them from their homes. What tactics like that can we each use in our own analysis of our gardens?

A. I bring up the topic of vantage points, too [that’s a winter view out Katherine’s window, above, including a winterberry holly and Hinoki cypress]. There are often many vantage points, but which ones are the most important? For instance:

  • When visitors approach the property/home/garden, what view greets them?
  • Is everything in plain view, or is there a sense of mystery, perhaps a surprise waiting behind a hedge–is there a glimpse of more a special view around the corner?

I often suggest looking at their home and garden through a camera lens. As one attempts to compose a lovely image, one sees what elements are strong and perhaps what elements are lacking.  In the northern states, for example, we have a lot of fine-textured plants, a lot of similar rounded forms, which would be enhanced by adding bolder foliage, or plants with a different form–such as something columnar [below, a border in the distance at Avant Gardens uses columnar evergreen Ilex ‘Sky Pencil’].

Borders with vertical evergreens in distance, at Avant GardensQ. Do a lot of people still plant all their shrubbery right up against the house? That was the basic modus operandi where I grew up.

A. Somehow, home landscaping became synonymous with “foundation planting.” Folks plant a group of shrubs to hide their foundation, and the neighbors across the street benefit from the view, but the homeowner’s window view looks beyond the planting to perhaps the lawn, the street with traffic, and the neighbor’s property across the way.

I like to point out that perhaps they should have a delightful view of their garden from their windows or doorways, preferably in all seasons [an oak and garden structure at Avant Gardens in winter, below].  Plant a border away from the house [such as the one above, at Avant Garden] that will screen the traffic and the neighbors, and provide a view of lush plantings and wildlife that you can enjoy from your favorite window.

Oak in winter at Avant GardensQ. Avant Gardens specializes in exciting, often newish, plants—cutting edge. Are those always the ones you recommend to clients when making or reshaping a garden?  

A. There are so many new plants to grow and enjoy, and I use to say my life’s mission was to grow everything at least once. We are always trialing new plants, and sometimes it is several years before a plant has proven it’s a keeper—or instead, it’s too demanding and not worth all the trouble.

After 25 years of growing plants, I’ve attempted to keep a collection of less-common plants at the nursery, ones that have proven to be the real workhorses, ones that ask for little upkeep, return each year, and look good season to season. Perennials like hellebores, or  Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ for instance, or Amsonia hubrictii. Shrubs such as Spirea thunbergii ‘Ogon,’ or Fothergilla ‘Blue Shadow,’ and Viburnum ‘Summer Snowflake.’ Trees like Stewartia pseudocamellia var. koreana, or Heptacodium miconoides.

These are the plants I suggest to clients and incorporate in my designs. [Katherine’s longer list of perennials is at the end of the story.]

Q. You and I could both be called “collectors” of plants – wanting every sexy new thing we see. Is that one of the hardest kinds of gardeners to work with in making a coherent garden? 

A. Nothing gets a gardener’s juices flowing like a new beautiful plant to try, and I fall hard for these temptations as much as anyone. I think “collectors” of plants know their affliction, and they may already know that they have a choice to make: a garden with a sense of place and design, which means including masses of “supporting cast” plants, or they can choose to simply love their collection, call it what it is and not make any excuses for it.

If a plantaholic’s design sense wins out, then they will begin to add supporting-cast plants to their garden.

Q. So if someone does have a collection–and it doesn’t work front and center–do I have to get rid of it, or is there a place for my goodies somewhere in your design?  

A. That’s a question I get often. It’s easy for me to practice tough love with other people’s plants.

My goal is to make a beautiful, rhythmic garden.  I ask which plants are most cherished, and begin working the garden plan to incorporate a selection of the owner’s favorites.

Hopefully this list includes a variety of trees, shrubs and perennials that can complement one another, but not all the goodies are likely to fit in one space.

So, I might suggest creating another garden or space, or my constant recommendation: to create a holding or nursery bed for the plants that don’t quite fit into the plans right now, but might in the future.

Some great unexpected combination discoveries have presented themselves in holding beds. One I am thinking of was lesser calamint, or Calamintha nepeta, and shrub roses [below]. The all-summer-blooming airy white flowers dress the bottom of the roses.

Calamintha at Avant GardensQ. I think one of the hardest things to avoid is the polkadot effect–one of this and one of that–and even now, I still bring home onesies. Can we talk about repeating and massing instead?

A. Again, that nursery or holding bed I mentioned earlier is a great spot for new acquisitions you don’t have a plan for. As they grow and multiply, you can divide them to get the multiples you need for massing.

Q. I know you and I both find that we sometimes under-do it with bulbs, too.

A.  Like everyone, I get seduced by the fall bulb catalogs, and then place an order without knowing exactly where I’m going to plant everything. When the box arrives, it’s challenging to walk around the garden trying to imagine where you’re going to need jolts of color in spring.

Better to take snapshots of what the garden looks like in spring (when the fall-planted bulbs would be blooming) and make notes, to use as a reference library when it’s time to order bulbs again [like the Crocus outside the old farmhouse at Avant Gardens, below]. No more lonely Galanthus. My goal is for an early spring symphony.

