Common sense + aesthetic sense = a better design
In case you are just joining in: About two-and-a-half years ago our family moved from our long-time rural home to a different 19th-century farm house about twenty-five minutes from our previous one. I have been renovating the landscape around the house in a non-systematic frenzy and writing about it as time permits. (Previous posts are archived in the New House, New Gardens category.) Today I am sharing my thought processes about a relatively uncomplicated area of the yard. Disclaimer: I am not trained as a garden designer of any type or stripe. I am just an amateur passionate gardener who has read a lot of garden design books and mulled over what they have to say. What I am sharing here is my own personal approach which should not be construed as expert advice, rather more like a conversation with a fellow gardener.
The Parking Pad Bed
Our driveway slopes up from the garage to our country road. Under certain wintry conditions getting up that slope can be problematic.
I think that is why the previous owners of our house built a parking pad at the top of the slope, adjacent to the road. You may have to brush newly-fallen snow off your car, but you are more likely to get out of the driveway from that level spot. Viewed from the road, the parking pad is bordered by a row of pine trees on the left
and the driveway proper on the right. A stone retaining wall with a planting area separates it from the carriage barn below. It is this planting area that I have dubbed the Parking Pad Bed.
As I have been examining the various areas of our property and considering what changes I want to make in terms of design and planting, there are several questions I ask myself:
- What is the function of this area? Or, how do I want it to function?
- Who uses this area?
- Who sees it?
- From where do they see it?
- What does this area need to improve its function and looks?
What is the function of this area?
When you’re designing the yard around a house that has several family members living together, I think it’s very important to start with the function of the area you’re trying to improve. How is it currently used by the various members of the family? There is no sense planting Mom’s Favorite Roses around the sandbox where the children play–unless Mom sits on a bench close by while they are there. I always want to design an area to work with the way it’s already being used. And if I’m envisioning a new function for an area, I try to set up a dry run (stamping a path in the snow to stand in for an envisioned front walk, for example) to make sure I’ve got it right.
I’ve already mentioned the function of this area: a place to park cars. Three cars can fit in this area. Two cars are parked here on a regular basis. However, when we get logs delivered for firewood, they are off-loaded in the area by the pine trees. This is the only area where it practical to take delivery. For about a month in the spring this becomes the woodcutting area while the logs are chainsawed into sections.
That is the only other function of this area, and it’s a temporary one–but it still should be kept in mind.
Who uses this area?
That is another question that’s easy to answer. The people who use this area are the car drivers and passengers, entering and exiting their vehicles. On a seasonal and temporary basis, the chain saw operator and his helper are in this area.
Who views this area? And from where?
Obviously the people who use the area also view it. But the car passengers are not in the area very long and typically aren’t interested in lingering and the wood cutters have other things on their minds. However, there is a third group of viewers. When no cars are parked here, this bed is visible from the road. The car passengers can see this bed up close if they so desire; those driving along the road will only see it from a distance and very briefly–unless they stop dead in their tracks to take a better look (which I would consider a high compliment).
What does this space need to improve its function and looks?
There is not anything to be done to improve its function, except maybe put another load of gravel down. The point in this case is to be aware of its function so I don’t do something that screws it up. (Ah, this nice level spot would be the perfect place for a freestanding gazebo and a dining set! Uh, no.)
To improve the view for the passengers, I have planted small things that merit close inspection right at the edge of the stone wall. ‘Lilac Wonder’ colchicum has a reputation for floppiness and it now drapes itself over the stone wall.
Double snowdrops are easier to view when planted a couple of feet off the ground.
Likewise many downward facing hellebores are easier to enjoy from a more elevated vantage point.
Let’s face it, people intending to get in a car are focused on where they’re going to go. People getting out of a car are usually focused on going into the house and attending to the next thing on their schedule. Maybe if it is an especially nice day they will linger and take a look at the small treasures I have planted. But honestly, these little plants are mostly planted for me.
Planting for the Passers-by
For those driving or walking by, plants with a good deal of mass–such as shrubs–are called for, as well as bright, vivid color. This is what is most easily taken in from a distance, especially while moving. This bed was already planted with shrubs and perennials when we moved here.
The shrubs were a nice size, but I didn’t like the mix of colors. The white- and pink-blooming rhododendrons were relocated to the front of the house. In their place, I planted two Double Take™ ‘Orange Storm’ Chaenomeles speciosa
for early spring bloom, and behind them two Sonic Bloom™ Red Weigela florida ‘Verweil4’
for bright color in later spring and throughout the growing season. (They are supposedly reblooming.)
I moved this spirea
to the slope garden so I could replace it with Double Play® Big Bang Spiraea ‘Tracy’which has spectacular spring growth. I received all of these shrubs as trial plants from Proven Winners. They are quite small when they arrive, and they didn’t look like much after being planted in the parking pad bed, so I used promotional photos supplied by Proven Winners. (Just wait a couple years, though!)
I kept this unknown variety of summersweet because it has good fall color.
Perennials with Bright Blooms or Foliage
There were already some brightly colored perennials planted in this stone-walled raised bed, most notably the butterfly weed pictured above with the spirea. I moved some sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa)from the slope garden to give some early summer color.I also planted some tiger lilies as well as Lilium henryii. I also planted several orange-flowered daylilies and a ‘Short ‘n’ Sassy’ helenium that was a trial plant from Skagit Gardens.
The one thing I planted that I now regret is the ‘Distant Planet’ crocosmia I had transplanted from my old house. This crocosmia is reputed to be the hardiest variety of its type. It did not come back in spring 2013, after being planted the fall before. I belatedly realized that much of the snow removed from the parking pad gets piled on top of the parking pad bed.Consequently it is one of the last places to be finally rid of snow and is subject to more snow melt for a longer period than any other garden area. The crocosmia bulbs just rotted from excess moisture. In a climate where snow is expected for most of the winter, where that snow is piled up should be a factor you consider as you design or redesign an area.
Many of us are not going to be able to afford professional advice as we turn our yard into a garden, but we can all apply a little common sense as well as our own aesthetic sense to the area surrounding the house. The parking pad bed was already well on its way to achieving my goal of sending an unambiguous color signal to all who view it, and if I hadn’t had the brightly colored plants on hand to make changes, I would have waited until I did. Creating a garden is never an instant production, but a slow melding of the plants’ suitability to the site and the gardener’s evolving taste, skill, and ambition.