3 Principles of Garden Design I Learned as a Kid
Growing up in the Hillside neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, my windows framed Mt. Hood, but my gaze more often went to my dresser tops.There stood my collection of dolls, arranged to display all the best curls and lacy bits. Some I inherited from my mom and some were new to me, but they all had names and personalities. They all needed equal amounts of my attention lest one feel lonely and sad. This was especially important if a new doll entered the scene. I remember making a considerate effort to let the older ones know that I still cared for them even if their velvet had worn thin.
This collection of sophisticated dolls posed on their wire stands in front of a riotous backdrop of pink jungle wallpaper. With repeating patterns of frond and feather, branch and vine, the wallpaper was suffused in sunset pinks giving my room a magical wildness that subtly, but distinctly influenced my early childhood.
Some gardens are like the doll collection, where every plant is a precious specimen that has to be preened and coddled individually lest one grow lonely and sad. Just as collecting dolls is considered old-fashioned, the collector’s garden can also feel out-of-date.
Meanwhile, other gardens are like the jungle wallpaper, acting as an essential backdrop to our lives without asking for much time and effort in return. Renewed interest in wallpaper from modern style icons, especially with leafy motifs, points to a resurgence in our cultural craving for nearby nature.
It’s this embracing influence of nature that, as a landscape designer, most interests me. Gardens that soothe and dapple patterns on your eyes, on your soul, gardens that offer a respite from the endless tasks of the day, these are the outdoor experiences I seek to create.
I design gardens that are as lively and low maintenance as my childhood wallpaper.
Landscapes that demand more of you are for collectors with time on their hands. Fun to visit, not to maintain. Just like it’s fun to visit memories of my dolls, but thankfully the flood of ’96 released me from their care!
How do you design a garden for easy care flora and fauna? How can your yard look as intentional as patterned wallpaper without the fuss of a traditional formal garden? And, importantly, how would you feel coming home to this nature-rich landscape every day?
In this essay, I’ll share three guiding principles that I’ve developed over 20 years of garden making that ensure low-maintenance, habitat-rich beauty. I call these the Wallpaper Principles.
But first, I want you to picture your childhood yard. Or maybe it’s your grandma’s place or the fields or forests behind your home. What’s the first image that pops to mind of your earliest experiences outdoors? Is it a specific plant, a quality of light, an element of water, a sense of enclosure or of expanse? Let that image launch your design. A garden that resonates with your childhood impressions of nature will continue to nurture you as an adult.
Sword ferns, a path disappearing around a bend and huge white morning glory flowers that we sucked to our noses imagining Pinocchio are the deepest memories I have of my childhood yard. So now, the ferny nooks, the hidden destinations and flowers worthy of burying your nose in are essential in my home garden. What’s essential in yours?
With that image in mind, let’s continue on to the three Wallpaper Principles for garden design:
1st Principle- Strong geometry is welcoming.
What does geometry have to do with your garden? In the abstract, it’s the foundation for how you use your yard. How you move through, where you gather with friends, whether there’s room enough or not, are all determined by the layout of the space.
So, when designing your yard, take time to work out some great shapes for the different areas. And here’s the trick, be bold! Go for a patio as full and round as the moon or a deck set on the 45 shifting the dynamic and the view. Try paths that broadly sweep or that are crisply straight. Blobby patios and squiggly paths feel fussy and high maintenance, especially when combined with the naturalism of lush, layered plantings.
Consider also the balance of open spaces for people and bed spaces for plants. Too much of one or the other misses the point. The overdone expanse of lawn with narrow foundation planting is not the nature retreat we’re going for. However an overgrown, over-planted yard is anxiety causing, the opposite of our goal as well. A balanced solution is a garden with artistically proportioned rooms (patios, lawns, decks, paths) and plantings. The edges of the plantings are strong and easy to maintain. The patios and lawns beckon with hammock or chair set upon a legible definition of space.
Gardens with strong geometry are not only welcoming, they’re low maintenance, too. A good metal edging delineating the pleasing S-curve of your wood chip path holds the intention of the design without growing muddled over time. A patio that’s generously sized can allow plants to billow over its edges with out cramping the space and demanding the shears.
In my childhood bedroom, the jungle wallpaper was neatly framed by pink-painted molding. It grounded the playful room and helped orient me in the space. Without it, the effect would have been dizzying. The same is true for your garden.
Get out your compass, play on graph paper, repeat shapes, let them stagger and overlap. Be an abstract artist at the beginning of your garden design process. The foundation you lay will be the framework for the profusion to come.
2nd Principle - Plan for your desired experiences.
