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Planning or Designing a Garden - Is there any Difference?

Diana Snape

Planning and designing are words with very similar meanings and we can define them or interpret them as we choose. So this is just my interpretation .....

I think all we gardeners do a lot of planning for our gardens, involving many practical aspects. We plan the garden to serve the needs we have in mind for it, now or in the future. We plan entrances, paths, outside eating areas, utility areas, possibly a pool (little, big - or both). We put in plants to screen fences or other structures we want to hide. If we plant a tree, we usually place it carefully thinking of future height and shade. We plan the size and shape of garden beds. We Australian plant growers know to build up beds to improve drainage. We often improve soil too by digging in organic material, plus some gypsum if it's a clay soil.

We try to group together plants with similar water requirements, especially when water is increasingly scarce. We know where north, south, east and west are from our block (lots of people don't!) and consider whether a plant likes sun or shade. Some grow best sheltered from any wind, others like free air movement. A basic criterion is how big a plant is supposed to grow. If small, or a particular favourite, it probably goes in the front of a garden bed rather than the back.

With the actual selection of plants and their placement in the garden, there are two different approaches. Which usually comes first? Is it buying a plant (and then finding a suitable position for it)? Or having a vacant position (and then deciding what type of plant - or what particular plant - we want for that spot)? I guess over the years of a garden it's often a mixture of the two. We all want each plant in our garden to be healthy in its position, to grow well and look beautiful. But is that the end of the story?

Jacob garden, Victoria
Jacob garden, Victoria
Jacob garden, Victoria
Photos: Pam Renouf

For me, designing a garden involves all that practical planning but then goes a little further. We try to integrate 'hard' and 'soft' landscape and also combine plants is such a way that the garden as a whole looks beautiful. It's a complex business! Ultimately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so there are no fixed rules. However there are concepts we can use as a guide and ways that we can develop our sense of design. After all, it's important we are happy with our own gardens.

A key concept is that of symmetry or balance. A formal garden may be highly symmetrical, with one side a mirror image of the other, and this has its own simple and obvious (but static) beauty. It does not change over time. A naturalistic garden (influenced by Nature's gardens) will be asymmetrical but can still have 'balance' and a beauty that is more variable, more complicated and, I think, ultimately more rewarding. Each area of a garden has a balance of substance (or 'mass') of plant material and space (or 'void'), as does a garden as a whole. We can judge for ourselves what 'looks good' - or doesn't; if a lot of people agree it looks good, it probably does! The concept of 'balance' in a garden is a tricky thing. A tree and some grass clumps on one side of a path can 'balance' a group of shrubs on the other - but not necessarily any old group of shrubs. We have to learn to look.

We always do look at the plants themselves but it's easy not to see their setting and the spaces between them. A tree (or a tall, arching shrub) encloses space, gathers it into the garden, so a tree extends a garden upwards. Large shrubs give a feeling of shelter and protection but they do occupy a lot of space. In contrast a combination of groundcovers and low plants gives a very open feeling, makes the garden feel spacious. However, without some height a garden seems low and constrained. In a small garden, a small tree with a single trunk may be the solution. Plants of different shapes and sizes add interest, relating to each other in different ways. A path is a useful element, as it carries the space above it through the garden. Most gardens have a combination of these different elements.

Another important aspect of design is proportion or scale. This can include the height of a tree in comparison to that of a house, or the width of a shrub in relation to that of a path. Have you ever planted a groundcover next to a rock and then seen the rock gradually disappear? Is the area of that garden bed the right size with respect to the adjacent lawn or open area? Does that little plant look lost in the big bed - should it have the company of some more little friends? Or does the large shrub dwarf that small garden? Again this may just be a matter of taste but there is often general agreement about the answers to such questions.

Can we design attractive vistas through the garden, or attractive views from each window of the house? Sometimes they just happen but it's much more likely if we try to make it happen. It is often difficult to take good photos of a garden and, if you can, it usually means there are nice vistas. Garden writers sometimes refer to 'rooms' in a garden, areas which are well screened and designed to feel separate and different from other areas. Do we want such 'rooms', with a surprise as we round each corner, or just partial screens with a more integrated feel to the garden as a whole? Or some of each? Or perhaps no screens, with all the garden seen at a glance?

Then of course there are the Australian plants themselves. This is where the challenge really starts for the Garden Design Study Group. For hundreds of years, garden design using the plants of the northern hemisphere has been studied and written about. Their plants are very different from ours; the soil conditions, climates and seasons are very different. The natural environment that shapes our perceptions is worlds away from theirs and our gardens reflect that. We may have a mental image of how our garden should look and our choice of plants will fit in with this image. Horticulture using Australian plants is still young and we are still have so much to learn about them. New forms - cultivars and hybrids - are being produced all the time.

Larkin garden, Victoria
Larkin garden, Victoria
Photo: Pam Renouf

Think of the immense variety of the forms of Australian plants! Shrubs vary from solid blobs (of all sizes) to filmy, ethereal shapes; from tall, elegant structures (some grevilleas, Callitris) to low, arching forms (Thryptomene or Micromyrtus). Trees can have a single trunk, a pair, or a number, like a mallee. Eucalypts in particular have a variety of irregular forms. Branches can be upright, horizontal or droopy. For a 'tuftie' in the garden we can plant a Poa or Themeda with soft foliage or a bold, strap-leaved Dianella or Orthrosanthus multiflorus (Morning Flag). Groundcovers can be as flat as a pancake - like Pultenaea pedunculata (mat bushpea) - or vary in height from ten centimetres (Chrysocephalum apiculatum) to half a metre (fern-leaf banksia, B.blechnifolia) or more. The variety of forms is endlessly amazing and combining them to complement each other is a real design challenge.

Each plant has its own type of foliage - just picture the range of leaf sizes, shapes and colours. Some look wonderful together, some (such as soft, broad green leaves and fine, prickly grey ones) don't. With horticulture, the range continues to expand, especially for foliage colour. Fortunately, if we group plants according to their natural growing conditions, for example arid area plants, their foliage will be appropriate for those conditions and will generally look good together too. We might choose to group plants with leaves that blend together or else contrast markedly, for a special effect. Possible combinations will be infinite in number.

And then, in season, there are flowers with their colour ..... the icing on the cake? Some gardeners focus on the beauty of these alone and you can do this if you just plan a garden. Designing takes into account the whole plant and the whole garden; it aims at beauty for the whole year.

From 'Growing Australian', the newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (Victoria), December 2006. Diana is the leader of the Garden Design Study Group.

For additional native garden photographs, see the Garden Design Study Group Website.

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