I'm not a great student when it comes to garden design. My personal library contains hundreds of titles, but I'm always at a loss to answer the question -- "What is your garden design style?" -- with any sense of academic rigor or historical reference. Where I may fail to express a single underlying philosophy or overarching style, I can more easily speak in terms of smaller design ideas that I use throughout my garden.
1. Create serendipitous snuggles. I don't leave a lot of breathing room between plants. I'd rather plant closely and divide more often, allowing plants the opportunity to come together in unplanned combinations. Plants are like people, happiest when they touch. When I create this opportunity for these serendipitous snuggles, beautiful surprises abound.
2. Echo boldness with subtle repetition. Too much bold color can become garish and overwhelming. Too little appears an afterthought, almost an unintentional dribble off the palette. To achieve a balance -- in the garden overall and within individual vignettes -- I will use a bold statement and then subtly welcome the color into the immediate vicinity with echoes. In the photo above, the chartreuse of the sweet potato vine is echoed by both the leaf margins of one coleus and stems of another.
3. Use pretty food. I've recently come to embrace the idea of growing food within an ornamental garden. Many edible plants -- particularly leafy crops like cabbage and kale -- make great architectural statements. And ... no neat little rows for me. My food gets planted just like all the ornamental plants -- up close and personal.
4. Don't underestimate the common plant. I think the more serious we get as gardeners, the more snobby we get about using ordinary plants in the garden. But, let's face it, gardening can be an expensive endeavor -- especially when you plant more than 80 annual containers like I did this year. To keep from breaking the bank, I'll fill blank spots in the garden with containers composed of inexpensive bedding annuals. The plants in the photo above only cost about $7-$8, the equivalent of not even two premium annuals at the garden center.
5. Use exotic accents as annuals. The bones of my garden are woody plants and herbaceous perennials that are hardy to our Zone 5b climate. We need tough plants to survive our winters, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy some tropical flair during the summer months. A Miami native recently visited my garden and commented on how much these accents reminded him of home. For me, these exotic accents do the exact opposite by providing a break from the ordinary.
6. Break the monotony of green. Thanks to the wonders of chlorophyll and its integral part in photosynthesis, our gardens are pretty darn green. Don't get me wrong. Green gives a beautiful, lush foundation to the garden. But I like to break up the verdant sea with ripples or swaths of contrasting color.
7. Rely on foliage instead of flowers. As the trees matured in my backyard garden, I was forced -- slowly and somewhat reluctantly -- to become a shade gardener. This is when I learned the secret to season-long color -- using foliage! There are so many amazing foliage plants on the market today (coleus, begonias, and plectranthus among them) that they've become the most reliable design elements in my garden.
My garden design style is best described as throw it together and see if it works, but even I must admit there are some methods to my gardening madness.