The Three Cardinal Rules of Landscaping

(And why to break them)


illustrated by GILL TOMBLIN

NOVICE GARDENERS CRAVE RULES just as beginning cooks depend on recipes. Although the possibilities seem limitless, mistakes and failures lurk right around the corner. But figuring out the right way to do things can sometimes both stifle natural creativity and produce results that at their best are boring, and at their worst, visually indigestible. Almost any rule, as both great cooks and great gardeners know, can be broken, provided one knows why, and can anticipate finer effects as a result. Here are three assumptions about landscaping with suggestions about the better results that might occur from ignoring them.


Judging from the front of almost every home in North America, the assumption seems to be that plants—most often of evergreen character—must be massed about the foundations of a home, concealing its underpinnings and masking the point at which it sits upon the ground. Likewise, the main entrance should be emphasized, more than it is naturally by the presence of the main door, usually by a pair of taller evergreens flanking the entance steps. A low hedge then joins those to two more evergreens, “anchoring” either corner of the house.

When kept crisp and well-trimmed, such an arrangement, though unimaginative, can be as satisfyingly predictable as a holiday meal long determined by tradition. But badly trimmed into kettle drums and bare-shanked V’s, it robs even the most beautiful house of dignity. No better is the more “free-form” approach, where two barbell-shaped beds pinch in the middle and swell out at either end to accommodate a matching pair of somethings at the door, with a clumped white birch on the far corner and the driveway on the near one, and assorted plants—junipers or potentillas or even hybrid tea roses—dotted in between, among wood chips.

Seeing either of these formulas repeated endlessly in every suburb of North America causes any sensitive gardener to long for a more imaginative approach. Or none. For when the lines of a house are very pleasing, and it meets the ground in attractive brick or stone foundations—or even stuccoed cement—it may be better to leave it unadorned rather than attempting to hide something when there is nothing really to hide. (Brown gravy does not, after all, have to be poured over everything.) A ribbon of attractive gravel may be all that’s needed. It need be only wide enough to prevent rainwater from splashing mud against the house, though it should be neatly but unobtrusively coped at the outer edge to make a crisp line between the gravel and the lawn. To keep it weed free, the gravel might either be laid on landscape cloth, or, if your conscience permits, it could be dusted every spring with a preemergent weed killer. If, however, gravel seems too austere, an equally simple and neat effect can be achieved by sprigging in a low groundcover, such as Vinca minor, again coping the edge to prevent an untidy mingling of vinca and lawn grass.

This simple treatment is best for any house of clear traditional identity, such as a New England saltbox Cape, a house in the half-timbered Tudor style, or a southwestern American adobe. When the lines of a house are more anonymous, however, and perhaps less pleasing, quite the opposite approach might be taken. Large deciduous shrubs might be grouped all along the front and allowed to grow more or less naturally. For, though nothing is more dreary than a tall, badly clipped evergreen pressing its bare side against a house wall—or worse, a window—ornamental deciduous shrubs can be pruned into a light and delicate tracery, especially if planted in clumped specimens, each of which is restricted to three, or at most five ascending main trunks. Such a planting will provide cool green shade in summer and the architecture of bare branches in winter. These seasonal effects may be heightened by selecting shrubs with beautiful winter berries, such as Ilex verticillata, witch hazels with pungently sweet late-winter flowers, or lilacs for early-summer opulence of fragrance and bloom.


When faced with the sometimes baffling task of planting a perennial border, many gardeners cling instinctively to one organizing principle: that tall plants should be massed at the back, plants of medium height placed in the middle zone, and short plants grouped across the front. For the most part, the principle is sound, and plants—which, after all, are living things—will often delightfully break ranks on their own, preventing the border from looking like so many gymnasium bleachers. There are gardeners, however, who become edgy when their plants behave with this spontaneity, administering a good chop when things get “out of hand,” and then, come spring or fall, undertaking a massive reorganization of the border to return it to neat and orderly ranks.

Everything is to be said, however, for a looser, more casual approach to borders, though it still should be planned, even when the border is first laid out on paper. Taller plants might occasionally be brought forward to the middle or even slap to the front, medium plants may push into the tall zone, and short plants into the medium. Such an arrangement gives play to the eye, which wanders over varied textures and heights, stopped here, gliding along there, unconsciously delighted all the while. Individual plants of remarkable architecture or particularly lovely texture or color can thus also be highlighted, allowing the observer both to appreciate the complex unity of the border while also paying appropriate attention to some of its most beautiful individual players.

This relaxing of the ranks is particularly important in long, rectangular borders, where rigid segregation of heights quickly makes for monotony, no matter how rich and floriferous the plantings may be. Such borders benefit enormously from being broken into units—scenes in the play, if you will—by bringing forward taller elements of shrubs or perennials to create a series of bays. Such an arrangement may even be contrived at unobtrusive but still fairly regular intervals, resulting simultaneously in both a sense of unity and of spontaneity, always among the best effects in gardening.


As any sensible real estate agent will tell you, when you have paid extra for a glorious view—whether of cows grazing in distant fields, the mountains, the sea, or the nature reserve—it makes neither economic nor social sense to obscure even the smallest part of it. Only a fool would.

But to serious gardeners, any view poses several problems. First, views often mean wind at some season, which in spring may rip at delicate petals or vernal leaves, in summer may dry out everything, and in autumn and winter may seriously decrease the hardiness of choice plants. Besides, wind always makes being in the garden unpleasant, never mind working in it. Gardens are in any case always best understood as protected places, reflecting the Old Norse root of the word, gart, which signified a fenced or enclosed place, safe for man and beast. They are an outdoor room, or possibly a series of rooms, and rooms have walls. So an enclosure, whether offence or wall, formal clipped hedge or informal groups of trees or shrubs, is essential to the very idea of gardens. But what of the view?

Any perspective is best appreciated through windows, through openings that allow tantalizing glimpses of what lies beyond. Paradoxically, views gain in value by being partially obscured, becoming even more beautiful when they do not lie entirely open before our eyes. A vital contrast then exists between closed and open space, drawing our attention, much as a window does in a wall. The careful arrangement of masses of tall shrubbery or even coppices of native trees may actually heighten the pleasure of the view, while also providing both protection and a backdrop to more delicate plantings. There may be, also, something in the view one does not particularly enjoy looking at—a water tower, a cell-phone relay, even a distant housing development. By careful arrangement, one can edit out these undesirable elements while enhancing what remains. Even the real estate agent might appreciate that.

There is no part of gardening, down to the simple arrangement of annuals in a half whiskey barrel, that cannot be done better with some extra thought. Often, a spontaneous impulse will return to the garden the exuberance of nature that too close an adherence to any rule—or worse, mere convention—can so easily snuff out. The fact that almost every landscape can be made more interesting is, after all, the most enduring appeal of gardening. So next time you are idly pumping gas, or ambling up the walk of a local restaurant, a friend’s house, or even planting in your own garden, practice the discipline of seeing what might be there, rather than what might be expected. H

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