The Northern Gardener (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017) by Mary Lahr Schier is an A-Z resource guide for reader’s wishing to garden in the north that may not have grown up with a garden or family members with green thumbs. Complete with a little history, how-to, and many accounts of trial and error, this book is for anyone looking for information and advice on what to plant and how to do it effectively in a climate that is not the most forgiving. Detailed in this book are the best plant varieties for the climate in the north along with techniques from the past that worked well and continue to benefit gardens today, especially when paired with modern gardening advances.
A welcoming front yard, a cozy patio for enjoying food and conversations with friends, trees for shade, flowers for beauty, a space to grow vegetables or fruit, and an efficient spot to handle trash, recycling, compost, and other necessities of home life: We ask a lot of our home landscapes, and with careful design, it’s possible to meet all those desires, even on a small lot.
When Minnetonka-based nurseryman and garden writer Franc Daniels wrote his book Horse-Sense Horticulture in the 1950s, it was based on more than forty years of gardening and landscape experience, and he took a decidedly practical approach to designing a yard and garden. Daniels recommended dividing the yard into three distinct areas: the public area, the service area, and the private area. The public area is usually the front of the house — more visible to the neighbor across the street or the person walking their dog on the sidewalk than it is to the homeowner. For most gardeners, these front-yard spaces involve a tree or two for shade, a planting of shrubs and perennials to soften the look of the house, and near the door maybe a container or two filled with colorful annuals in the spring and summer and evergreen branches and red-twig dogwood sticks in the winter. If possible, you want your front yard to welcome visitors with plantings, walkways, and other signals to clarify where the entry is rather than obscuring it with overgrown shrubs. In sociable neighborhoods, a vine-covered front porch or chairs set in the front yard welcome conversation and visiting.
In Daniels’s system, the service area includes the driveway and garage, trash cans, compost piles, a vegetable garden or cutting garden for those who love indoor bouquets, and space for drying clothes outdoors. Today we would add recycling cans and, if garage space is at a premium, a shed or other place to store tools and lawn equipment. Service areas generally would be set to the side of the lot or hidden behind shrubbery or a hedge. Many owners of homes built in the past thirty or so years will have space under decks that can be used for a potting bench, tool storage, and other household necessities. Wherever it is, the service area should be easily accessible from the house but not too noticeable from the street.
Daniels called the private area of the landscape “an outdoor living room,” a term still used by landscapers and garden designers. This secluded spot, probably in back, is where you can install a patio, a spot for a grill, a table, and maybe a few chairs for relaxing. Ideally, the private area has screening — hedges, tall shrubs, or a fence — that keeps neighbors from peering in uninvited. This is the area where you can express yourself with plantings, a water feature, maybe a birdbath or feeder within your line of sight.
Daniels’s practical approach still makes sense. Modern homes might not have a clothesline (though why not?), but the idea of thinking of your garden spaces according to their function is relevant. Garden design, like house and clothing styles, changes with fads and fashions—and experts and homeowners have long held strong opinions on the subject. In 1918, landscape architect Wilhelm Miller proclaimed Minnesotans’ love of formal gardens as “about 40 years behind the times,” and that geometrical plantings with straight lines were “the worst possible standard of beauty to show your children — the false old idea of display.” By the 1930s, informal landscapes were considered “restless” and messy. The popularity of both formal and informal styles has come and gone several times since then — with most homeowners now seeming to prefer more informal designs.
Your house’s architecture influences landscape style. A small bungalow in a town or city begs to be surrounded by an informal cottage-style garden. A house with an imposing entrance flanked by tall columns needs stately, manicured shrubs and iron urns to reinforce its message of grandeur. The differences between formal and informal revolve around lines, materials, and shapes.
Straight lines, symmetrical spaces, and geometric shapes define formal gardens. Think of a knot garden’s exquisitely patterned boxwood border, or a rectangular, smartly trimmed hedge surrounding a vegetable bed, or the pair of identical containers standing sentry at the front door, or a straight path leading to a circular planting with a water fountain at its center. In a long view of the formal garden, each side would reflect the other like a mirror. Materials in this style tend to be more formal, too. Iron fences and containers, crushed rock or elaborately designed brick walkways, and garden art with classical themes would all fit in a formal garden. Plants have a more manicured look. Evergreen shrubs are pruned dramatically, and everything has a feeling of control and containment. The human hand clearly shaped this space. Because they have so much structure built into them, formal spaces stand out in the winter landscape, when structure matters more than ornamentation.
