Karen Atkins owns Proper Gardens, a garden design and installation firm in Pittsburgh. She writes, designs and gardens from her historic farm in Western Pennsylvania, where she lives with her husband and two children. Visit propergardens.com.

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A Garden Designer’s Secrets
by Karen Atkins    

Here are seven garden design tips to take your garden from drab to fab. Think about these tips as you dream about your spring garden makeover.


Hydrangeas lend color, and topiary boxwoods and hedges provide contrasting forms.

A swing, once installed, is always a welcomed invitation.

Endless Summer’ hydrangeas bloom on new and old wood, ensuring a full season of blooms, even after a late frost.

Form is important. The geometry of the cleanly edged squares at the base of these arbors is striking. An oval hedge in the center of the garden adds structure and contrast.

Is your garden leaving you feeling a little flat some days? Faced with the same space every day, over many years, it is easy to fall into a rut. But there are some tried and true ways to rejuvenate your outdoor rooms. Take these tips from an award-winning designer:


#1 Make it a Living Space

Gardens are for people. If there is no comfortable place to sit, it isn’t a garden, it’s a landscape. So, put benches everywhere. Yes, I do realize that gardeners don’t ever sit down in their gardens. But other people do, and even you might someday. Place tables for drinks and books within easy reach. Provide shade. If you can’t install a pergola to swamp with climbers, a single tree or canvas umbrella will do. Lay a permanent floor by ripping up grass. Several yards of pea gravel, delivered, should cost under $200. Once installed, this almost instant patio will allow you to keep your feet dry and save you from lifting the furniture every time you mow. Hang finish-protected artwork, mirrors or collections of garden tools to infuse the space with your personality. Add lighting to extend your days.


#2 Extend Bloom Time

I winced when I did it, but I ripped out my ‘Nikko Blue’ hydrangeas and replaced them with ‘Endless Summer’ hydrangeas. You see, the new variety blooms in the same color but on new and old wood and blooms for a longer period. This ensures I have blooms now June through November. The ‘Nikko Blue’ hydrangeas would often lose their blooms to a late frost and I would be taunted, daily, by a large green shrub for an entire summer. The plant industry has recently introduced repeat-blooming specimens that never before existed. Take advantage of re-blooming azaleas, irises, lilacs and wisterias. Be disciplined to plant spring bulbs and summer bulbs every year. You can plant dahlias a month before the last frost date if you plant them 1 foot below ground. This early start will give you another month of dahlias. Deadhead flowers throughout the season, and give “haircuts” to plants like salvia and catmint to encourage a second flush of color in fall.


#3 Add Texture

The surest way to identify an unsatisfying lack of texture is to take a black and white photo of your garden at its flowering peak. It is that very riot of color that has distracted you from seeing your problem. Stripped of the competition from flowers, the contrasting texture and habits of the foliage in your garden become most evident. Suddenly you can see an area is full of too many mounding plants, for example, and not enough spikes.


#4 Nothing Succeeds like Excess

I had a client who told me once, “For most people, less is more. For me, though, more is more.”

This is a very useful approach to a garden. Outdoors, a lot competes for your attention, not the least of which is the backdrop of the sky. When you want to plant a perennial—let’s say catmint, for example—don’t plant any fewer than three plants in a grouping. When fully established, your grouping should be no less than half your body size. This is not a rule or a law, and if it impinges on your creativity, you can ignore it. I will tell you that it does really work for me.


#5 Add Form

Contrast the abundance in your garden by introducing some straight lines, then allow plants to spill over them. Simply edging around a bed can accomplish this. Consider how you might introduce some geometry into your space by adding raised beds or trimming shrubs into cubes, balls or jaunty spirals. A small, flowering crabapple tree like ‘Lollizam’ naturally grows into a perfect 5-foot-wide ball. ‘Meyerii’ lilac standards do the same.


#6 Install a Focal Point

The cacophony of a flower garden begs for a counterweight. Drawing the eye to this visual exclamation point takes some thought and organization. It can be a specimen tree, an urn raised on a plinth, statuary, a bird house, a bench or an outbuilding. Even a patch of lawn can serve as a focal point, providing a place for the eye to rest in the midst of a sea of perennials. In formal gardens, the focal points are typically more effective centered within the garden itself or on key windows and doorways of the home. In a cottage garden, focal points placed asymmetrically might be more successful.


#7 Create a Feast for all of the Senses

Gardeners love to concentrate on sights, and I don’t just mean color. For example, I am not satisfied with spring until I see water droplets reliably forming on lady’s mantle. The sounds of birds singing, pea gravel underfoot and water are equally soothing. Smell is the sense most capable of arousing detailed, specific memories. And what would a garden be without lilacs, lavender, wisteria and roses? Each year, I plant rosemary close to where I park the car, so that I can rub it on my hands before driving anywhere. The feel of a scented geranium is so satisfying, and I can’t resist petting my boxwood hedges after a sharp trim. Walk through your garden and really think about what you might add or edit to stimulate your senses. Don’t forget to enjoy—allow yourself the time to breathe it all in.


Posted: 01/02/12   RSS | Print


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