Occasionally I ask myself, “Why do I garden?” It takes work, can be expensive, things die. But to answer my question: “I feel alive in the beauty of my garden.” The garden, for me, is like living within an artist’s painting. As a career, my mediocre talent would have rendered me a fair but struggling artist. But in the garden, I get to create my artistic voice—a composition filled with shape, color, texture, and mood.
Gardening inspiration varies by gardener
Gardening holds a variety of interests for different people. Some are fascinated by unusual plant varieties; others are horticultural enthusiasts who seek scientific knowledge of plants; some approach gardening as a contribution to environmental health; others maintain a garden to improve the appearance of their home and play space. Mine happens to be simply an artistic experiment in visual appeal.
For the most part, I’m happy with the landscape I’ve created over the years—except this one, small, oblong, garden space near the driveway. I’ve tried so many different things: ornamental grasses, roses, daisies, ajuga, and marigolds. Who can’t grow marigolds? I’ve had the soil tested and know the dirt is really good. Moisture levels and drainage are fine. I’ve even tracked an entire year of sun and shade patterns. So, what’s wrong? The area is just dull, uninteresting, and unappealing. It needs to be replanted. And I’ve decided to tackle it like an artist preparing to paint a masterpiece.
Creating a plan
Many techniques for creating a good painting and a pleasing landscape are actually quite similar. Each requires thinking about composition, focal point, color choice, and movement or directional lines.
Artists will often begin by creating a rendering of the envisioned painting. Likewise, I started this replanting project by creating a plan. I measured the area (8 feet by 16 feet) and sketched a rough outline. I showed both the straight and curved edges of the oblong, and I highlighted the portion that receives full afternoon sun in summer. I noted the most important existing feature—a ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese maple tree—and the least attractive feature—a telephone utility box. Then I noted conifers in my neighbor’s yard that would become the background for my “painting”—Hinoki false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) and a large cedar tree. These elements defined the starting point of my composition.
Composition for a painting and for the landscape involves shapes, sizes, groups, and patterns. It involves how these masses are arranged relative to each other and how they direct the eye along curves, lines, or see-through spaces. Every composition needs a focal point and mine will be the Japanese maple. The tree is perfectly situated off-center in the oblong, its branching structure frames a distant azalea bed, and its burgundy-red leaves define my color palate. Everything else in the area will become supporting elements to this primary focal point.
The utility box needs camouflage. The area in front of the conifers needs to be softened and brightened. The sun-baked, curved edge at one end of the planting bed requires a different treatment than the shady area beneath the maple tree. And the viewer’s eye must travel the length of the planting bed, pausing at secondary points of interest, before arriving at the primary focal point. An artist can create these effects using objects of different shapes and sizes, color and light, and the angle or direction of brush strokes. My design challenge is similar. But instead of using paint and brush strokes, I must choose plants that create the visual effect I want and that tolerate the growing conditions of my space.
Selecting the elements of my living art
I decided on a grouping of Otto Luyken laurels and hydrangeas to transition from the conifer background to the planting bed, to introduce a different leaf texture, and to brighten the area with white and pink blossoms. The hydrangeas will grow to partially obscure the utility box, as will a grouping of penstemons, or beardtongue. The burgundy foliage of the penstemons replicates the color of the Japanese maple and helps the eye skip from the front of the bed to the focal point.
I heightened the interest under the maple tree by grouping hostas, heuchera, and Japanese forest grass. The white and lime-green leaves of the hostas and forest grass will brighten the shady area and contrast nicely with the burgundy heuchera foliage. A row of yellow-blooming coreopsis follows the curve of the lower edge of the bed and directs the eye toward the maple tree. The coreopsis is underplanted with Cerastium tomentosum ‘Snow in Summer’ for its white flowers and silvery, fine-textured foliage. A final nod to contrasting textures and repeating colors comes from a grouping of red and yellow day lilies. Their spiky leaves and tall flower stalks will shoot up between the hydrangeas and the coreopsis to offer another element of interest in the garden.
As I muse about my garden, I recognize that my enthusiasm comes from the artistic endeavor of design and that my joy comes from seeing the final composition. I garden to create spaces that convey a visual message—some quiet and tranquil, some exuberant and colorful, some invitations to explore, and some reflecting memories of people and places. My garden is my canvas—my contribution to art through nature.
Article written by Beth Leonard, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer.