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Oh, my aching muscles...


By Glenn Withey

Most of us inherit a garden when we move, or at least the semblance of a garden. I would imagine that if you’ve gone to the effort to pick up this magazine and are reading it, then you most likely want a garden that reflects your own wants, needs and desires.

How does one go about this? In our design business, my partner and I utilize some basic ideas.


As we become more densely urbanized, the need for privacy can be quite important. Unless one’s an exhibitionist, it’s generally nice not having to see the neighbors all the time. Columnar trees and shrubs work best as screening plants in settings where space is at a premium. Remember, the suggested growing size on plant tags is for the entire continental US. Add at least 50% for both height and width, as our climate is benign and accommodating.

Don’t plant a cultivar that will end up losing most of its lower foliage. Research is always important before purchasing, but even that can lead you astray, as it has us on occasion. Garden tours are an excellent way to discover what works and what doesn’t.

Structures, whether a fence or arbor, can aid in creating privacy. One needs to spend money so it lasts for the long term. Warped, crooked, and out of plumb are not attributes you want in your structure. Our climate is perfect for rot, so treated wood is preferred.

A friendly hint: most vines will want to race to the top of a structure, and may not provide screening around the bottom, where needed.  And how much maintenance are you willing to do? Be honest!

Seasonal interest

With our long, dreary winters, we often site fall- and spring-blooming plants where they’ll be seen—whether from the sidewalk to the front door, taking out garbage, or in view from the kitchen window. Some winter blooming plants offer fragrance, such as: Daphne bholua, Daphne odora, Mahonia x. media and Sarcococca species. Others offer months of flowers, including: Helleborus x. hybridus and H. niger, and Cyclamen coum.

Remember, plants that offer winter flowers may need some protection from the worst of our winds and cold.

Summer is easy to fill with flowers. If an area where you like to hang out has a predominance of summer blooming plants, will you look at the space throughout the year? If so, try and include a few plants that have good “bones,” so in winter, you aren’t left looking at a patch of mud. Be careful, as many evergreen plants don’t enjoy being crowded by rambunctious perennials. Some evergreens, including Taxus (yew) and Buxus (boxwood) usually stay well clad. Many conifers, however, will suffer from “gaposis,” leaving ugly bare spots.

If you have room, a tree with nice bark can add lots to the view. Acer griseum (paper bark maple), Lagerstroemia (crepe myrtle) and Stewartia species are all beautiful. What about art? Sculpture or a well shaped/glazed container? A pot doesn’t need to be planted to be attractive.


I like some fragrance. Yes, flowers can attract bees, so you need to use some sense selecting plants for your outdoor dining area. Remember where winds predominately blow from, as weather patterns change through the year. No sense in planting, say, a Trachelospermum jasminoides (star jasmine) if all the fragrance ends up on your neighbor’s property.

Some plants are evening scented, while others pour forth in the daytime. Cocktail hour or after dinner lingering would demand certain plants, whereas an early-to-bed, early-to-rise person would require differing species.

Foliage can be very fragrant. We sometimes will site summer containers where one will have to brush by, say, a lemon scented Pelargonium ‘Mabel Gray’.

Foliage vs. Flowers

Remember, if one looks at a photo-driven garden book, the photographer has likely picked the best day of the year to take each photograph. Try and think about what the planting you pine for might look like if nothing was in flower.

If a plant has boring or ugly foliage, even if its’ flowers are beautiful, we’ll likely not use it. If we do, it’ll be somewhat hidden so when not in flower, one won’t have to see it.

How often will you go out and groom? Some plants, such as Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’, will offer months of color with little to no deadheading needed. One of those monstrous “dinner plate” sized dahlias will need constant attention. A garden will quickly reveal how energetic or lazy its owner is—either writing checks or using elbow grease.

When in doubt, start with good foliage and consider plants that have showy flowers as adornment. Several fabulous and well cared for flowering plants will add a lot more pizzazz to a garden, than a lot of ill-tended “prisoners.”

With foliage, one can have repeats of similar size or shape to create a calm effect. One can juxtapose wildly varying outlines and size of leaf for a much more dynamic effect. Both are equally valid design concepts.


So many books have been written on color! My partner, Charles, has an exquisite (and sometimes twisted) sense of color. I have a good sense of color, but words often escape me in trying to describe them. My basic rule is, if you like it—go for it. Do you really want an epitaph that reads, “She offended no one?” Boring…

If you have doubts about what might work, take a cue from nature. Train your eyes to really see and investigate all the colors within the bark of a tree, the rays of a flower, or lichens on a stone. One’s imagination needs to be set free. Mistakes are necessary, can often be painted over (gates, walls etc.-I’m not sending you down the rabbit hole yet), or pulled out by the roots and composted. The most important thing in gardening, in my opinion, is to have fun. As the saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained.  NWGN

Glenn Withey is co-curator of Dunn Gardens and co-owner of Withey Price Landscape & Design, LLC.

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