The collectors garden is about the individual things, the plants, pottery, perhaps statuary, that have been acquired and maintained. The naturalistic garden differs in its focus on the experience; the experience of being immersed in the plantings with bird song and the rattle of aspen leaves as accompaniment, or the shift in mood initiated by gazing at an animated green scene from your kitchen window.
When you prioritize the kind of experiences you want from your landscape over the things you want it to contain, your design will feed you in ways a collection never could.
Garden experiences are curated by our senses. Close up, it’s the sight of a bud nearing its peak bloom, the scent of that bloom, and the sound of the bees it attracts that make an impression and influences your connection to nature. Design to favor these moments. Let the paths carry you right into the heart of the flowery meadow. Plan for patios surrounded by the sweetest scents, the tastiest berries, the most melodious water features.
Experienced from indoors, the encounter with your garden can also be meaningful. How do you want to feel on a rainy day as you gaze at your yard through a water streaked window? In a garden with varied depth of planting, your eye can travel the blurred lines, engendering an appreciation for the complexities of life. Meanwhile, the addition of a well-placed pot or bird bath offers the monkey mind a place to rest.
In passing, a rambling rose situated near the driveway, wafts its scent freely, slowing you down as you unload groceries from the car just in time to prepare dinner for your busy family. A swooping hummingbird diving to impress a mate, reminds you of your mate and softens your heart, maybe even moving you to forgiving them for the petty argument last night.
These experiences are like the wallpaper of our lives. Their influence is subtle, but transformative.
Jot down a list of your desired feelings then imagine how your yard could give you more of those moments. Let your creativity reign without filtration from your rational mind. That comes later, but first anything is possible.
Designing a set of things is a different process than designing a set of experiences. If you want your yard to give you low maintenance connection to nature, focus on the experience.
3rd Principle - Design plant communities.
Now you can bring a little bit of your inner collector out to play. If you love gardens, you love plants and have favorites. The key to the third Wallpaper Principle of garden design is to combine those favorites into groups of complimentary plants so that they look great and function like a natural ecology.
You’ve seen suggestions for mixing roses with clematis that bloom together or yarrows with drumstick alliums. This is usually described for the aesthetic benefit behind designing plant communities - mixing complimentary colors and textures is eye-pleasing.
But, have you ever thought about how the way you arrange plants can reduce maintenance, too? When you mix plants with similar cultural requirements (I’m talking water and fertility needs here), you can give them what they need as a group rather than individually.
Even more profoundly, you can plan communities that include workhorses like: nitrogen fixers to self-fertilize the group; ground covers (aka “green mulches”) that suppress weeds and retain moisture; and sturdy structural plants to naturally “stake” floppy bloomers.
Repeat these balanced and beautiful groupings throughout your planting beds and you’re taking it to the wallpaper level of excellence. My friend Ellen knows how to make beauty with repetition. When I admired the patterns on her leg sleeve tattoos, she told me that all those motifs are repeated elsewhere on her body. What’s true for wallpaper is true for full body tattoos as well as for planting design. Repetition looks gorgeous.
This is understandable when you look at a wild (or “self-willed”) landscape. You don’t see one sword fern with a single companion wood sorrel and an individual inside-out flower. You see the community repeated across the forest slope. You see sweeps of camas blooming across the grassy meadow. You see stretches of red-twig dogwood, willow, cottonwood and sedge sung like a river along the bank.
Design your garden planting with a broader view of the space rather than isolating certain plants to one bed and others to the neighboring space. Spread the wallpaper around all the beds. Sure your communities will shift from sun to shade, but more repetition not only looks natural and pretty, but also reduces the work you need to put into its upkeep.
Grouping plants that look great together and that knit together in a harmonious ecology, then repeating those groupings, is how to make a low-maintenance, nature-rich garden.
Do you want to refresh your life with regular connection to nature?
I’ve aways believed that the environments we live in influence our well-being. Digging into memories of my childhood revealed lessons about garden design that feel magical with potential. Thanks to my artistic and design savvy parents for offering me an early visual foundation of pink molding and wild wallpaper to nurture me.
I hope the Wallpaper Principles inspire your garden and aid you to enjoy it with your feet up a bit more often than with with your back bent in labor.
About the Author
I’m Leslie Davis, co-owner of Whole Gardens in Eugene, Oregon. I’m absolutely in love with the beauty of nature, from the smallest detail of a native mason bee’s wing, to the sweeping view a wetland meadow awash in the blue of camas blooms. Creating easy access to these moments of awe changes your life. When you come home to a gorgeous landscape, your ruminating mind pauses and you feel connected to something bigger. That’s why I’ve created richly planted, low maintenance landscape gardens over the last twenty years.
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