Informal gardens have more relaxed lines. Beds and borders curve, and plants are arranged asymmetrically. Plants have more natural shapes and are set out in masses that flow from one to another, spreading as naturally as wildflowers spread in the forest. Amid the drifts of black-eyed Susans and Joe-Pye weed, the informal gardener may have tucked in a few lettuce plants or a tomato plant inside a colorful cage. Design elements can be rustic — wooden fences, paths made of turf grass, wood chips, or other natural materials. Ornaments and furniture in this kind of garden may be whimsical — a birdhouse painted blue above a lush flower bed, Adirondack chairs set casually in the lawn, or a chicken sculpture placed near a shed. Informal gardens are popular because they feel homey and casual. They match the relaxed lifestyle of many modern gardeners. However, this style is not necessarily easier to achieve than the formal style. Rules give guidance. It’s easy to veer from relaxed to sloppy, so gardeners still need to prune, weed, and clean up gardens. In the informal space, it really helps to stand back from a bed or border and take it all in. Does this look informal? Or is it a restless mess?
Whatever your style, consider these design elements:
Paths and walkways should be placed to logically direct people to important spaces: the front door, around to the back, and from the house to any service areas. For these walkways, choose materials that match your house style, and, if you plan to keep those paths open in winter, make sure the material can be easily shoveled. Sidewalks and paths that are wide enough to walk on comfortably (four feet wide is ideal, three feet a minimum for anything getting heavy use) and clearly guide you from one area of the yard to the next are an investment worth making. Pergolas and gates provide entry points to different sections of the yard and add to the attractiveness of the landscape, but make sure they make sense — why have a gate without a fence? When planning paths, also consider practical issues, such as how you will move a wheelbarrow or mower around the property.
Borrowed views can significantly enhance or detract from your garden in urban and suburban settings. Maybe you are lucky and have a neighbor with a large, beautifully shaped spruce tree tucked in the corner of his yard, and the view from your back window looks out on that tree. What a great place to put a shrub and perennial bed, using the tree as a tall green backdrop. Or maybe you are not so lucky and your neighbor likes to park his RV on a backyard parking pad that is right in the line of sight of your deck. Maybe a tree with a wide canopy planted near the deck would obscure the view. You also should consider borrowed shade, which might be great if your patio falls under it, or not so great if you want to put your vegetable garden there. Since you have no control over these borrowed factors, it’s a matter of merely noting them and adjusting.
Focal points, on the other hand, are in your control. A focal point is that part of the garden where your eye naturally travels. It might be a bench at the end of a long garden bed, a colorful birdbath amid the greenery, or a tree with dramatic foliage or bloom. Focal points may shift with the season, so that in spring your eye can’t help but focus on the brilliant blooms of a Minnesota-strain redbud tree, while in fall it’s attracted to a bright red maple. A chartreuse shrub, such as Tiger Eyes sumac, stands out in a flower bed of green foliage. Garden art, especially art that is colorful or large, is a natural focal point year round. With both garden art and focal points, there can be too much of a good thing. If you are looking at an area of the garden and it feels discordant, take something out. The problem may be that the eye does not know where to settle.
Winter interest should be part of every northern design. We have winter. It lasts a long time, and looking out at a brown, gray, and white landscape for months on end is just plain depressing. Building structure into your garden is a good way to add interest, either by giving snow a place to land for that winter postcard look or by adding an element of shape or color to the landscape when snow melts. Those structures can be built, such as pergolas, trellises, fences, garden art, or sheds, or they can be plant material. Red-twig dogwood is a tough-as-nails northern plant that has brightened many gardeners’ winters with its shiny red branches. Any plant with textural bark, such as river birch or shagbark hickory, or conifers with blue, yellow, or gray-green foliage will add to the winter landscape.
