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Garden edges and plantings Tom McWilliam

Chalk it up to the power of the printed page. All the gardens that flourish around Densey and Ronald Juvonen's Chester County, Pennsylvania, house are of Densey's design, based almost entirely on landscapes she pored over in magazines and books. She clipped and photocopied—assembling file folders marked “stonework” and “color combinations”—and fueled her imaginings with visits to nearby Longwood Gardens.

Drawing her plans to scale using graph paper, Densey formulated a unique mix of French and Italian formal landscaping up close to the house, with looser English gardens farther afield. Working in stages and with a talented local mason, Denis Hare, she tamed the open area around her home into a series of beautiful and useful spaces. There are lessons anyone can learn from looking at the stunning results. Feel free to print them out and start a few idea files of your own.

How to Transform Your Outdoor Space

Enhance the Entries Tom McWilliam

1. Enhance the entries

Clustering plants along a building's foundation walls and even up the front steps blends a structure into its natural surroundings and makes it more welcoming. Here, a humble potting shed gets the inviting look of an English country cottage, with vine-covered walls and a profusion of flowering plants.

Unmatched containers, overflowing with velvety petunias, trailing yellow and white million bells, and a small coleus up top, lend an informal feeling. The rich purplish hues repeated in the container plantings lead the eye—and visitors—right up to the door. Stone pups stand sentry, furnishing the entrance with an added dose of friendliness.

2. Sharpen your edges

Well-defined edging not only delineates flower beds and garden borders but also lends a well-cared-for look to any landscape. Here, clean-cut concrete pavers establish a formal border for a grid of four square beds filled with a mix of herbs, vegetables, and flowers. Straight edges like these are especially good for defining and organizing small spaces. Sunk at grade level—and laid on a base of gravel and a setting bed of sand mixed with cement to prevent them from being dislodged by frost heaves—they also allow for easy maintenance, since the lawnmower can roll right over them.

On the outer perimeter, curved lines undulate along the borders, encouraging the eye to pause at each colorful clump of plants that spills out onto the grass. For curved, earthen edges—which have a natural look well suited to large landscaped areas—digging down 5 inches or so with a half-moon edging tool creates crisp lines. Regular upkeep using a string trimmer with its head turned perpendicular to the ground will help keep them that way.

Plants on hardscape and climbing wall in garden Tom McWilliam

3. Soften the hardscape

While big slabs of stone make handsome steps or patio surfacing, left alone theycan look a little…cold. To help rustic stonework blend even better into its natural surroundings—and take the edge off its solid mass—surround it with small-leaved groundcovers such as creeping thyme or this spotted deadnettle.

Planted along rock edges, or in the cracks between stones, they add a welcome color contrast, soften hard surfaces, and reinforce any natural curves in a meandering path or in a round or oval patio. The encroaching foliage makes such slabs look even more like natural stone outcroppings.

4. Climb the walls

Blend an outbuilding, or the sides of your house, into the surrounding landscape by growing plants up the sides. Apple trees (LEFT) and a lacebark pine (RIGHT) are espaliered in geometric and fanlike shapes against the walls of a freestanding garage. Espalier is a pruning method—popularized in Europe as a space-saving way to cultivate fruit and a decorative technique for formal gardens—used to train small trees and shrubs flat against a wall or fence in various patterns.

The key to using espalier to enhance a building's walls (and to growing any vine or climber there, too) is using an anchoring system that suits your siding, keeps shoots from rubbing against it or adhering to it, and avoids damaging or restricting plant growth. The masonry anchors on this structure have tabs that hold soft, stretchy plastic ribbon ties (available at Amleo) for securing branches in place.

Flowers planted in garden beds Tom McWilliam

5. Plant in masses

One secret to striking flower beds: Restrict your color palette, and plant large clumps to create waves of color. Avoid the “one of this here and one of that there” approach to garden design. Using swaths of a single type of plant has greater impact and makes beds look more orderly.

To keep costs down, forgo buying large specimens at your local nursery; use mail-order sources (Dave's Garden has a list of gardeners' favorites), where you can save more by buying smaller plants in bigger quantities. Then let them fill in. Divide established perennials—such as the rust-colored yarrow and light pink evening primrose here—every two to four years as needed. Then spread the wealth and fill in bare spots.

6. Layer beds for a lush look

While using a limited number of colors is a plus in a flower bed, planting in shallow rows that top out at a single height is a major negative. When planning beds, go deep—4 to 5 feet front to back, if possible. Then place plants according to height, with the tallest in back, medium-height plants in the middle, and the shortest ones in front. The effect of this layering approach: a profusion of blooms.

Stepping down plants by height also lets you reach back rows more easily for deadheading. And such dense planting helps crowd out any weeds. Here, primary colors of yellow, red, and blue look lively but not riotous thanks to the small size of the yellow and red flower heads and lots of green foliage. Soft blue-green lambs' ears in front provide the third element, and the bonus of fuzzy-leaved texture.

Dog in garden and plants frame view Tom McWilliam

7. Frame a view

An arbor is a simple way to create a vista. Here, a sequence of framing elements extends past the arbor, which is covered with antique climbing roses. Flanking rows of yellow-blooming butterfly bush lead to pairs of evergreen shrubs, then trees. The straight-shot perspective emphasizes a lineup of focal points: a stone garden urn, a courtyard bed bursting with pink geraniums, and a planter in front of a side door that leads to the family room.

This arbor is made from salvaged ironwork about a foot wide. But you could carve an opening in a tall hedge or use a classic wooden garden arch for a similar effect, even in a much smaller space. Place it streetside to frame the view to the front door, or by the side of the house to provide a peek into the backyard.

8. Focus on foliage as much as flowers

Blossoms may seem like the star of the garden, but dramatic foliage plants can be just as effective—and they present opportunities for bold color hard to find in flowers themselves. The burgundy hues in this multistemmed smoke bush and the coral bells around its base make for a stunning focal-point planting.

And whereas blooms come and go during the growing season, these foliage plants will stand as a strong visual anchor from spring to fall. Making the effect doubly striking is the way the forms balance each other: the ball-like clusters of foliage, which sit atop multiple upright stems, are grounded by one low mound of leaves.

Flowers and stonework in garden Tom McWilliam

9. Repeat plants for balance and unity

Echoing the same shapes and colors within a landscape gives it a cohesive look. In a formal design, plants are balanced symmetrically; both sides of planted areas are mirror images. In an informal design, balance can be achieved by giving both sides of a garden equal interest and by repeating forms and color values.

Here, the arching foliage and yellow trumpets of the daylilies and the soft blue spires of the catmint combine for a dynamic pairing; using the same mix to flank both sides of the walk gives them equal weight and creates harmony. Their flowing forms also provide a nice counterbalance to the pairs of stiffly clipped evergreens that mark transitions along the path. All the repetition establishes a rhythm and unifies the garden's design.

10. Mark the exits

Highlighting transition areas with short pillars, gates, or a change in paving announces that one area of the garden is ending and another beginning. Here, pea gravel underfoot leads to an oval of decorative hardscape flanked by short stucco pillars as you leave the enclosure of the formal courtyard.

Two semicircles of granite blocks split into wedges fan out in a sunrise pattern around a half-moon piece. In between, bands of smooth river rock are mortared into place. This decorative interplay of materials encourages you to pause, then step down onto a curved path that points the way to sights yet to be discovered.