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The Gentle Gardener: Garden Design

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Many articles and books offer tips and advice for the proper development and design of a good garden. Fundamental principles range anywhere from four to 12 concepts. And then there are the types of gardens, each with their own set of rules, and the list can go on forever. To complicate matters further, the famous Fibonacci sequence, which has captivated civilizations for centuries, also can toss its hat in the ring. So, how and where does one begin to design a garden?

Garden design, like home interior design, is highly personal with basically the same elements of style, color and scale. The internet can offer an abundance of beautiful garden photos, but you need to know if the plants featured will grow locally.


Steal from your neighbors

One of the easiest courses of action would be to walk around your neighborhood to determine which of your neighbors’ gardens appeal to you. In this particular instance, plagiarism is the highest form of flattery. It also should give you some comfort knowing that the plants you covet will grow well in the Lowcountry. Take note of which plants are in sun or shade, wet or dry soil. Then take photos of the plants (this should go without saying, but please get permission of the homeowner before you start snapping away to avoid an unpleasant visit from security).

Show and they’ll tell

Please do not go to a garden center and try to describe the plant – it will be far more productive for all involved if you arrive armed with a photo of the plant or plants in question. Before you dive in, ask yourself, “Do I want a mostly maintenance-free garden or do I want to play in the dirt?” Some of the prettiest plants do require some effort. Additionally, Rome wasn’t built in a night, and unless you have just won the state lottery, be prepared to install your garden in phases. I am continuously working on my five-year plan and have yet to actually achieve the finished product.

Find a happy place

At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, the next basic step to follow is to ensure you have the proper plant in the proper place. Personally, when I am unsure of a plant’s optimal planting space (especially mail-order plants), I will leave the plant in its original pot for a bit of time. If it seems to thrive, I’ll plunk it in the ground – if it appears stressed, I will move it until we find its happy space.

It’s the thought that counts

String or hoses can be used to easily design the shapes of your planting beds. Keep in mind any walkways you may want meandering through your gardens (5 feet wide is optimal but no narrower than 3 feet unless all your visitors are very skinny) and an investment in a good irrigation system can save you significant money in the long run. Much has been said about the virtues of drip irrigation but, beware, if you tend to move things about as I do, you’re better off with standard spray irrigation for the flexibility it allows. I’ve also had the unpleasant experience of discovering that my drip line has clogged, which only came to light when my plants began to die. No matter how you begin, the most important thing is to actually take that first step.


Ask & Answer

DEAR GENTLE GARDENER,
I live off of St. Helena Island. I can see Hilton Head Island from my front porch and get plenty of salty sea breezes. I am interested in a eucalyptus tree/plant and was wondering if this climate would be conducive and if it would flourish or struggle in this environment. — Sowing near Saint Helena

Dear Sowing,
You’re in luck! Eucalyptus plants love the sun and despise the shade. Depending on where you want to place your plant, species that have thicker leaves such as the snow gums will generally tolerate sites with salty air such as E. pauciflora and its subspecies – not sure if they will tolerate our hot summers. If you’re thinking of planting in your front yard away from the salt breeze, you may do well with E. blakelyi, E. camaldulensis, E. microtheca, E. nandewarica, or  E. polyanthemos. There are probably a lot of other species that would also be suitable so I would encourage experimentation in this area. Happy gardening!

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