Helen Yoest is the author of Gardening with Confidence – 50 Ways to Add Style for Personal Creativity. She is a sustainable wildlife gardener in Raleigh, NC, and you can read her blog at www.GardeningWithConfidence.com.

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Short, Tall and In Between
by Helen Yoest       #Advice   #Design

Layers of growth give height at each plane of planting, here with roses, dahlias, euphorbia, salvia and much more all tucked-in tightly so no mulch can be seen.
 

Each gardener, whether novice or experienced, begins a new garden full of fresh hopes and desires. Desires vary – one gardener may wish to grow fanciful flowers in a cutting garden; others may want a wildlife habitat with diverse plantings to feed birds, bees and butterflies. Another may want to grow a vegetable garden, with an added desire to make it as beautiful as it is functional.

Most gardens start out as either a border or a bed. A border is usually a strip of ground, typically along the edge of the property. This garden might be in front of a fence or hedge, or along the foundation of your home. A bed is often thought of as the same thing as a border, but I think of a bed more as an area that doesn’t have a backdrop – typically an island in the middle of a grassy area. However, the terminology isn’t what’s important, but rather the design of each to best suit its space.

Whether working on a bed or border, planning your garden to provide the best view from any angle will benefit both you and your plants. When designing a border with a backdrop, the general rule is to place the plants with the shorter plants in front, stair-stepping up as you go, ending with the tallest in the back.
 

A simple planting of cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) rising above a medium-high variety of mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) provides interest and openness. • Art in the garden can add height when the perfect punctuation point is needed. Adding height at different levels keeps the eyes busy with inspection. • Foundation plantings (those hugging the house) don’t have to be round and green. Adding various heights to be viewed as you come around the corner creates more garden in tight places. The bright, chartreuse of elephant ear plants (Colocasia spp.) color pops in a container the color of the evening sky.


Of course there are always exceptions to these rules, and ultimately your aesthetic will determine the look of your garden. As an example, some plants are “see-through” plants, such as tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis). If sited based on height alone, it would most likely be planted in the back of the border, but since it’s light and airy, many gardeners place it in the middle of the garden. Keep in mind that from a purely practical point of view, it’s not advisable to plant your garden with taller varieties casting shadows on the shorter plants.

When planning a garden bed, such as an island or a circle, plant placement is somewhat different. This garden can be viewed from all sides, so the plantings in the middle of the bed should be taller than those on the outside, gradually getting shorter closer to the edge. Rather than a stair-step, think of the layout more as the lines of a mountain – the highest point in the middle, then decreasing as you move toward the outer edge of the circle.


A sunny spot filled with sedums, roses, grasses, yucca and heuchera keep company with a rustic trellis, which serves up some height and structure.


Plant Labels
Without firsthand knowledge of how a plant will perform in your garden, reading and paying close attention to the plant label will provide you with the most useful information. Labels tell you how tall and wide the plant should get. This guidance can help determine if the plant will meet your design needs. If you’re looking for a plant to serve as a ground cover along your garden border, a plant with an ultimate height of 24 inches will not suit your needs.

The use of a pond gives interest at ground level, also providing movement from the fish to draw the eye in. A diverse planting scheme keeps the rhythm of the bed flowing.


This curbside bed creates drama at the stop sign, but it also makes the passage down the sidewalk a special event.

Most labels also usually recommend how far apart plants should be spaced, generally based on half the distance of a mature plant. I know many gardeners like to plant annuals closer than the recommended spacing for a dense display. This method works well for annuals that will only inhabit the garden for one year, but for trees and shrubs you should heed the label information. They’ll not only be competing for resources, crowding could also potentially spoil your design aesthetic.

When selecting plants for your design, choose a variety – some of each in the low, medium and tall range – to create appropriate scale in your garden. Ideally, the front of a border or sides of a bed should gradually step up in size. Resist the urge of wanting a plant so badly that you get it, even though it doesn’t fit your size requirement, vowing to pinch it back to make it work. The extra effort is not needed, especially since there is such a variety of plants to choose from.

It’s also true that plants can’t read. So even though the labels are a good guideline, sometimes a plant won’t stick to what is listed on the plant tag. The sun, shade and even soil can stunt a plant, or if planted in a certain location where it’s overjoyed, it can take over a spot beyond your desires. That is just part of the fun of gardening – the discovery and learning about plants and the garden you have to grow them. This spring, create your own design to bring beauty through height in your garden. With a gradual slope from short to tall, all of your plants will be noticed.

 

    

A print version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 25 Number 4.
Photography courtesy of Helen Yoest.
    

 

Posted: 05/18/18   RSS | Print

 

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