Extending the season is another way to keep the garden interesting throughout the year. For northerners, that means planting an array of bulbs around your yard for spring bloom, from the earliest crocus to tulips that bloom in May and June. Fall-blooming perennials, such as asters, add interest along with trees with colorful foliage. Holiday containers filled with evergreens, berries, and colorful branches brighten the yard even when covered in snow. Garden design will always be deeply personal as you create the garden that makes you feel comfortable, alive, and happy with plants you love and spaces that bring you peace. Knowing what you are trying to achieve and following a few guidelines will bring more satisfaction and joy to the design process.
Ten Practical Tips for Landscape Design
Plan your yard on paper first
Take measurements of the total yard as well as any important features, such as the footprint of the house, garage, sheds, or outbuildings. Note where trees are located, how you enter and exit, and where children play. There are several types of software available to create home landscape designs.
Think about how you mow the lawn
Straight lines or gently curving edges are easier to mow around than elaborate curves. If you have a hill on your property, consider a rock outcropping, a stone path for getting up and down, or a low-maintenance shrub to reduce mowing difficulty.
Think masses and odd numbers
Perennials and annuals should be massed for maximum impact. Three shrubs of the same type look better than two. Use singles of any type of plant as a focal point, but avoid having too many “onesies” in your yard.
Think about views from the inside
As northerners, we spend a lot of time inside the house. Look out your windows and consider ways to make those views more delightful. Plant a flowering crabapple tree in your sightlines to appreciate in the spring or a red-twig dogwood in the back to view against the snow.
Think foliage — then flowers
You can find plants with deep green, light green, chartreuse, gray-green, blue-green, yellow, and variegated leaves. Choose a variety to light up the garden even when it is not blooming. An assortment of leaf shapes adds interest, too.
To ensure your flower beds will have color throughout the summer season, make a simple calendar dividing the garden year into two-month periods (April-May, June-July, August-September). Select two types of flowers that will bloom in each time period and plant them in abundance in the borders.
Want a bright garden but baffled about how to do a color scheme? Here’s one idea for planning: pick something deep red or bright orange for the center, then shade down to blue-gray plants at the ends of the border and purple and gray closer to the house.
Don’t try to hide electrical boxes, air conditioners, and other utilities by putting plants around them. Unless it’s part of a hedge, the plants draw attention to the area. Instead, plant something attractive in another part of the yard to draw the eye.
Plant for your reach
How long is your reach? When designing a garden bed or border, consider maintenance. Any beds larger than three feet wide need to either be accessible from more than one side or have a spot in the middle you can step to in order to do maintenance.
Start with the big stuffWhen planning a garden, consider first the hard elements (walkways, patios, fences), then place trees and shrubs. Lastly, add in more impermanent pieces, such as perennials, annuals, and vegetables.
Landscaping around a Snout HouseSnout house is the somewhat loveable term given to homes in which the garage juts forward and is the most dominant element of the home’s front. These are practical homes in northern climates (I lived in one for seventeen years and understand their appeal), but from a landscaping perspective, they present challenges. Sometimes they are just plain ugly. How do you design a welcoming entry and landscape when the front door is around the corner and sometimes in the shade of that big ol’ garage? Some homeowners embrace the garage, adding trim and other elements to make it as attractive architecturally as the rest of the home. They add formal-looking containers or trellises that frame the garage door. Others do what I did, which was to create a small courtyard near the front door to counterbalance the garage. In my case, this involved adding a tier of boulders that extended about a third of the way from the front door to the street. (The yard had a downward slope, so the tier looked logical.) On that tier, I planted small shrubs and native grasses, which provided screening, and then added a round patio on the left side of the sidewalk that went around from the driveway to the front door. The right side of the sidewalk contained a fourfoot- wide planting area, which was original to the house and had been planted with shrubs, a climbing rose, and annual flowers. Adding more visual width to the area near the front entry told visitors, “Ignore that big white garage door and look over here!”
Beds, Borders, and Kidney BeansGardeners often talk about beds and borders. Garden borders define a space around the outside. They usually are set up against a backdrop, such as the house or a fence. They soften the lines of that hard feature with plants and give your garden a comfortable feeling of containment. Beds are like islands in the landscape. You can view them from many sides. For many years, kidney bean–shaped beds were a popular feature of suburban landscapes. Beds and borders require slightly different design approaches. For borders, plant taller elements toward the back and shorter elements in front. With beds, taller plants usually reside in the center of the bed with shorter plants in front of them.
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