Designing Gardens

Discover our way of garden designing and how we outline our flowerbed gardens and get some landscaping ideas and tips.

Know Your Surroundings

Back in 2007, before we plunged into the actual garden designing, digging and planting, we agreed to a ‘get to know your yard’ in the Chicago summer. Not a bad idea for a new homeowner. After our ‘get to know your yard summer’, we quickly discovered the following…Get to know your soil condition. You can have a soil sample done at your local university. Our soil needed big time amending as you can see on our soil page. Issues could be a yard slope, a soil condition or your neighbor’s yard being higher than yours. For us our yard sloped towards the back area, creating a low lying area. We fixed this with yard berming and ponds. Besides the low lying areas causing poor drainage, we also had far too many old oak trees thus creating far too much shade and not allowing the ground to dry properly. We needed to cut down at least 8 trees for additional sunlight to help dry the soil.

Get to know your ‘could be’ critter visitors. The kind that visualize your plants as a huge dinner buffet table. It seems that no matter where we live in this world, we all seem to have some sort of ‘critter’ issues. Choosing the right plants as well as knowing other deterrent methods is critical to a gardener’s sanity. Boy do we have critters…rabbits, deer, squirrels.

The Need to Prioritize

Everyone needs to prioritize. During the entire ‘get to know your yard’ summer, downtown-chicago-gardenwe spent many long hours walking with tape measure in hand. Grander thoughts of lavish ponds, cascading waterfalls and designer flowerbed gardens raced through our minds. So we asked ourselves: What elements do we want? A Pool? Privacy (fence)? Pond? Waterfall? Place to read? Pathways? Perennial & annual gardens? Island gardens? Deck? Gazebo? We do not use a master garden design… not your traditional plan on paper. We never have. We walk the property and get into our gardening zone and think BIG. Not only do we visualize the elements on our list, but we consider our budget for the season. While we do collaborate on the major decisions about the garden designing, we do go in different directions. Develop a good eye for the hardscape and structures of the overall garden.

Plant Selection

When creating your garden design, consider the view of all garden elements from different angles. Whether it’s the flowerbeds or even the static elements, like a sun dial or a pergola, the view must please the eye from different angles. So when I look out my patio doors or bedroom window, I gaze at the pond’s waterfall cascading down and see both gardens hugging the grass pathway. As well, before creating your design and deciding on your plantings consider what your garden will look like from inside the house when looking out. We considered the element of stone. Our flower gardens curve gently (no straight lines here) and we edge with limestone. The plants spill over and give the flowerbeds a flowing, billowy, informal effect. We had to deal with the low lying areas. I suppose we could have added dirt, then level, then roll and finally sod or seed. But that makes it just another lawn to mow. We decided on berming part of the area and designed a couple of ponds.

Picture turquoise blue, crystal clear water lapping up on a pebble beach shoreline, My Beach dotted with ornamental grasses waving with every wind gust. Ahhhh…my hammock awaits me. What to do with all the leftover dirt from digging a pond or two? We designed a mounded, oval shape island flowerbed garden. We planted two smaller size evergreens as anchors, a few shrubs, some sun perennials, annuals, ground-covers.
Because the land slopes downwards towards the neighbor’s yard and the fence wood has not yet aged, we built the wooden retaining wall to protect the fence from rotting and the soil from leeching out. This also allowed us to put a drainage pipe (weeping tile) between the retaining wall and the fence. It works great! This space has also become somewhat of a rabbit highway.
Another surprise. I originally designed the South Garden as a sun garden. Eventually, my thought was to divide this second sun locale with a winding pathway of bark mulch. Well…OOPS…turns out I fooled myself.

There is too much shade from the neighbors oak trees. How did I miss that? The ‘dirt’ stayed wet far too long last summer causing root rot and mold on some of the annuals… yuck.

Since I didn’t have the heart to ask my neighbors to cut down ten old oak trees, I have amended the soil by adding additional peat moss and sand, transplanted the sun loving perennials and planted semi shade loving plants. How did we accomplish the overall garden designing and make sure that all elements fit in the landscape scheme? For instance, are the pathways wide enough? Is the pond too small, too big?

Our secret to getting it just right, fitting in all the elements is …. contractor spray paint. To be exact, we use Krylon Contractor Marking Paint in the color orange. No reason for that color choice other than we like it and the color stands out. By using this method, we quickly realized that we outlined the pond far too large. The size would have been unmanageable.

Maintenance Concerns

You need to ask yourself the question. Will I be able do the upkeep…be it ponds or flower gardens? We managed to scale down the size of the pond by a few feet in length…ergo it’s great using the spray. You can see before you dig. I can even mark an ‘X’ where that special Sun Dial and concrete pedestal should go or maybe a focal point tree like my favorite the Siberian Larch. What a perfect way to see if everything fits!
By the way, if your plans are less extensive, you can also use a garden hose or a thick rope. Just don’t use heavy string. Birds consider it nesting material.
Just be careful if you rent a front loader.The rain poured in torrents last spring and the loader was no match for the slippery mud slopes.

While the limestone gives an informality, yet hardness to the design, we placed them irregularly on top of each other and planted close to the edge with ‘spilling’ plants thereby softening the hardness of using so much limestone. After a few rainfalls, the gravel underneath and between the stone becomes hard as cement and does not allow grass or weeds to grow through the laid limestone. It’s also is easier to trim around the beds without having to worry about slicing off plant heads or foliage. Once the initial garden designing, outlining, viewing the elements and digging is complete, it’s time to move on to the flowerbed designing and planting decisions.

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