Keys to a Beautiful Garden

Following some simple rules, you can create a stunning landscape.
Steve Bender

This garden is one of the prettiest classrooms you'll ever see. The lessons it teaches in good design can help almost every homeowner.

The story began when Ann and David Hicks bought the house next door to theirs in Jacksonville, Florida. Their home, which had at one time belonged to Ann's mother, was on a shady lot. But Ann and David liked the sunnier yard of the adjacent house for its gardening potential. After building a breezeway to join the two homes, they created a new guest parking area and redirected the old drive.

But they still needed to address other issues. For example, how could they create a feeling of welcome and sanctuary at the new entrance? Should the design be formal or informal? How could they get privacy from the street and enough open space for children to play? And what could they do to take advantage of the many hydrangeas in the yard that Ann's mother had tended for decades? For answers to these questions, they turned to Mary Palmer Dargan of Dargan Landscape Architects in Atlanta for the design and Jerry Crouch and Judy Drake of Sunscapes Landscape Designs in Jacksonville for the installation.

 

Let Architecture Set the Tone
The Colonial Revival style of their new combined home suggested a formal look for the garden. This treatment is evident from the moment you exit the left entrance. A pair of stone terraces linked by brick walks replaces the old driveway. The inner terrace, replete with roomy benches, feels serene and private. The outer terrace has an antique wishing well in its center, which serves as both a focal point and an ornate planter.

Why two terraces instead of one? The reason, explains Mary Palmer, is that the brick walk leading from the front entrance on the left to the lawn is fairly long. Breaking it up into segments makes the approach seem shorter and more inviting. Hugged by greenery on three sides, the terraces are like retreats within the garden.

Keep Things in Line
The wishing well, terraces, and walk are on axis with the front door (an invisible line running through the middle of each also runs through the center of the door). Putting landscape elements on axis is a hallmark of formal gardens and is often used to lead the eye to a focal point in the distance. In this case, the focus is the wishing well.

If you walk out to the wishing well, you'll discover another axis used in designing this garden. This line, called a "cross axis," is perpendicular to the first. It runs from the center of the garage, across the guest parking, down the center of a brick walk, through the wishing well, and finally to a garden house that sits behind the outer terrace. When viewed from the guest parking area, the wishing well and garden house become arresting focal points.

Stroll a few steps from the wishing well toward the street, and you'll soon arrive at the neck of a guitar-shaped lawn. Originally, the grass ran all the way to the street, putting the house in full view of passersby. New planting beds filled with trees, shrubs, and flowers now screen the home from traffic.

 

Create Curves
Notice the shape of the lawn; it's defined by broad, graceful curves. So even though there's plenty of room for kids to play, it doesn't look like a soccer field. Serpentine sweeps of low hedges, annuals, brick edging, and scores of glorious hydrangeas reinforce these curves and funnel you to the front walk. They also tie together the garden's various elements, creating a sense of unity.

Not everyone can buy the house next door for extra gardening space. But most people can use some of the principles employed here to better design their own gardens.

This Garden's Design

  • The style reflects the architecture of the home.
  • Terraces make the walk seem shorter and make spaces feel more intimate and serene.
  • Placing landscape elements on axis creates focal points and leads the eye.
  • Curved planting beds and edging give the lawn an attractive shape.

"Keys to a Beautiful Garden" is from the May 2004 issue of Southern Living.