Nebraska Horticulture: Designer Landscape Tips

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by Sarah Browning,
Lancaster County Extension Educator

Create Your Own Designer Landscape
Many gardeners wonder how to get a professionally designed look in their landscape without hiring a professional? Creating your own designer landscape really isn’t hard if you keep a few key points in mind.

Less Is More
Gardeners love plants so much they often become “plant collectors”. It’s easy to spot the gardens of a plant collector because they are made up of “one of this and one of that”. This type of garden is interesting if you’re a plant curator, but lacks visual appeal and has a muddled look. There’s too many things to look at, so nothing stands out. The viewer’s eye can’t find anything to rest on and appreciate.

It’s a lot like when you’ve dressed for a night out, and looking in the mirror you know there’s too much going on. You have the sense to take off the scarf, or the earrings or the necklace or the hat – whatever it takes to simplify the look. It’s the same with a garden filled with plants.

Stand in front of the area you’re planning to give a design face-lift and count the number of different types of plants. When you reach ‘three’ stop. Seriously. Good garden designers limit the number of plants they combine. If you want to create a really great looking landscape, select your three favorites – or up to five if you must.
Subdivide Landscape Beds

Am I seriously suggesting you plant your entire landscape with three plants? No. The next step is to divide your landscape beds into sections or areas that make sense and plant those areas with your new limited palate of plants. Just don’t make the areas too small, each should be no smaller than about 6’ x 6’, or you’ll fall back into the muddled, overplanted look.

For example, a long foundation bed with a wider rounded area at the corner of the house could be divided into two sections – the long narrow area along the foundation and the wider area at the corner of the house. A raised bed or berm would be another area.

Other areas are determined by their shape, location, sun exposure, etc. A landscape bed straddling a sunny and shady area of your landscape could be divided into two sections, one for the sunny area and one for the shade, each with its own plant palette. But if the area is small, you’re better off planting the entire bed with plants that grow well under both types of sun exposure.

Create Masses
The next professional designer trick is to use large masses or groupings of your favorite plants to create a higher visual impact. Many beginning gardeners design with single plants – one mum, one daylily, one coneflower – because they’re not sure how else to begin. This is often the root cause of the muddled plant-collector effect.

Instead, be odd, or at least start thinking in odd numbers. Groups of 3, 5, 7 or more are a great way to create masses, which will give you the visual impact of professionally designed gardens. Place the plants together in your garden area, using the recommended plant spacing on the label, but with no other plants mixed between. As they grow and enlarge they will create a block of plants with the same flowers, leaf shapes, textures or scent. These masses are the building blocks of visual appeal in your garden.

You might have a group of short plants in the front of your garden bed, a group of medium height plants in the center and a group of tall plants in the back. Or if you’re working with a berm, then use groupings of short plants along the edges, graduating up to the tallest plants in the middle of the berm.
Get Started

Let’s assume you’ve identified three to five plants you want to keep in a garden bed. Pull out and relocate (or give away) everything else, then fill the gaps with more of the chosen three plants to create groupings.

Or, if you are prepared for a bit more disruption and effort, then remove everything from the garden. Keep the plants you’ll be reusing alive by putting them in pots or temporarily tucked into an empty garden spot. Buy more of the chosen plants so that you’ll have enough to fill the bed when it’s replanted, then put it all back together again, but this time arrange them in massed blocks.

That’s it. Easily done, with a few dollars, plus a little time and sweat – but if you’re nervous, test-drive this approach somewhere small and less conspicuous first. Odds are you’ll be using these tips throughout your landscape because they work and the results are so rewarding.

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