Gardening With What You Have

'Whats The Big Idea?

christine froehlich 12/09/2016 Comments

What's The Big Idea? 


Drawing a landscape plan is no day at the beach. Even though I've knocked out many of them, I sometimes dread it because it can be time consuming and tedious. I might spend hours spinning my wheels trying to come up with a design I like. Part of the problem is that I get hung up on picking the plants, which puts me in a cerebral frame of mind and squashes my creative spirit. As an experiment to get ideas flowing, I decided to focus on shapes instead of plants, and it was liberating. 


Here's what  I did:  

I took a photo of the area, printed it, taped tracing paper over the photo, and drew whatever came to mind; weeping, round, horizontal,vertical and even shaggy looking shapes that portrayed possible plants. Since I was just whipping out quick ideas, and not worried about doing a great drawing, I felt less inhibited about putting my ideas on paper.


Once my design started to come together: 

I took  measurements of the area and drew them to scale on 1/4" graph paper. Then I put tracing paper over the graph paper and sketched the plants in. That way, if I wanted to edit the plants or design, I could easily discard the sketch and start over again without having to redraw the whole thing. Nailing down the plant list was the last thing I did.


This little exercise helped me so much, I thought homeowners without graphic design experience and plant knowledge could learn to draw a plan of their own using this process. I decided to turn it into a two part class and offered it at the Rochester Civic Garden Center ( last fall. There were 14 people in the class, and to my surprise and delight - they all got the hang of it right away. 


Some of them came up with really good plans and I was eager to see how they fared once they started planting.  Before I taught the class again, I checked in with Linda, my 'star student' to see how she was doing with her design project. Over the past year, she had worked diligently on it and was kind enough to share her photographs and experiences with me when I taught the class again this fall.


You can see the process I just described in action here in Linda's front yard. The area she wanted to work on included a large maple, ornamental pear and privet hedge that was on the edge of the property line (to the far right in the shadow). Her intent was to create beds she could view from the house and walk through. At first, she couldn't get past the idea of having a rectangular bed that went all the way over to the privet hedge. But that would be a huge area to take care of, and it looked kind of awkward. I suggested the bed could be smaller and placed in front of the hedge, leaving a wide path so it would be easy to get in to prune it.


first landscape plan


After experimenting with the shapes a little more, she arrived at a plan she liked - the two tear-drop shaped beds you see below.

before shots


To determine the dimensions for the bed around the maple you see in the foreground, she looked at it from the house to see how big it should be. After measuring the areas her plan would include, she drew out the shapes in pencil on 1/4" graph paper. Each square equals 1 foot - when she added the plants to her drawing, using this scale to helped her determine the spacing and number of plants needed to fill the space.


drawing shapes


Linda spent her winter researching plants, and there was a lot to consider. Heavy clay soil, roots from the maple tree, partial shade and baking sun in other areas presented challenges.  She wanted to start with shrubs, but as a novice gardener, wasn't sure what to choose.  While doing research on possible plants, she decided it would be easier to keep track of them on a spread sheet, listing cultural information and descriptions. When Linda finalized  the plants, she cut and pasted them into a separate list. She took it with her when shopping at garden centers and nurseries. Linda stuck to her guns and waited when specific varieties weren't available - "having the list really helped me to resist impulse buying", she reported.  Smart girl - I wish I had that much will power. She made a budget too - even smarter. As you can see below, her list is impressive. Even though all of the  plants she researched for these two beds weren't used this spring, she now has a list of others she can refer to later. 


Plant Ordered Notes March 2016 


Wayside March, 2016 Total= $294.20 (free shipping promotion)

3 Hakonechloa



Japanese forest grass

$14.95  3= $53.85

·  12” H

·  18” W

·  ornamental grass

·  variegated foliage

·   slow growth

·   weeping habitat

·   turns red in Fall

·   red blooms early Fall

Moist, well-drained

Part sh



1 Kalmia

  Latifolia ‘Pristine’

  Mountain laurel


·  3-4’ H & W

·  compact, evergreen

·  white blooms- late spring – mid summer

·  dark green foliage


All soils


Moist, well drained

Full S to part Sh



1Tricyrtis formosana ‘Gilt Edge’

Gilt Edge Toad Lily


·    20-24” T

·    30” W

·    large creamy-edged leaves stay fresh & clean

·    1” spotted pink blooms resembling orchids

·    blooms late Sum - Fall

·    needs room to colonize

·    mound-shaped

Moist, well drained soil


Normal, loamy soil

P - FSh



3 Sarcococca hookeriana var humilis

‘Sarsid1’ PP#19,942

Fragrant Valley Sweetbox

$17.95  3= $53.85

·    18” H

·    3’ W

·    deep green, evergreen, fragrant foliage

·    white blooms- late winter

·    dense habitat

·    makes good hedge

·   deer, rabbit & disease resistant

Dry, moist, well-drained


Good for dry shade

P Sh- Sh





3 Deutzia gracilis Crème Fraiche

$19.95  3= $59.85

·    1-2’ H & W

·    gently arching branches

·    medium green, deciduous, variegated foliage

·    little, bell-like, cream colored, blooms – late spring – early summer

·    mound –shaped

·    deer resistant


Moist, well-drained

FS – P Sh



1 Tiarella ‘Sugar and Spice’ PP#16,738



·    8” H

·    12” W

·    fast growing perennial – can be divided every few years

·    scalloped foliage – starts pale green, summer veins turn cinnamon brown, keep shine through fall

·    pink & white blooms on tall, brown stems – mid spring

·    blooms long-lasting with light fragrance

·    flowers attract butterflies

·    good with heat

·    resists pests


P Sh-Sh

Best morning sun or full shade



3 Gaultheria procumbens

   creeping wintergreen

$14.95   3= $44.85


·    6” H

·    3’ W

·    evergreen ground cover

·    burgundy, dark green foliage (fragrant & used in tea)

·    pink, bell-shaped flowers – late spring-late summer

·    scarlet, edible berries throughout winter

·    takes a year to establish before will spread

Acidic, moist soil

P Sh-Sh



1 Betula x plettkei Golden Treasure


·    2-4’ H & W

·    tiny foliage with serrated edges – bright yellow green – golden yellow – deep red – faded yellow

·    compact habitat, spherical shape

·    slow grower

·    adapts well to pruning

Moist, well-drained


Normal, loamy






Stage 1: In spring she hired a landscaper to strip off the sod and bring in soil and compost for the beds. They  were raised because the shallow rooted maple prohibited any deep digging. The area between the bed and the privet was mulched. Notice that there is wide path by the privet hedge for pruning access. 


soil prep


Stage 2: Linda felt most confident about planting under the pear tree, and began there.  She laid out the plants and slowly added more under the maple. It turned out that there wasn't as much shade there as she originally thought, so the plant list got a few tweaks.




Stage 3: Here's what the planting looked like right after it was put in. As you can see below, the space between the beds and the privet hedge isn't noticeable. She's still experimenting with plants around the maple. 


new planting


Stage 4: When Linda was finished she wanted a way to walk through her new garden. There was a mulched path, but she soon realized that it wasn't defined enough, "there was no contrast between the beds," she said.  Her son-in-law offered her some big pieces of bluestone that seemed perfect for the job. She laid it out, and her son and husband put the main pieces in,curving the walk to accentuate the shape of the beds. After planting all the shrubs she could afford, she socked in some annuals to fill the bare spots - a quick and inexpensive way to get immediate gratification when you have a new garden.




Heres what it looked like at the end of the summer - not bad for the first year!


after shot


This is the view from the house, and just the beginning of Linda's on-going plan to improve her property.  Next year she wants to explore more varieties of shrubs as she sees how big the newly planted ones get. More evergreens such as boxwood and conifers are on her wish list, but right now, she's waiting to see how buried they might get in the snow. Let the ideas flow!





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