The first step in landscaping is deciding what type of garden best suits your lifestyle and your home. Before making any plans, ask yourself these questions:
• Where do you live -- in the city, the suburbs, or the country? Your garden should complement the environment or neighborhood.
• What is the style of your house? Is it formal or informal? Spanish Revival, Georgian, ranch, bungalow, or cottage?
• What are your needs? A lawn where the kids can play? A place to grow flowers? A place to entertain?
• What are the limitations of the site? Is it big enough for a pool? Is it too steep to mow safely? Are there unattractive views you'd like to screen?
• How much time can you devote to upkeep? Clipped hedges, large flowerbeds, and big lawns require considerable maintenance.
The cottage garden style is all about individuality. Basically, the only rule is to have lots of color. Blooming annuals, perennials, shrubs, and vines party together like revelers at Mardi Gras. Seedling flowers sprout where they wish. Curves replace straight lines. Mulch or gravel is used to form paths. Paint is allowed to peel. Whimsical art, such as gazing globes and pink flamingos, is often a part of the show.
Keep in mind, though, that in order to work, even a cottage garden needs some structure. This can be a picket fence that encloses the space or an evergreen hedge that serves as a backdrop. Structure gives a cottage garden form, which is especially important in winter when flowers are dormant.
What type of architecture complements this style? Definitely not anything formal, such as Georgian or French Colonial. A bungalow or unpainted saltbox is a better bet.
The formal garden style is everything that a cottage garden isn't. It's as neat and tidy as a Marine's bed just before inspection. Straight lines, right angles, squares, and circles abound. Clipped hedges form geometric patterns. Symmetry reigns supreme; if there is a boxwood on the left side of the door, there must be another of the same size on the right. Shrubs are pruned with a surgeon's precision. No weed is allowed to live. Paths are paved with stone or brick.
Formal, symmetrical gardens go best with the same type of houses. However, an informal home can still have a formal garden if the space the garden occupies isn't directly adjacent to the house. The formal style is often easier for beginners, because most people can relate better to hard lines and geometric shapes than wandering curves. But beware, all the clipping and weeding required to make things perfect takes time.
The natural landscape surrounding some houses is so spectacular or unique that it makes sense to capture in it the garden. This is called the naturalistic style. Such a garden reflects the authentic look of a region without strictly adhering to a palette of native plants. Non-native plants can be included, as long as they blend in with the native flora and express seasonal colors and the casualness of the wild.
Naturalistic gardens can exist in the heart of the woods or the middle of a prairie. They emphasize the landscape, rather than the house, and generally lack foundation plantings. Maintenance is minimal because plants thrive on their own, and almost nothing is pruned or weeded. This kind of garden style looks good with vernacular architecture.
When you hear the term "rustic style," you probably think of casual, rural gardens that feature unpainted wood, rusted iron, and salvaged brick. Such natural materials recall simpler times. But rustic elements also have their place in upscale, formal gardens. A rusted iron urn or a lichen-covered bench can easily become an elegant focal point.
The Language of Design
Confused by terms like "focal point" and "axis"? Here's a brief primer that will help you and professional landscapers speak the same language.
When all of a garden's diverse elements come together to create a harmonious whole, it has achieved unity. This characteristic is especially important in gardens with many different types of plants. You can use large sweeps of a single plant to connect different plantings or areas. Another option is to repeat single specimens of a tree or shrub at regular intervals throughout a border.
In landscape design, scale refers to the balance between the sizes of various landscape elements, including the paths, fences, containers, ornaments, and plantings. No single one of these features should overpower the others. Most of all, they shouldn't diminish the house -- the size of the house should determine the size of everything around it. Also, remember that plants grow. Find out their mature sizes, and plan for this before you buy them. Otherwise, they'll grow out of scale, and you will be constantly pruning or moving them around.
A focal point is any object, such as a fountain, bench, statue, urn, or tree, that draws the eye to it due to its placement in the garden (see example at far left). How many focal points should one garden have? That depends. A small garden can probably accommodate a single center of attention, but if you have a large space partitioned into smaller ones by shrubs, each area can have its own focal point. Remember to choose a piece that fits the scale and and style of your garden.
To a garden designer, an axis is the centerline of a view or walk (see example at near left). Determining an axis makes it possible to line up landscape elements to create special effects. For example, an axis in a garden might run from a doorway through a pair of identical planters, down the center of a walk, to a distant gazebo. In this case, the door and the gazebo are said to be "on axis."
Framing a View
Framing a view is a technique, shown at far left, that uses man-made structures or natural objects to focus your eye on a scene or object in the distance. In a small area, you can employ this method to call attention to a sitting area, fountain, piece of art, or plant. In a large space, it can capture a dramatic view.
Symmetry means that if you drew a line down the center of your garden, one side would mirror the other. In the garden at near left, the two potted plants anchor the entrance's symmetry. This technique works well with formal houses, and is also an easy concept for beginners to understand and use. If you're going for a cottage or naturalistic garden, however, avoid planting a symmetrical garden.
Modified symmetry, however, is a bit more accommodating for relaxed styles. With this technique, the major features on each side of the centerline are the same. However, smaller plants and features can be different, so you don't have to strive for perfection.