Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I spoke to the Lafayette Garden Club today (no pictures of the talks - sorry - I ran out of hands) and to Walnut Creek Garden Club Monday. The topic? Color in your garden.  All year. The big secret?
Foliage. Or as Liz calls it, Foilage.

Annuals help...
as do plants with bold textures. There's a great story about Russell Page, the famous British garden designer. He was asked to help Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller in her garden, and after refusing many times finally agreed. It happened to be raining that day, and he happened to be rather tall. She was not. She held an umbrella over his head as he paced the length of her borders, again and again, switching arms as the one holding the umbrella gave out. Finally Russell Page stopped, turned to her, and said, "I see your problem, madam. All your leaves are the same size."

He was right. She fixed it.

Put some bold colorful foliage in your garden. Spiky things, big-leaved things. Electric pink and chartreuse. Yellow striped and purple leaved. Bold, medium and small textures. Chose a few plants that look good together and repeat, repeat, repeat.

And I find a quick trip to the nursery to pick up some color cheers me up. I found daffodils...
...and primroses.
English daisies and more primroses...
...and some kale.

 I'm feeling perkier already!

So here's the Cliff Notes version of my talk:

The Ten Biggest Mistakes You Can Make In Your Garden:

1. Forgetting about The Big Three: Comfort. Function. Humor. Every garden needs these. Think about it. Function. Comfort. Humor. So simple, so wonderful when you get this one right. So disturbing when you don't.

2. You don't Line Things Up. This doesn't mean everything has to be centered on a door or mirror-image symmetrical, but it does mean if a path is outside a window and stretches into the distance, line it up with the window. If the path curves, line up the beginning of the path with the window. The edge of your house, a get the idea.

And the thing that spends the most time in the garden: your eyes. So there should be something to look at outside every window, and I'm not talking a primrose or a pansy here. A far away urn at the back of the garden (but lined up with the window!), a birdbath, a fountain, a sculpture, an especially lovely tree. Go look out your windows. Now go move some stuff around.

3. The Dreaded Fringe Garden: A row of shrubs all along the fence. A big lawn in the middle. Yawn. No mystery, no romance. Dull Dull Dull.

4. The Rule of Three. Use no more than three hardscape materials (walls, patios, paths, arbors). More makes it look like the demonstration area at the local home improvement center. Don't try to talk your way out of this one - it looks awful and you know it.

5. Forgetting The 50% Rule - everything needs to be bigger outside. At least 50% bigger. Patios, paths, walls and fences. Hedges. Everything. Leave plenty of room to navigate around the tables, benches, chairs. More room than you leave inside - forget all those guidelines about how much space you need behind a chair so you can walk by. Outside you need more.

6. This is my pet peeve - and it is an expensive mistake to fix: Lining up the pool or patio with the property line, not the house. Don't do it. I understand why it happens - when you're looking at a blueprint the property line is as prominent as the house lines. It is not so in the real world. Line. Things. Up. With. The. House.

7. Skinny paths. Especially to the front door. Do you want people to feel welcome? Then make the walkway to the front door five or six feet wide. Or more. Mine is seven. It's very welcoming - just ask the neighbor kids who are ringing my doorbell right now. 

Look at a three foot wide walkway to a front door and see how chintzy it feels. Be generous. Skinny is for jeans. (And it takes a four foot wide path to allow people to pass comfortably in the garden. Five is better.) 

8. Divide to Conquer. It's a paradox, but dividing your garden into rooms makes it feel bigger. And cozier and just all-round better. You can see from one space into the next, but there should be distinct spaces. Rooms. This is the cure for #3 above.

9. Stairs. Can't tell you how bad some of these are. We've all been up stairs where you have to take little mincing steps, or where you take a step and a half and sort of limp up the stairs. That's because they don't fit your natural stride! There is a formula (don't freak out it's not hard) - twice the rise plus the tread should equal 28 inches. (It used to be 26 inches but we are taller and have longer strides than in Napoleon's time when the formula was developed). 

So if you have a 6 inch tall step (the rise), the tread (flat part) should be 16 inches - 6 times two is 12; 12 plus 16 equal 28.  If you have a 7 inch rise, you should have a 14 inch tread - because twice 7 is 14, and 14 plus 14 equal 28. You get the idea. 

10. This is my favorite: Gardens are for noses and ears as well as for eyes. Plant something fragrant next to your front door. Put something fragrant outside your bedroom window and leave the window open a crack at night. 

Plant something white outside your kitchen window, because white is the only color you can see at night. Something white by the front walk. Tuck a softly burbling fountain into the garden - the sound will draw you in. Watch your dinner guests as they go hunting for the source of the sound, and listen to them exclaim as they find the fountain. Put up a bird feeder and listen to the squabbles and the chatter. 

And take time to stop and enjoy. I don't know what the weather is like where you are, but here, just today, you can feel spring is coming. You can smell it in the air. It will be nasty and cold and wet again before it is finally really spring, but today you can smell the earth, and it wants to grow. 

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