Surviving the Winter: Basic Garden Design 3

Too many times I find myself wandering around my yard, holding a new plant in its pot, wondering where I can squeeze it into my landscape. While those impulse buys are a lot of fun, that’s probably not the best way to go about adding plants to a garden. It’s best to consider the size, shape, and color of a plant first, before trying to determine what exact species is best.

Consider how nature positions plants. In any forested area, trees form the highest canopy. They reach up to capture the full brunt of the sun pouring down on them, and provide shade in varying degrees to the plants underneath.

In the shelter of the tallest trees grow understory plants. Usually large shrubs or small, multi-stemmed trees, these plants form a middle layer of the forest.

artemisia-sp-plant3At ground level, smaller shrublets, perennials, annuals, and ground covers arrange themselves in descending height at the edges of a clearing, where they can take advantage of the penetrating sunshine. An open meadow may be filled with grasses or wildflowers.

Your yard can mimic this natural arrangement, even if your tastes run toward formal borders and well-defined edges. A general rule of thumb places taller plants in back and shorter ones near the path or lawn.

If you already have mature trees on your property, take advantage of the shade they offer. Structures such as pergolas and screens may provide immediate shelter while new trees mature. While it’s hard to imagine in winter,  patios and benches are best situated where they’ll receive shade during the hottest summer days.

After the trees, I work from large to small. Where do I want large shrubs or hedges? How about perennial gardens and flower beds? Should this area be mulched or planted with ground cover?

Bear in mind the mature size of the plant. A sapling looks fine situated right next to the house, but what about a 40-foot tree? Will those shrubs grow up and obscure your windows, requiring constant pruning?

Some parts of the garden will demand full sun. Growing tasty vegetables requires at least eight hours of sun a day, and lawns do best in bright light as well.  If you have your heart set on a rose garden, it will need both full sun and good air circulation to reduce disease problems.

Giant Sage has striking gray foliage.
Giant Sage has striking gray foliage.

Even considering the limited selection of plants suited to Colorado’s challenging climate, we have plenty of variety of shapes and sizes from which to choose. Plants may be vertical or horizontal, round or spiky. Leaves may be delicate or bold, narrow or wide, and they come in colors besides green—how about gray or red, or a pattern of more than one hue? Even green comes in many shades.

Then there are flowers—do you want the excitement of flowers with warm hues such as vibrant yellow and orange? Or would you prefer a tranquil palette of pastel pink, blue and purple? Should the colors harmonize or contrast? Designers usually recommend avoiding the “riot of color” depicted in so many garden catalogs. A flower garden that includes every hue assaults the senses, but if that is what you are looking for, go for it! I promise that the garden police won’t come and haul you away.

Notice that I haven’t yet mentioned any specific plants. While we all want to rush to the garden center and buy whatever strikes our fancy, that’s actually the last step in creating a viable landscape. Don’t worry, I’ll get around to recommending lots of plants that are perfectly suited for Colorado gardens. In the meantime, don’t let winter get you down. There’s plenty of gardening to do. And when else do you get to garden from your easy chair?

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