January 19, 2010


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How many of you pass by a garden or landscape and think that you could improve upon it ? I know I can't resist. My sketch above is of a client's existing landscape and I've pretty much decided on what I will suggest for it. I thought it would be fun to get your input on how you would design this landscape if you were me and had carte blanche.

These are the givens : A large, plain gray ( no fancy trim ) boxy 3-story Victorian house sits atop a hill and is completely enclosed with a black wrought iron fence. There's a concrete landing, stairs and walk on the lelft and a concrete driveway on the right. This is a double-wide lot about 60 ' wide and 30 ' long.

As indicated on the drawing there's a large weedy tree, a beautiful Japanese 'bloodgood ' Maple and a small Serviceberry in the terraced bed . The lawn is very large.

I haven't come up with a budget at this point since estimates of materials and labor will need to be made depending on the homeowner's decision. At this stage ideas are more important.

I've found that experienced gardeners are often as good or better than some landscape architects when it comes to selecting plant material. I once re-did a $40,000 landscape because the architect planted dogwood shrubs in a very sunny, hot exposure and rose shrubs in the shade. Needless to say the dogwoods burned and the roses didn't bloom, I've also seen some very beautiful drawings which had shrubs that would have reached 25 feet in width at maturity in an 8 foot space.

I'm a stickler for making sure the right plant is in the right place and has the room it needs at maturity. At the tree lot where I work part-time I am often amazed when I tell some designers that the tree they selected will get too large for the space they have and they retort, " Oh, I'll be dead by then, " . NOT if its a fast growing tree. A customer told me that her designer planted a tree too close to her house and when she complained was told that the garden center sold it to her as a dwarf. " What kind of tree ?", I asked. " A Bradford pear, " she replied. " Well that ends the passing of the buck right now, " I said, " because there is no dwarf version of that tree. "

So here's your chance to let your creative juices flow. I look forward to your ideas and comments.

Written by Carolyngail


  1. Oh, I'm gonna wimp out and just watch this one. I don't have a design bone in my body, despite having gotten a cool book called 'Design for the Plant Collector's Garden'. It's that lack of drawing ability (I think in words, not pictures.) So I'm going to make appropriate cheering noises for you and those who can participate.

  2. Coming from hawaii I would love to have a few plumerias, a lovely orchid (bauhinia) tree and lots of colorful foliage plants to include hibiscus, tis, coleus, agapanthas, and aromatic ginger, gardenias, jasmines and why not some mangoes, avocadoes and bananas?

    I'm sorry, that was a bad joke and since i'm not familiar with plants that survive winter in chicago i'm not even going to try...although since it has nice bones already some nandina, hopseed shrubs would add some color.

  3. If they're not married to the weed tree, why not remove it and incorporate the Acer in a deep (15-20')bed extending from the fence and parallel to the house.It might curve in on both sides to contain a central circle of lawn. You could plant tons of rodent resistant spring bulbs(daffodils,camassias) followed by easy natives like coneflowers,agastache and rudbeckia. Slow growing piceas and pines for evergreen structure, a kousa dogwood and miscanthuses to soften.

  4. I need to look into that cool book for a fellow designer who collects plants, Jodi.

    Thanks for being the cheerleader.

  5. Hey Noel,

    I'd love to exchange places with you and have those plumerias, orchids, hibiscus, gardenias and jasmine, not to mention mangoes, avocadoes and bananas.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Cyndy,

    You must be reading my mind - or the subtle hint " weed tree" gave it away. It's definitely on my list of what to suggest to remove.

    The Japanese Maple is in the wrong location - it hides the view of the garden .
    Removing the Japanese Maple to the very spot you suggested was also another idea I had and luckily it's only a few years old so this shouldn't be a problem.

    I would definitely like to extend the terraced bed which is not deep enough. I don't like grass when there's a rock or terraced garden because I don't think it looks natural.

    I'm thinking to get rid of the lawn altogether. I'm leaning toward ground hugging rock garden junipers and perhaps some flagstones with ground cover to soften.

    I also like your perennial plant suggestions, especially the ornamental grasses which I'm fond of. There isn't room for another tree once the Japanese Maple is relocated.

    You must be a natural born designer :-) Great ideas. Thanks.

  7. Hi Carolyn Gail, this is so exciting! I would get rid of the lawn, cut down the weed tree, (yes, very subtle), move the maple and add grasses, small evergreen shrubs, bulbs and some broad leaved perennials.

  8. Thanks, Frances. You're hired! Great ideas. I think grass/lawns are overrated. I'd rather see ground covering low growing evergreens or creeping groundcover between some natural flagstones.

  9. Cameron of Defining your Garden made a comment that refused to publish but the gist of it was asking questions that garden designers need to know when making a plan : How much sun/shade, irrigation, maintenance issues, clients preferences, etc.

    The property has an Eastern exposure with enough light to grow sun loving plants. There's no irrigation system in place and I will suggest one because the client travels a lot and just a few days of intensive heat without proper watering can do a lot of damage.

    The client is leaving plant suggestions up to me and once I have completed my proposed design he will be able to say yea or nay to the ideas.

  10. Carolyn, I missed this post and saw the one with the design already drawn first. You did a wonderful job with the design - it's going to be a great garden. I was so excited when I saw Jodi's comment about the book, I went to Amazon to check it out before reading the rest of the comments! It gets mixed reviews, and the reviews contents were a bit disappointing. But the book is available used, so I may get it anyway.

    I think there's a huge market for a really excellent book (with lots of photos and design examples) for those of us afflicted with plant collector's syndrome. It can sure be challenging designing a cohesive garden around an eclectic collection of plants.

    Before I started blogging, when people would admire my garden I'd say, "well, I'm really more of a plant collector than a garden designer, so I'm glad you like it!" After I started blogging it was sort of comforting realizing there are many others much like me in their zealous and eclectic collection of plants.


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