Karen Atkins is the owner of Proper Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She designed the Victorian Gardens for the Merrick Art Gallery, the Pioneer Entrance Garden for Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, and many award-winning gardens for residential clients. Karen loves to help and hear from other gardeners.


Starting with a Blank Slate
by Karen Atkins - posted 08/13/11

Do you have a blank slate crying out for a garden? Well then you are in luck!

Now, don't start qualifying that statement! Don't tell me that you have just one little old lilac bush that simply has to stay. I'll ask you to cover your eyes while I touch a match to it!

I have a client right now that is having to move his precious asparagus plot. It isn't that I don't sympathize. Trust me, I know how long asparagus takes to get happy. Having said that, it cannot hold enough interest to warrant its current placement as the focal point from his living room. It has to go!

A truly blank canvas gives you the opportunity to impose structure. Structure directs our eyes and our feet where to go.  I know, I know, your significant other will be dying to tell me where to go after I rip out his precious lillies in the initial demolition phase!  Just do what I did. Tell him not to worry his pretty little head about it, you have even better things in store. If you really look at any good garden, you will be able to discern an underlying pattern; something geometric, like a square within a square, a circle within a rectangle, or a square within a rectangle, for example.  Some gardens have clean, curving lines. This look is usually achieved by first laying out a garden hose in a way that the designer believes "mimics" nature. I personally think it is the height of hubris to think that you can approximate nature. My opinion does not stop home improvement channels from utilizing this crazy "hose as a design tool" idea, ad naseum, but that is a blog topic for another day!

Underlying structure is what designers refer to as the "bones" of a garden. It is what makes a garden feel like a garden in the middle of winter, when all of the deciduous plants have all but disappeared. You don't want to continue to live without this affordable luxury, do you?

You can build your bones within any budget. If money is no object, you might choose cut stone, European Columnar Hornbeams planted so densely they make an instant aerial hedge, or brick pathways in herringbone patterns. If the budget is limited, it is just as valid to make lush, green grass pathways and simply use an edger to a depth of about a foot to create the beds, heaping up the soil for further definition. This approach can be seen at some of the most beautiful gardens in England. A pattern should not restrict you, but rather free you to reinterpret it in a way that harmonizes with the purpose of the garden and with the style of your home. Once you have a framework that will serve you all year long, you'll be inspired to create proper planting plans where you can run riot. Nothing will please you more than seeing your abundant perennials color outside the lines during the height of summer!

Here is an example, from a public garden in New Orleans, of a "Circle Within a Square." For added fun, the circle is a water feature. I love the way that the designer made additional pathways extending from the circles to allow easy access to the beds of herbs and to create uniquely shaped outer beds.

Here is an example of a simple "Diamond within a Square" my little company installed last month. We centered the diamond on the client's dining room window so she can enjoy a balanced view of the garden all year long.  A Lilly Pulitzer fan, she loves hot colors. The "Walker's Low" catmint in the beds will grow tall and contrast with "Hot Papaya" coneflowers, "Limelight" hydrangeas, and Scarlett Bee Balm, among other cottage favorites. The concrete pavers and boxwood hedging will still look beautiful with snow on them, defining the space as a garden even in the dead of Winter. She plans to place an urn on a plinth in the middle of the diamond to fill with greens and berry branches, for an "outdoor centerpiece" she can enjoy from her diningroom table during holiday meals. Now that is how to live!


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