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Haphazard garden planner tries 5 landscape design principles

“There must be a floor plan before a house can be built, a good dress requires a pattern and a good meal means recipes and menu planning. We provide for all of these as necessities, but when it comes to a garden plan we are very apt to think that all charm will be lost unless the garden is allowed to grow haphazardly.” — in Valencia Libby’s “The Northwest Gardens of Lord & Schryver,” 2021

As landscape architects, Elizabeth Lord and Edith Schryver firmly believed all gardens should be planned, from the smallest residential plot in the city to public parks spanning hundreds of acres. Valencia Libby’s book, “The Northwest Gardens of Lord & Schryver,” is filled with garden plans drawn by one or the other of the partners for landscaping projects they completed from 1929 until 1965.

The beginning quote is from the first of nine articles that Lord and Schryver wrote for Portland’s Sunday Oregonian newspaper in 1932. The articles were geared toward the general public and focused on garden design for an average-sized city lot. In their inaugural piece, Lord and Schryver laid out five basic principles of garden planning: order, balance, composition, utility and beauty.

While reading the book, I was struck by all the carefully drawn plans because I am one of those home gardeners who tend to plant things here and there and allow the overall garden scheme to evolve over time. Lord and Schryver would certainly call my process haphazard — and they would not be wrong.

I would like to learn to be more strategic about my garden layouts, and a good way to start is by applying the five principles of garden planning that Lord and Schryver described to a woodland garden I’m creating in Bandon.

The woodland garden is a triangular-shaped section of the property with an area of approximately 3,000 square feet. Currently, it consists of native plants that are common in mixed conifer/broadleaf evergreen forests in this part of Coos County: Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and Port Orford cedars (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) with an understory of evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), Pacific rhododendron (R. macrophyllum), Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum) and salal (Gaultheria shallon).

My landscaping goal is to add other native and complementary nonnative plants to this extant plant community to create a woodland garden where I can stroll along a path through the trees and understory plantings. I’ve already made raised island beds around the conifers where I want to plant a mixture of flowering shrubs, herbaceous perennials and different fern species that will go with the sword ferns.

With this general picture in mind, how might I apply the five, interrelated landscape design principles to achieve my goal and create a visually attractive and enjoyable woodland garden?

Order

Bringing order to the woodland garden began by clearing out all the huckleberry bushes that had taken over the interior space. I left some of the huckleberry bushes on the edge of the woodland because there they will get enough sunshine to flower and set fruit.

In terms of design, order can be accomplished by grouping plants (or other garden features) around a focal point. In my woodland garden, the conifer trees are the central feature of each island bed, so I will create order by planting around them and replicating the grouped plantings in different areas of the garden.

Balance

Order and balance go hand in hand. Balance in landscaping design is a sense of spatial equality. Symmetrical balance is achieved when two sides of the landscape are the same, whereas asymmetrical balance uses different plantings or other garden features to provide equivalence.

One of the ways I can create a symmetrical balance in my woodland garden is to have similar plantings visible from the pathway at both ends and in the middle of the garden. Another way is to have both ends of the garden lead into new spaces — at one end the garden leads into the pasture, and at the other end the garden leads into the orchard.

Composition

There are several rules of composition when it comes to landscaping design, but one that is particularly salient for my woodland garden is the concept of figure and ground, also referred to as positive and negative spaces. In my woodland garden, the conifers and planted island beds are the figures, or positive spaces, whereas the meandering pathway and open spaces between the trees are the ground, or negative spaces.

Creating a balance between figure and ground in my woodland garden can be accomplished by making the pathway a prominent part of the landscape and by leaving ample open spaces through the trees to look beyond the garden. These negative spaces will offset and balance the understory plantings, the positive spaces, which are intended to attract attention within the garden.

Figure and ground can be offset by color, shape (two-dimensional), form (three-dimensional) or texture. In view of this principle, the pathway counterbalances the green foliage with its surface layer of fallen brown pine needles and its curving lines. The upright form of the conifer trees provides a counterbalance to the horizontal and rounded forms of the shrubs and herbaceous perennials.

Utility

The design of a garden space must center on how the garden will be used. If the primary purpose of my woodland garden is to invite appreciation of the landscape, then I want a clear path (no exposed roots, no holes to fall into) that winds around the various island plantings and encourages exploration. I want a collection of plants that inspires visitors to linger for a closer look.

Beauty

Of course, I want my woodland garden to be beautiful, but what, exactly, do I mean by that? My woodland garden will have healthy plants that are part of, or compatible with, the native plant community. It will draw year-round interest with various flowering plants that bloom at different times of the year, as well as evergreen and deciduous foliage with a combination of colors, shapes and textures.

To me, a beautiful woodland garden is one that supports wildlife, so I want to include plants that provide food and/or shelter for birds, bees and butterflies. Beauty, to me, also includes personalized elements — Lord and Schryver called it creating “individual charm” — such as adding a pretty bench by the path or building bat houses for the little brown myotises that I enjoy watching as they hunt for insects in the summer twilight.

Throughout their long career as landscape architects, Lord and Schryver made an effort to educate home gardeners on the basics of landscape design. I’m not quite ready to say I’ll never plant anything haphazardly again, but I did enjoy using the five design principles to help with planning my woodland garden. The project seems a little less daunting for having done so.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. For more on gardening topics, see literarygardener.com or email Rhonda at Rnowak39@gmail.com.