Best Garden Design Advice

Gardener’s Corner | Questions and Answers with Local Experts

By Dan Songster, 2015 January

This column is a regular newsletter feature offering chapter members and local experts a chance to briefly share information on many things related to gardening with natives. Our question for this newsletter is: What is the best piece of garden design advice you have ever heard or read?”

Rami Nayeri:– “The best advice I received (and give) is that gardening is like a science lab. It takes experimentation to get the right formula that works for you.”

Laura Camp:– “Paraphrasing Mike Evans—gardening is about bringing nature in miniature closer to us.”

Nancy Harris:-“Best garden advice for me over the years is to layer plants by size, place like plants together (sun or shade, dry or wet, etc.) and mulch, mulch and more mulch!”

Peigi Duvall:– “Thomas D. Church’s advice is wonderful: ‘When your garden is finished, I hope it will be more beautiful than you anticipated require less care than you had expected, and have cost only a little more than you had planned.’”

Orchid Black:– “Right plant, right place! This means don’t plant a plant larger than the space even if you think you will prune it, or a sunny place in a shady area just because you love the idea of having that plant.”

Bob Allen:

In a talk to OCCNPS given by Greg Rubin, he mentioned that good design includes the use of multiple individuals of most plants.

“Using just one individual makes it look like a specimen in a botanical garden or hobbyist garden. Form a group of those individuals to make look like you did it on purpose. Short story: buy more than one of each plant!”

Susan Krzywicki:– “I think one of the early eye openers for me was to pay attention to what was or could have been in a spot successfully, before repeatedly planting a species that “should” go there. Meaning: take your cues from what works. If Mimulus flourishes in that spot, encourage it. I used to get frustrated trying to make a particular plant work in a specific spot—and now I’m much happier letting go of my own preconceived notions of what goes where.”

Charles Wright:– “From experience its best to buy 3 of the same plant and plant in 3 different places. One might thrive. And be sure and label each plant, date, where from, price, etc. That way you will know what didn’t make it and for what lives you will know what it is and the detail associated with it.”

Celia Kutcher:– “Analyze your site and how you will use it. Then choose plants that will fit so that you don’t create builtin maintenance problems.”

Barbara Eisenstein– “One-of-a-kind is not a good design strategy.”

Alan Lindsay:– “Greg Rubin’s talk at one of our OC CNPS meetings changed how I think about the use of natives in a residential setting. Now, I am not trying to emulate a plant’s natural setting; a formal garden with native California plants is permissible. My property doesn’t have to look like a National Forest.”

Dan Songster:-“There are so many good pieces of advice I have been given throughout the years, much of which I ignored in my younger days and had to learn the hard way! (Does everyone do that?) Advice like,

  1. giving the plants enough room to grow;
  2. grouping plants according to water needs;
  3. placing the right size, shape, and colored plant in the right spot;
  4. designing with birds, bugs, and butterflies in mind;
  5. using contrasting foliage colors;
  6. keeping water on site, etc.

Perhaps the best advice I have received is to visit (with camera and notepad) as many good gardens and talk to as many designers whose work you respect as possible. Take those ideas and then have fun designing and arranging the plants and hardscape in a way that you feel will really please you as everything grows into place.”


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