Neil Sperry

Proportion and placement and scale are keys to great landscaping

Attractive entry accentuates house.
Attractive entry accentuates house.

This is a story about lines and circles and proportion and placement and scale. It’s a story about landscaping, and it’s going to be pertinent to your own Texas landscape. It’s going to be fact-filled and fast-paced. Let’s go!

Landscapes are the “frames” to the artwork “your house.” They should complement that art, not draw attention away from it.

Landscapes reflect our personal tastes, so while there are guidelines and suggestions, no one is entirely right or completely wrong with any garden design. It needs to be a fit for your life and your loves.

“Simple” is always a great starting point. Complicated designs often get wacky and end up being detriments to the houses they attend.

“Natural” can be a good thing, but it does demand an accurate understanding of the word. Think of a lush forested meadow with pretty flowers and ankle-deep green grass. Picture your house there. That’s “natural,” and that’s a pretty good mindset to follow. When I mention “natural” to my wife, though, she starts talking about old wagon wheels, cow skulls, yuccas and brown ornamental grasses. That’s not what I’m talking about. (I married a music major. I can’t sing, and she can’t landscape. Perfect match.)

Long, straight rows of plants can be really boring. If that’s all you want, build boxes out of plywood and paint them green. You won’t have to water or feed them, and they’ll never need pruning. Same thing when you plant some kind of privacy screen along the side of a property. If it’s in a straight row it’s going to make you look like your house is pushed into a mail slot.

Clusters, sweeps and groupings work a lot better. Stick with odd numbers. For some reason they’re more restful visually. Use triangles of eastern red cedars for privacy in a large suburban lot, and space them 18 to 22 feet apart (varying the distances) so they look like a natural grove. If you need a longer screen, plant seven or nine, but keep zig-zagging the row so it won’t look like a straight line.

For beds in front of your house (my trick I’ve written about in the Star Telegram for 40 years), use a supple garden hose on one of these warm spring days and lay that hose where you want your bed edging to be. Have somebody stand on the far end of the hose to secure it while you lay it in place. Sometimes you just pick the hose up and give it a gentle whirl for a fresh start. Your goal will be a long and gentle sweep that runs entirely across the front of your house – all the way from the left corner to the right corner. You even lay the hose across the sidewalk, letting it emerge from the two sides at slightly different distances from the front door.

Try it! It works. And if you don’t like the results, you just lay the hose out again. When you’re satisfied, leave the hose in place while you carefully spray all the existing vegetation with a glyphosate-only herbicide to kill the lawngrass and weeds you don’t want in the bed. You’ll be able to work the soil and plant the bed within just a couple of weeks.

This would be a good time to introduce the concept of scale and proportion. The beds you design and the plants you put in them should be in keeping with the size of your home.

Think about that artwork and picture frame. If you wanted to have a lovely large painting framed to hang behind your massive sofa, you probably wouldn’t settle for a 3/4-inch lightweight frame. You’d say something like, “That’s not in scale.” Yet I see a lot of two-story houses with the equivalent: 3-foot beds drawn tightly around them. Most landscape beds should be a minimum of 4 feet deep, but they should flare out to 6 and even 10 feet at corners. That gives you ample working room for your garden design.

Enter “the plants.” These will be the stars of the garden, and how well they help frame your lovely home will depend on how carefully you choose them. Know how tall and wide they will grow. Choose plants that will fit the spaces you have available for them. Be mindful of window heights, and plant carefully near walks and entries where routine pruning might be needed to keep access open.

Plain green plants are usually most natural. The farther you depart from basic green, the more chance you’re taking that your landscape (remember that picture frame) is going to hog the viewers’ eyes when they look at your home.

Golden variegated plants may look like they need iron, so use them with restraint in this Blackland clay area where we see too much iron chlorosis anyway. Red-leafed plants are rather dramatic, but handsome. Use them for accents. White variegated plants are refreshing, especially when used in front of dark green foliage. Many white variegated plants don’t handle full summer sun very well, so be a bit cautious. Gray plants are striking, but use them with great respect. Too many gray plants and your landscape can look cold and uninviting.

Textures are the overlooked variable. As you’re choosing plants for the design, include some with small leaves and airy textures, and let them contrast with plants with bolder foliage and tough-as-nails appearances.

That’s it. They tell me that’s all I can write for this visit, but I’ll have more suggestions another time. Garden design, after all, is a lot like good baseball — there’s a lot more going on that the casual observer will realize.

Happy landscaping!

Neil Sperry hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: