Landscape architects tell you there are rules to obey when designing a garden if you want it to be a work of art. My husband and Dr. Manuel Jimenez, a friend and small farm advisor emeritus for UC Davis just dig in, and they have beautiful gardens.
Another friend, Jack Pizura of Wicky-Up Ranch Bed and Breakfast says, “I’ve done all these things over the years, and they come out, but I couldn’t tell you what I’ve done.”
Doesn’t that sound like most of us? When something comes naturally to us or we’ve done it so often, we can’t explain how we did it.
As a non-landscape artist, non-horticulturists, I’ve come up with my own rules based on observing others as they fashion something beautiful out of bare land.
Step One – Plan Your Layout
“Hardscape, Marsha. You have to start with hardscape.”Vince Ingrao
Warning: This phase can take a LOT of time!
Last spring when we started planning our Northeast Garden, my husband asked me to draw out what I wanted in the big garden.
“Write it down,” his rule for me not for himself. He works by vision and talking it out.
Not being artistic I panicked and found a garden planning site and spent most of the day researching what plants grew best together. You might find this helpful, but I found it hard to use it as a design tool. The plant information was great, though.
My husband looked at my plan and said instantly that it wouldn’t work.
“Where’s the structure? You can’t fit that many plants into that amount of space? What do you want from your garden anyway?
Ouch, he had a point. Although some people do, I knew I wasn’t going to supply our entire food source from the garden. I was stumped and our garden languished for a year.
“I like to watch things grow,” Vince’s sister commented.
“Yes,” I thought. “It’s that simple.”
Plants are beautiful, and I enjoy looking at my garden as much as I enjoy eating from it. So Vince designed Section One of the Northeast Garden. He terraced the garden into two sections using the repurposed cement and began shaping the lower section.
Fewer plants enjoyed the room to grow in raised rows and rock pathways. I would not have made the paths so wide, but it’s working well. I appreciate that now. Fewer plants mean it’s a lot less work. I can live with that. Harvesting is very time-sensitive and time-intensive work.
In January, Vince needed a project before he could tackle the garden again. He began to plan outside with a measuring tape and the vision in his head. First, he envisioned a bridge over the gully, where the creek will go someday .
There still was no plan for irrigation in the garden. You can not garden in the Central California Valley without irrigation unless you want to hand water every day. That’s what I have been doing for five years in the South Garden.
Over the years, I’ve learned that one can’t fight with visions. No amount of coaxing is going to speed up the process. One of the things I love about Vince has been his ability to imagine a space and create something beautiful from nothing. I can’t do that.
However, Vince was not motivated to plant a garden. He finished a pathway around the palm tree made with cement from a project completed sixteen years ago. Manuel, my horticulture mentor, lined one of his garden areas in ornamental cabbage, so I bought the ornamental cabbage to line the path. Still no plan for irrigation. He loves to hand water every morning. I think it must start his creative juices. It doesn’t do that for me.
When Vince asked me in April what I wanted to plant in the upper garden, I told him that I wasn’t lifting a finger until there was a watering system. I was done. I lied, of course, but I refused to give him any ideas and said the garden was his. The next day he had a vision for the irrigation system.
Encouraged, I planted some tomato and eggplant six-packs, while he got sidetracked by additional design elements. Within a few more days he and Hector Casteneda, the handyman/gardener/ who makes all of Vince’s projects doable, had built another terrace and a set of steps down to my new and improved composting area.
The design is not finished but he repurposed two loose extra sections of the fence that had been just leaning up against the back of the fence for nineteen years and some rocks from around the back – a mystery where he found them. Who knew all that stuff would be so handy?
As of May 18, the upper section irrigation was not finished, but as you can see, I couldn’t wait to start planting. The result was that I lost ninety percent of my bean plants and fifty percent of my squash. I replaced most of them with seeds. The South Garden still awaits irrigation.
You really need a plan, and part of the hardscape in this area needs to be irrigation.
Step Two – Plant Like Vegetables in One Area
Garden experts agree that you should plant a lot of what you like and plant it together, not scattered throughout the garden.
My husband loves blueberries, so he mentally designed our new garden to have a patch of blueberries. (Not three like I bought from the nursery. ) They cost $12.95 apiece, and I felt I had splurged buying three plants. Eighteen blueberry plants now mark the start of the Northeast Garden in rows fanning out from the fence line in three rows of diminishing numbers of plants – 7-6-5.
As a side note, my friend Manuel is the hybridizer or inventor of the types of plants that make it possible to grow blueberries in the super-heated, semi-arid climate in the Central Valley of California.
In my South Garden, there is one blueberry plant amid some leftover strawbabies and mint babies that Vince would not let me put in the Northeast Garden. I’ve stored them there temporarily/semi-permanently. You probably would agree with Vince and other garden design experts that the blueberry plant doesn’t make a statement.
What about volunteers?
My South Garden – totally under my control now that the design elements are done has evolved into an experiment, much like my blog. That is a design flaw. To have a beautiful garden, you must not let these little babies sway you into letting them stay.
Manuel who created the Woodlake Botanical Garden might commingle two or three types of vegetables – a row of tomatoes next to a row of carrots, for example. Plants that grow well together in the same place, but they don’t take up the same air or root space increase your garden’s yield. Putting varieties of plants together works when you know what you are doing but it can get messy.
High-yield gardening is not the same as random planting or allowing volunteer plants to overtake and manage your garden. I am guilty of the latter. I can’t bear to get rid of a healthy-looking plant. I’m so proud of it for surviving and surprising me by its presence.
Step Three – Purchase or Make Decorative Elements
Themes allow the non-artist to contribute to the overall look. The BellaVista Garden is rusty. Sometimes you can buy decorative pieces in garden stores, handcrafted shops, or home goods stores. That’s my speed. It can also be expensive for very small items.
Really great garden pieces are bigger and more unique than you can find in stores. Manuel builds fountains out of old farm implements for his gardens.
He brought in a building-migrant housing, a tractor, and now is building a porch with a house front.
In our case, the fence defined the space. Vince wanted rusty Rebar, so he found someone who would make the fence. Over the years it has rusted to perfection.
We found our own yard art sitting on the side of the road with a for sale sign. We had driven by it for probably a year, then one day I said, “I wish we had a business or something. I love that truck.”
Before I could blink, Vince turned the car around and was already dialing the number on the sign. We had it towed home. Yesterday Valero Brothers in Woodlake, CA moved it to the garden. Vince has plans to lift the back of the truck and add steps with rows of flowers cascading down. Or possibly a tailgate party look with a shade cover. Then he will whitewash a sign on both doors that says, “BellaVista Gardens.”