Basic principles help guide good garden design

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Landscape design is an art unlike any other, as it is an ever-changing canvas that is both a functional space and an expression of artistic design. We must consider the ecology and environment as well as more utilitarian aspects such as budget and traffic patterns. Most importantly, the gardens we create provide an inspirational reprieve from the artificial environments where we live and work. 

A fundamental principle used by all disciplines of design is “form follows function.” This simply means that good design is driven by the function of the space. A perfect example of the disregard for this concept is a path that goes nowhere.  

To avoid this kind of mistake, you must first take inventory of the space. What plants and features (patios, walkways, turf areas) exist and are in good shape? Second, assess the function of the space as it is currently: Do the current pathways adequately address the traffic patterns? What is the goal of the project (space to entertain, BBQ area, cutting garden, etc.)? What needs are not being met? 

With project goals in mind, you can begin to identify where the trees and shrubs are needed. Screening views, the need for shade and accent or showcase plants will largely determine where you place trees and shrubs. Be sure to consider the location of existing electrical wires and nearby structures. When estimating spacing, take into consideration the mature size of the plant (or at least two-thirds mature size) and plan accordingly. Once you decide placement of the trees and shrubs, visualize the bed lines and fill in spaces with colorful perennials and annuals.  

Choosing the right plants is critical in the success of your garden. You may want to plant a tree but what type of tree will do best? Understanding the growing conditions (full sun, shade, dry soil, direction the bed faces, etc.). You don’t want to use plants with thorns or prickly leaves next to the children’s play area. 

A useful resource for plants that thrive in our region is the Plant Select program. Plant Select is a program through Colorado State University and Denver Botanic Gardens in collaboration with the Colorado green industry to identify tough plants that thrive in our region. The website (https://plantselect.org) has many wonderful plants with descriptions and growing needs, all of which are relatively easy to grow and tough enough to withstand the Colorado weather. Do thorough research and visit Denver Botanic Gardens to identify the plants you like best and note the growing conditions (sun, shade, etc.).  

Trees and shrubs provide the backbone of the garden in winter so be sure to include them in your design. There are many with colorful stems and beautiful bark that add winter interest. Grasses can provide excellent movement and structure in the winter landscape. Some perennials have fall color or seed heads that persist in winter and can be left up in the winter. When possible, wait to cut back perennials until spring. Be aware that winter can take a toll on grasses and seed heads, therefore you may prefer to cut back after a heavy snow.  

Use repeating elements in the design to create cohesion and unity.

For example, if you love chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata), use it more than once in your design. Planting in groupings is typically more visually impactful than using single plants. Avoid contrived elements such as plantings in a ring around a tree or water features with stones arranged around the edge to cover up lining, which appears as anything but natural. Using an informal arrangement allows for mistakes to be less obvious and curved beds can create interest.  

Garden design can be a process of trial and error. Take the time to think through your design but don’t be afraid to try things out and see what happens. The more you plant, the more you learn and grow! 

Annie Barrow is manager of Horticulture Outreach Programs at Denver Botanic Gardens. She can be reached at horticulture@denverbotanicgardens.org.

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