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. margaret says:

    ENTRIES are now closed, but your comments are always welcome.

    And the winners are…

    Nancy Passavant and Kingsley (who have been notified by email).

    Thanks to all for this very lively discussion — which gives me and Katherine the idea for a few more stories!

  2. BLDBBB says:

    Live in Oklahoma zone 7 – I have a large irrigated flower bed that contains a sycamore tree and star magnolia. It is in shade during the morning and then full afternoon sun. It’s always a challenge to find plants that do well in this bed!!

  3. Catherine L. says:

    One of my friends once told me “You have to decide where your garden ENDS”. The back of our property is bordered by a huge patch of bittersweet, poison ivy, grapevine and saplings that are smothered by all these vines. There was a beautiful stand of Staghorn Sumac there 10 years ago, but the vines and the storms took them all out. It is not our property, but I can’t stand how ugly it looks, so we keep pushing back in 6′ sections every year. Soon we will meet up with the neighbors mowed lawn. How can we address this? So far we are planting Eastern red cedar seedlings and hoping they make it.

  4. Michelle says:

    We have two acres of grass. We would like to eliminate most of it by planting trees and creating both field and gardens starting with the areas outside of our back door, off of the deck and a welcoming front door garden.

  5. Judy R. says:

    I’m a collector, and have the “onesie” problem. I want to find ways to still collect everything while having more rhythm and flow to the overall look of the garden.

  6. Leslie says:

    My biggest challenge is a blank slate. We renovated a 1912 four square in our downtown. The home had been a triplex for 50+ years. There is a smattering of volunteer daffodils, probably from when it was still a home. There are loverly mature trees along one side. Aside from that, it’s just flat grass-weed combo. I want an English garden front yard someday.

    1. margaret says:

      I hope spring comes early here, Jan, so there is time for more than just cleanup chores, because I need to rip out some big beds here, too, and rethink. When spring comes late (like last year) I ssem to run out of time for “extra” projects like that.

  7. Grace says:

    I’m a frugal plant person…I love to buy at the end of season at great prices. Sometimes they never get planted because I don’t have a location in mind. I do, however, have a “temporary” garden…but they don’t always make it there either…Lol.

  8. michele says:

    Remembering to order bulbs in fall for the spaces that need more bulbs noticed in spring! Always have the best intentions, and then it gets so busy I forget!

  9. Although I’m MUCH better at avoiding one-itus now than I was when I first started gardening, I’m still rectifying the garden mistakes I made when I started 12 years ago. And I also have a funny habit of leaving large holes at the front of the border: Saving a spot for a perfect, yet-to-be-discovered plant. Hoping to stop that habit this year too.

  10. Kathy phillips says:

    Would love to have help transforming my garden with shrub roses and and placing collection of hydrangeas to reflect an old style charleston southern garden!!!!! I can get most anything to grow but had open heart surgery and can’t take care of things like I used to! Would also love to know of a plant to use instead of hey heuchera. I have 3 planted but only 1 does well? Presozia hydrangeas are planted behind the heuchera . My theme used are pink ,white , and burgundy Japanese maple. Help?

  11. lydia L says:

    I moved into a new house last summer. I cleaned up the flower beds and transplanted the rose bushes, hibiscus, irises, peonies and others from the old house , which had full sun, into the new garden beds.
    There is one bed that gets a lot of shade. The azaleas already there are weak looking. Shade gardening is new to me so I am looking forward to planting bleeding hearts, purple cone flowers, astilbe and other shade loving flowers. This will be a new venture for me. I’m enjoying reading about shade loving plants during the winter .

  12. skye says:

    I’m a new homeowner and have just begun constructing the two of my four raised beds that I have reserved for my vegetable and edible flower garden. So far, my biggest problem is creating mystery/intrigue in an urban garden that will see a lot of use. My backyard also floods (I live in the swamp) so I am limited by bed construction and light location – they can only be placed in half the yard. So there was a lot to consider. I have finally realized that I will have to place the perennial/pollinator flowers carefully in order to maintain interest, but this presents a challenge because I am no designer. It is a really fun learning experience though.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Skye. You do have some challenges, between the flooding and light! But we gardeners are a tenacious breed, so I expect you won’t take no for an answer. :)

  13. Shelley says:

    I loved this post when i first saw it last year…. one year later i created gardens that i can see from my windows inside and changed the outlining shapes of some of my favorite gardens, added structure and shrubs. What a difference perspective makes. I love taking a few steps back and trying to view my gardens as a stranger would- asking myself “what is the sense i get when i first pull into my driveway… when i walk around the house and come upon each corner and each rock wall, each flower bed… there is no better way to fine tune your creations.

  14. cyndi says:

    my challenge is that I live in a condo, but am allowed to garden and have added some perennials. Unfortunately I have not been able to achieve the cohesive beauty I am longing for. I guess it’s always a work in progress.

  15. Diane Koch says:

    What’s the most challenging design issue you’re hoping to tackle this season in your garden? Planting a VERY small (5’x10′) front yard space to be cohesive but varied, with year-round interest, and enjoyed from windows looking outside, the front porch, and the front sidewalk.

    1. margaret says:

      I think that is a lot to get out of one small space, as you say, Diane, so no wonder it’s a challenge. But it sounds as if you are clear about your goals–meaning you will certainly have much better results than if you weren’t so conscious!

  16. Candace Aldrich says:

    This year I would like my garden to come together and have some flow, both with color and form. I would like to be able to enhance it instead of having to do the same old tasks over and over again. I have spent the last two years weeding out less successful plants and focusing on those that perform. I would like to take that next step.

    1. margaret says:

      Great goals, Candace — and welcome. The weeding will never stop (or at least it hasn’t here!) but once you have some areas with more visual impact based on those good performers you’ve identified, it starts to seem more worth it. :)

  17. Leah Kinder says:

    My most challenging issue is that most of my flower beds and raised boxes are in full, hot mid-day (until after 4:00pm) sun in the very hot, humid Northern Virginia area……getting no early morning sunshine due to too many large tall trees to the east. (House faces the west, so I’m referring to our back yard). The back yard is long north to south and rather narrow (30-35′) east to west; thus, from inside the house, the most visible/viewable part is the most easterly edge, which starts to get some sunshine around 10 – 10:30am and continues til late afternoon.
    What plants would you advise for the most color from Spring thru Fall?

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