Good Bones Make Great Gardens

What gives a garden year-round appeal? As these three distinct looks show, it's all about bold structures, contained spaces, and focal points
Article: Steve Bender

It doesn't matter whether you have a big yard or a small one, a little money or a bundle, or if you're working on your first garden or your 12th. As the following success stories demonstrate, paying homage to a few key points can make the difference between a garden you love and one you won't show the neighbors.

Build Structures First, and Then Plant Things 
Hardscape elements such as terraces and walls shape the garden and determine where you can plant. They function as the garden's bones, providing backdrops for plants. In winter, when many plants are leafless, you still have beauty. And remember—it's a lot easier to move a hosta than it is to move a fountain.

Go Formal 
This rule isn't set in stone but works well for most people. Geometric shapes, symmetry, and neatly defined and confined spaces are easier to understand than a garden filled with rambling curves and undirected views.

Frame Spaces with Evergreens 
Like man-made structures, they lend year-round form and color.

Add a Focal Point 
Usually placed in the garden's center or at the end of a walk, path, or vista, a focal point draws your eye and gives it a place to rest.

Keep the Planting Simple 
Settle on three to five main plants. Then sprinkle in flowering annuals, perennials, bulbs, shrubs, and trees as seasonal highlights and splashes of color. Reducing variety reduces maintenance.

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Designer: Norman Kent Johnson, Mountain Brook, AL; 205/960-8902

 

Formal Lawn
This elegant lawn and garden in Mountain Brook, Alabama, had already existed for a good while before Mary Catherine Crowe bought the house. But it lacked two essentials to make it a garden room. One was complete seclusion. "The garden was enclosed on two sides by brick walls and on one side by the house, but the front was empty," she recalls. She turned to Birmingham garden designer Norman Kent Johnson. "He came up with the idea of adding an arbor on that end to enclose the space like a formal room," she says.
The other item that was missing was an outdoor ceiling. To create that, she planted parallel rows of 'Natchez' crepe myrtles flanking the lawn. The trees now stand about 30 feet tall. "Unlike many people, we don't chop them back," she says. "We continue to limb them up. To me, the beauty of crepe myrtles is their trunks. They create a canopy—a roof—over the whole garden."
Cool colors make the garden a calming and soothing place to relax. A fountain and koi pond in the center add to the sense of serenity.

Three Key Plants 
Talk about simplifying the plant palette! This garden takes its shape from just three different plants—lawn grass, 'Natchez' crepe myrtles, and boxwoods.

Defining Focal Point 
This garden has three, all perfectly aligned—the arbor (pictured on page 69), the fountain, and the gate in the far wall.

Unexpected Splash of Color 
Green isn't just the color of money, you know. Here the bright green grass takes center stage when bordered by dark green boxwoods.

 

City Courtyard
Growing grass in their urban Richmond, Virginia, backyard was a no-go for Tina Bachas and Warren Fry. Shade from a huge Southern magnolia and a live oak made that impossible. Instead, they turned to what they knew would work—a shady courtyard garden based on historic examples Tina had visited around Charleston, South Carolina.

"I loved that lush look of putting in an understory of shrubs, trees, perennials, vines, and tropicals and trying to play up textures and shades of green," Tina explains. "My goal was to establish a living area as well as a retreat in the city." Garden designer Carrington Brown selected plants that thrive in shade. Most are confined to the periphery of an 18- × 19-foot patio. Movable decorative pots add flowers and foliage where needed. Maintenance is quick and easy.

Three Key Plants 
Sasanqua camellias espaliered on brick create leafy, deep green walls and need little space. Evergreen ferns (such as autumn, tassel, and holly fern) lend year-round color to beds. English ivy trained in a diamond pattern under the carriage house stairs adds detail to a formerly bare wall.

Defining Focal Point 
A trio of urns against a wall, two planted with impatiens and one with tricolor ginger, immediately catches your eye.

Unexpected Splash of Color 
A gray urn planted with pink-and-green caladiums peers out from under the carriage house stairs (a smart use of a tight planting space). A simple planting of ferns below helps show off the colorful caladiums.

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Designer: Carrington Brown, Manakin-Sabot, VA; carrington12@comcast.net or 804/784-6146

 

Side Terrace
You can't really see the side yard from the back at Gage and Mark LeQuire's home in Montgomery, Alabama. But you can from the house's sunroom and dining porch, and the views from there weren't pretty. They asked garden designer James Farmer to create a hidden side garden for them to relax, entertain, or enjoy a glass of wine.

"We wanted something we could use year-round that was low maintenance," says Gage. "I also asked for a water feature and flowers that I could cut."

James designed a rectangular garden bordered by walls with a circular bluestone terrace at its heart. Stone pavers set on the diagonal and separated by seams of dwarf mondo grass create a striking pattern, making the garden seem larger and lusher. Boxwoods, camellias, Japanese hollies, and rosemary anchor the side beds. 'Nikko Blue,' 'Annabelle,' and 'Limelight' hydrangeas supply cut flowers.

Three Key Plants 
Boxwoods and camellias give year-round structure, while hydrangeas offer beautiful blooms.

Defining Focal Point 
An Italian urn fountain sits at the very center of the terrace, surrounded by a disk of dark stones ringed by dwarf mondo grass.

Unexpected Splash of Color 
White-and-green caladiums and impatiens keep the garden looking cool on hot Alabama afternoons. But white isn't the only color keeping it cool. The green foliage of boxwoods, rosemary, hydrangeas, mondo grass, and ferns also adds to its serenity. Finally, the gray of the bluestone pavers brings it all together, creating this garden retreat.

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Designer: James Farmer, Kathleen, GA; jamesfarmer.com