There is a secret, a rule of design, that all great gardeners know that has the ability to transform a garden from good to great. Right now, as many of us wait for our gardens to thaw from the cold winter months, gardeners in the know are doing the one thing that sets their gardens apart—they are studying the design principle of earth, man and sky.
Earth, Man and Sky
Earth: The ground level of your garden. This can be short annuals, perennials or the often overlooked evergreen ground covers. It is important to have something at ground level, earth, that anchors the garden, perhaps helping to outline the shape of the garden while providing winter interest. Low-growing evergreen shrubs are a great idea. For this role I also like yuccas, liriope and grasses that are not cut back until spring.
Man: Shrubs up to about six feet in height are great options for this level. They set the backdrop of a garden, define its outer curves or balance a tree or other taller, heavier structure at the opposite side of the garden. The man level of the garden also benefits from winter interest. Yews (Taxus) are great, if you can keep the deer at bay. If an evergreen shrub is not a good companion for your garden, consider a shrub with a strong architectural form or winter color. Red twig dogwoods are simple in shape, but their red branches are welcome in the winter garden. Ninebark has fabulous foliage, bark and gorgeous winter seed heads. Forsythia looks graceful year-round if it’s permitted to grow in its natural arching habit.
Sky: Think of sky as the ceiling or the top of the garden. This visual queue keeps the garden observer focused within the garden space, preventing their gaze from wandering off to another yard, garden or becoming lost in the horizon. Smaller trees, often called patio trees, work well. Star magnolias are the perfect height and can be pruned to arch over the garden, acting much like the top of a picture frame. Look for a tree that is in scale with your garden, yard and your landscape and adds winter interest, be it an evergreen or deciduous with a strong architectural feel. A small garden, only 20 by 20 feet, would be dwarfed by a blue spruce, while a landscaped yard of over an acre or two would look bottom heavy if the only sky element was a star magnolia.
The key to earth, man and sky is to select plants with year-round interest and that are in scale to the garden and the landscape.