Early spring outside Avant Gardens' farmhouseQ. I am obsessed with edging, and edges—with definition where one kind of planting meets another.  What do you suggest other than the predictable low boxwood hedge?

A. Edges dress a garden. They add continuity, but they can be a bit boring if it’s an endless line of the same old…. I like to use edging plants such as Alchemilla mollis, Calamintha nepeta, and Teucrium chamaedrys (germander) in drifts of odd numbers, broken up by a contrasting foliage plant–perhaps a colorful Heuchera.

Dwarf clipped boxwood is classic edging plant, but used in mass it can be too severe or formal. Plant it in staggered drifts, broken up by a  more casual plant form like Hakonechloa or perhaps a vertical accent like Ilex ‘Sky Pencil’ is less expected.

Q. One of the challenges in having a garden is to keep the show lively and colorful all season. In a limited space that may be hard to do. What tips do you have?

A. For the most part I have been discussing plants that are winter hardy in northern climates.  Adding seasonal plants that are not winter hardy but give a long, colorful period during the summer months into fall really makes a garden special.

Verbena bonariensis at Avant GardensI’m talking about plants we grow up North as annuals and tender perennials:  Nicotiana, Verbena bonariensis [above], dahlias, salvias, etc. The Nicotiana and Verbena often self-sow, which means you need to be on the lookout for them (they are less likely to appear if you put down thick layers of mulch in the spring).

Also, I like to tuck containers of low-maintenance plants at strategic points around the garden and in garden beds. I usually insert a flat piece of bluestone as a landing spot.

You can change the seasonal plant choices each year if you want a different color scheme, or if you figured out what you love is the same colorful dahlias and salvia every year, then there you go. [More on containers at Avant Gardens.]

sucbowlsept72some of katherine’s ‘go-to’ workhorse perennials

SEARCH FOR THESE on the Avant Gardens catalog site, or in Katherine’s Garden Foreplay blog.

  • Calamintha nepeta ssp. Nepetoides
  • Amsonia hubrictii
  • Geraniums: ‘Rozanne’, cantabrigiense hybrids, macrorrhizum
  • Epimediums
  • Hellebores
  • Agastache ‘Black Adder’
  • Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’
  • Persicaria ‘Golden Arrow’
  • Persicaria polymorpha
  • Vernonia lettermanii

how to enter to win the gift card

I’LL BUY TWO $50 gift certificates for lucky readers (U.S. only) to Avant Gardens nursery. [UPDATE: The giveaway is now closed.] All you have to do to enter is answer this question, typing your entry into the comments box at the bottom of the page:

What’s the most challenging design issue you’re hoping to tackle this season in your garden?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say, “Count me in” or some such, but I’d love to hear your answer.

I picked a winner after entries closed at midnight Friday, March 21, 2014. Good luck to all. (Again: U.S. only, since these will be live plants!)

(All photos courtesy of Avant Gardens.)

  1. Barbara says:

    My challenge this year is to highlight my beautiful red twig dogwoods. They get lost against a backdrop of woody invasive species like autumn olive that are beyond my fence. Any ideas for back planting.

  2. Joanne Fetting says:

    My challenge is to get some shrubs established under a couple of old pines in the back corner of my yard.

  3. Cherie Luke says:

    This year I will try to give my gardens a much more cohesive look. They are spread out throughout my 1 acre and I’d like to somehow tie them together.

  4. Bette, WI, Zone 5 says:

    Incorporating less “formality” in the way of butterly attracting plant varieties into my one acre remains my greatest “challenge”. I was pleased to see that of the ten varieties named by Katherine Tracey my garden is home to six of the plants listed… planted in mass, I might add.

  5. Marie says:

    The design issue I have is a 15 foot circle in the middle of my yard. There used to be a maple tree that died. We have taken it out roots and all, but with the way the sun goes whatever I put in there, for example if I put in all the same kind of plants, the ones on the east end are beautiful and the west end are small. I tried an herb garden with the same results.
    Because the west end has some shade. Any suggestions?

  6. Diane says:

    Relocating hollies, also replacing small stump areas of two dwarf cherries trees tat rotted with either
    large whiskey planters or tithonia seeds I’m sowing indoors.

  7. Lois Mc Cabe says:

    I realize that even though I live down under and cannot join your competition, I do have the garden bug and can’t stop buying plants that I really have no area to plant them. So my plan is to pinch the idea of making a nursery bed.
    I have just created a wild flower bed 45 feet by 10 feet wide, my aim is to keep it weed free this spring!

  8. Eileen Cuddohy says:

    I am hoping to spend more time looking at what’s pretty in my gardens and less time critiquing Patience is another thing i am hoping to develop regarding the “ perfectly complete with flora and fauna “ garden since this is going to only be my second spring without any construction on my water garden/backyard.

  9. Linda M Krygiel says:

    I appear to be a “collector” of native plants. This year I am hoping to focus more on the overall design and theme of my garden rather than being attracted to a beautiful plant, buying it, and then not knowing where to plant it for its optimal benefit.

  10. Shelley Knauff says:

    Hope it’s not to late to enter contest. My garden areas are a mess and I need help. Maybe this year I’ll finally figure it out.

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