by John Thesing
When designing your garden pay close attention to leaf shape and color. Look at the growth habit of your trees and shrubs. One example: a vase shaped tree compliments a weeping tree nicely. When picking out a weeping tree pay attention to the grafted height and how it will pair up with the companion trees and plantings. In some cases, a lower graft is preferred when planted in the foreground, whereas a higher graft may work best in the background.
Be sure to have a balance of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs. Consider the idea of a four season garden. Add yellows and blues which, I feel, compliment the burgundy leaves of some Japanese maples. Boxwoods and some varieties of Chamaecyparis obtusa make easy to use foundation plantings. They do well in sun or shade. They soften structures and make nice backdrops, enhancing other plantings.
Place larger specimens first to make sure they are in balance. By doing this you will lay the foundation or "bones" of your garden. The supporting plants will be easier to place once the larger ones have been planted. Place smaller "fillers", like ground covers, ferns, dwarf hostas, very dwarf evergreens, and grasses last.
Do not put everything front and center or in strait lines. When everything can be seen all at once it's boring and lacks interest and depth. I like when someone sits down on my patio and starts noticing things that they did not see as they walked by. Or when someone who visits the garden regularly, notices something they never noticed before even though it's been there all along. It adds interest and depth, inspiring meditation and peace. When building your garden let nature be your guide.
In addition to depth, you need movement. Movement is a great way of adding interest and a sense of peace in your garden. This can be achieved in several ways - adding curves, creating changes in elevation by building up your beds at varying heights, and creating gentle movements through a variety of plantings. Everything should have a smooth and gentle flow. A vase shaped upright will be complimented by a weeping variety. Lower mounding plants will complement weeping varieties and a ground cover will complement mounding varieties. Keeping contrasting color and texture in mind will also keep everything interesting.
Using large interesting rocks and mounding plants will add a natural feeling. Rocks can cost as much or more than a shrub. But, keep in mind, they last forever, don't need water, require no maintenance and they work in any lighting. When placing the rock, find its best side and the soil line should be at the widest point, giving the rock a natural appearance. Do not set it on the surface or burry it too deeply.
Consider adding a water feature. This will help create a peaceful feeling. Waterfalls and ponds are really interesting, but they are high maintenance. A reflecting pool in the back corner of your garden can offer a good alternative. I have a rock fountain with water cascading down into a reservoir. My maintenance requirement is adding water. The moss growing on the rock offers a natural appearance. By doing your homework and being creative you can bring a whole other dimension to your outdoor space.
If less maintenance is required than having a water feature, you can create a symbolic river by using flat stones overlapping each other to give the feeling of movement and rapids. Another idea is to use small stones, raking them to create movement and the look of flowing water.
I encourage you to utilize your local library and explore the abundance of gardening books, namely books on Japanese gardens. To most novice gardeners this may seem daunting since Japanese gardens tend to be very structured, having many rules and principals. Do not automatically envision pines or mound-shaped shrubs or stone gardens as those are just a few common examples of what is actually a very diverse garden style. Gardening, inspired by nature, is what it's all about and finding the style that best speaks to you. If you read a book on the principals of Japanese gardens, it may leave you confused and intimidated, as if it's unattainable, which is the case for most of us when landscaping in our own yard. I am, however, recommending getting books with a lot of pictures, allowing the pictures to inspire you. Do not find one picture that you like and try to re-create that particular garden. Instead, let several pictures and gardens influence you in your design ideas. If you find a specific garden style that speaks to you then explore a book that is devoted to that style and discusses the principals involved.
When laying out your garden keep in mind all the common view points, from your deck, patio, and the windows from inside your house. Also, consider commonly traveled spaces like sidewalks, pathways, etc. Observe your garden from different viewpoints so that you can get different perspectives. Otherwise, you may end up with a planting bed that looks good from one spot, but may look unbalanced from several others.
Recommended books: "Garden Views" series by Tatsui Teien Kenkyujo (4 books in the series, specifically Garden Views IV Tree & Moss Gardens); "Masterpieces of Japanese Garden Art" by Kyoyo Shoin Co.; "Houses and Gardens of Kyoto" by Akihiko Seki and Thomas Daniell.
My garden was featured by Gardendesign.com and, over the course of six years; I have been working with my wife to create a space where we can unwind from the hustle and bustle from the outside world. Please refer to my Flikr page for ideas. http://www.flickr.com/photos/japanesemaplegarden/sets/
Gardendesign feature story: http://www.gardendesign.com/places/my-garden-maple-garden-in-ohio
I live in Northeast Ohio where gardeners are blessed to have a few nurseries that offer rare and unusual trees and conifers. Maplestone Ornamentals is one such nursery. Thanks to Micah Norcom, I have been able to obtain a wonderful plant collection.