Nurseries were bustling with activity recently as eager homeowners filled their carts with flowering trees and shrubs, hanging baskets, perennials, herbs and vegetable plants. I joined the buying frenzy, unable to resist the robust plants that have benefited from the warmth and sunshine of recent weeks, knowing that many would require occasional transfer to indoor environments on nights when temperatures dip into the 30s.

Nurseries were bustling with activity recently as eager homeowners filled their carts with flowering trees and shrubs, hanging baskets, perennials, herbs and vegetable plants. I joined the buying frenzy, unable to resist the robust plants that have benefited from the warmth and sunshine of recent weeks, knowing that many would require occasional transfer to indoor environments on nights when temperatures dip into the 30s.


Nearly all gardeners are guilty of impulse buying, unable to resist the lure of spring blooms, however this haphazard approach often leads to gardens that lack structure and organization requiring hours of valuable time as we move plants from place to place, year after year, trying to make the layout “look right”. Like any artistic endeavor, creating a successful garden design requires practice, research, and experimentation to develop an understanding of design concepts and their practical application to successfully combining plants. The elements of design, including mass, form, line, texture, and color and the way these elements are blended with respect to scale, balance and rhythm apply to any artistic composition, whether it is an interior design in our home, a painting, a floral arrangement, or a landscape. Most of us have years of experience without even realizing the many practical applications of design principles we employ in our everyday life. Perhaps no other work of art poses a greater challenge, however, than a garden design, for so many factors influence its outcome, factors we cannot control. Weather conditions, changing light patterns through the day and the seasons, plant growth, and intermittent bloom periods are just a few of the elements that affect our perception of our gardens. While interior designs tend to retain their basic composition unless we choose to alter their appearance, a garden is constantly changing over time. A garden is always a work in progress.


Although I tend to gather plants and then arrange them, this frequently leads to overbuying and the purchase of plants for which I have absolutely no space. A far better approach, and a financially more responsible method, is to prepare a wish list of perennials from books, magazines, and catalogs with separate columns for spring, summer, and fall blooming plants. Keep in mind that plant foliage is generally the most dominant feature of your plantings and that blossoms, no matter how spectacular, tend to be present only a small fraction of the growing season. Consequently, foliage color, texture, and plant form should be the most important considerations when selecting plants for your landscape.


Once you have compiled a wish list, draw a simple base plan of a new or existing garden on graph paper. Depending on the size of the garden, it may be helpful to divide a traditional rectangular bed into thirds. The base plan might include woody specimens, spring-flowering bulbs, and early spring-blooming perennials. A few small ornamental trees or shrubs including dwarf conifers will give the garden structure, winter interest and serve as the anchors of your garden. Spring-flowering bulbs offer early color and clusters should be spaced along the length of the border. Although these bulbs cannot be planted until next fall, reserve space for their future planting. Annual flowers could be planted this spring and once killing frosts blacken their leaves, the bulbs can take their place.


The strategic spacing and grouping of plants that bloom simultaneously along a perennial border can create the illusion of continuous bloom even though only a few plants are blooming at the same time. From your wish list, select perennials that bloom at approximately the same time for each section of your garden plan. For instance, bearded and Siberian iris, oriental poppies and peonies tend to bloom at the same time. A smaller garden, divided in thirds, might have just one of these plant species in each section. A larger garden might have three groupings of these plants, one grouping in each section. Mass plantings, three or five of a single cultivar, or three or five different plants that bloom simultaneously, tend to make a better show than just one individual plant unless the plant is especially dramatic due to its color or stature.


Using a sheet of tracing paper, overlay the early spring base plan and mark this second sheet with June and July flowers to fill in some of the underlying blank spaces in each section. Superimpose annuals over the proposed bulb plantings. Another layer of tracing paper may be used to signify late summer and fall bloomers to fill in remaining spaces in each section. If plants that bloom in each season are distributed throughout the garden, the illusion of a garden continuously in bloom is possible, especially if plants with colorfully-tinted foliages are included. Repetition of color, form, and texture will help to draw the eye, creating rhythm; contrasts in these elements of design will make the garden more interesting to view.


Designing an effective garden plan on paper usually takes time and practice but provides even the novice gardener with an excellent starting point and a shopping list for the spring.


Plant Sale reminders: South Shore Natural Science Center in Norwell, Sat., May 15 from 9 a.m. to noon; Society Row Plant Sale (many plant societies sell special cultivars) at the MA Horticultural Society’s (masshort.org) Elm Bank in Wellesley, May 22, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Walnut Hill Garden Club, Congregational Church, Hanover Center, Sat., May 22, 9 a.m. to noon.


Suzanne Mahler is an avid gardener, photographer and lecturer who has been developing the 1.5-acre property surrounding her home in Hanover, Mass., for more than 30 years. Her weekly gardening column Green Thumbs Up has appeared in Community Newspapers for more than a decade. She is a member of two local garden clubs, past President of the New England Daylily Society, an overseer for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is employed at two garden centers.