Neil Sperry: Lead guests to your front door with a beautiful landscape
My ribs are often bruised. My elbows have assumed quick reflexes. It seems that my pitch isn't perfect, and my musician wife keeps nudging me up or down every time that I sing. After 45 years of otherwise happy marriage, I've learned that it's a lot easier just to sing softly.
And, so it is that I nudge gently into several landscaping scenes. They're places where I see gardeners taking their efforts off-focus. Let me 'splain, Lucy.
Your house is the biggest piece of artwork that you'll ever own. You need to think of it as a magnificent painting, and everything you do should showcase its beauty and conceal its blemishes.
You need a lovely frame for your painting, and that frame comes in the form of the landscape. The landscape's function is to complement the artwork, not draw undue attention from it. You wouldn't choose pink polka dots for your Monet's frame. You would look for something tasteful and simple, probably elegant and perhaps natural. And, that frame would be in scale with the size of the artwork.
Let's move on to specifics. Here are some of the ways I see gardeners getting too "cute" with their landscaping, and taking its true purpose off course. Almost every one of us has tried one or two of these over the years, and in many cases, we've realized that we missed our mark -- that our great idea wasn't really so hot. In each case, I'll try to give a couple of alternatives.
We forget the focal point. The place you want to draw viewers' eyes will be to your front door. It is to your house what Mona Lisa's eyes are to her beauty. Never forget it as you design.
Narrow beds. This is that "scale" thing. If your house is two-story, and if your property is reasonably large, the beds you design need to be appropriately sized. That might mean that they're a minimum of 5 to 7 feet wide, and they might even roll out to 12 or 15 feet around corners and at the entry.
On the other hand, if you're landscaping a one-story home on a small urban property, bed widths need to be scaled back to 3 or 4 feet wide, broadening to 6 or 7 feet at corners. This whole scale and proportion thing can be compared back to the picture frames. If you're framing a large painting that will hang behind the sofa, you'll use a wider frame than you would for an 8-by-10-inch hallway photo of the family.
Straight beds. These points build on one another, and we've already alluded to the fact that your beds might have varying widths, wider at the entry and corners, and narrowing in between. Your goal in landscaping is to create a pleasant natural "meadow" into which your house magically appears. Nature works in curves, almost never in straight lines. Long, gentle and sweeping curves will be more visually appealing. Straight beds merely repeat the lines of the house. Unless you're creating a highly stylized formal garden, it's better to avoid straight lines.
Attempting symmetry in an asymmetric world. Most houses are not mirror images, one side to the other. It's usually better not to use a mirrored landscape plan. Even if it were to be completed perfectly and maintained without flaw, your design might still look restless to your eye, and you might not be able to determine why. Look at 25 random landscapes around you, and somewhere among them, you'll surely see what I mean.
Square shrubs. This is another function of repeating the lines of the house. Choose plants that grow to the height and width you need, then let them grow naturally. Oh, sure, you can trim them and guide them, but always do so with an eye toward maintaining their natural form. If you have shrubs that have been cut square for many years, try selective pruning next year as you allow them to grow back into their natural habits. Or, remodel and replace them with something new. Odds are that you'll be glad you did.
Bold, conspicuous edging. I'm always amazed that people buy edging, then install it in a way where it shows. It's kinda like letting your underwear show. No, wait a minute. I guess that's fashionable. Oh, well. With landscaping, you still won't want edging to extend more than an inch above the soil line. You're using it as a means of defining your beds, not as an architectural statement in your gardens.
Rings around shade trees. Trunks are not the most beautiful parts of our shade trees. Why would we want to highlight them? Why would we want to showcase them with metal rings or circles of stone? Why would we feel compelled to plant flowers against them? All that does is draw attention away from the entryway and out into the landscape. Better design would be to let grass grow up the trunk and keep it neatly maintained. When shade eventually causes the grass to fail, then you would develop groundcover beds with irregularly sweeping curves. The tree would not be in the center of the bed.
Row-plantings along the front walk. If you have a winding walkway, plantings like this might be good to help give direction, but if your walk goes from the street to your door, there's no need to emphasize the sidewalk. Again, it's not the focal point of your garden, and there's no need to create a visual "zipper" that splits your landscape into two halves.
Neil Sperry publishes "Gardens" magazine and hosts "Texas Gardening" from 8 to 11 a.m. Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.