Planting in layers is a well-known principle of garden design and a principle I follow whenever I can. Usually what is meant by this is vertical layering…that is, an overhead layer of large trees, an understory layer of small trees and shrubs and another layer, perennials and groundcovers underneath.
However I am now deep into the planning of a garden layered in both directions; vertical, yes, but also horizontal.
Plants layered back to front, behind one another, create a feeling of depth, of generosity, of abundance. When you see single layer of plants – trees lining a highway, or as I once saw, a single row of tulips planted evenly spaced in soldierly perfection – the effect is thin and puny – uninteresting. It’s also unnatural. In nature plants are opportunists. They plant themselves willy nilly, wherever they can – behind, beside, in front of one another, creating a lush effect. From every vantage point you see foreground plants and background plants intertwining.
I’m trying to create a more stylized version of that. So in the Woodland we’ll have Pines and Junipers, Maples, Dogwoods and Redbuds, Birches and Sassafras . Beneath these trees will be shrubs like Fothergilla and Oakleaf Hydrangea and Sumac and Witchhazel., And beneath these will be Goldenrod, Purple Coneflower, with Carex pennsylvanica and Tiarella cordifolia as groundcovers.
Everywhere you look there will be plants in ‘gay profusion’ (that lovely phrase from the song Scarlet Ribbons).
Like any large scale creative endeavor, a garden is collaboration. There are so many areas of expertise – no one person can know, or do, all of them. My primary skill – and passionate interest – is design: creating spaces, plant combinations, land forms. I have some knowledge of the skills necessary to implement a design…just about enough to know who will be the right person to do each job.
So months ago, on some visits before we’d moved here, I started to look for people to work with: nurseries to buy plants; sources for everything from mulch and compost to gravel and fertilizers; landscape contractors to install the paths and patios as well as the plants; people with local knowledge about soil and climate.
Back in New York I would have known just who to contact for everything. The best nursery for perennials – Atlantic Nurseries. My go-to landscapers/installers: Groundworks. But here in Kansas I don’t know anybody. Or rather – I didn’t. Now I do.
I lucked out almost immediately, when I contacted Loma Vista Nurseries. I sent them an e-mail explaining my situation and almost immediately got a reply from Lyndsi Oestmann, who I believe is one of the owners. I’ve found out since that they are a major grower here, of trees and shrubs. Though I suspect one 6-acre garden is a small project for them, Lyndsi was gracious enough to spend quite a lot of time with me, and eventually took me on a tour of one of their growing nurseries to help me become more familiar with what grows well here, and to see the (marvelous) quality of what they grow.
Then (thank you Lyndsi) , she recommended one of her staff, Wes Armstrong, to work with me installing the plants and creating the garden. I went out to the nursery to meet them both, bringing along my earliest schematic plans to show them. Wes understood immediately the ideas I was describing and was enthusiastic about wanting to work with me on the gardens. He is knowledgeable about plants and hardscaping (the term we use for paths, pergolas, patios, steps – everything except the plants); he has the necessary equipment and knows local crews to work with him as necessary.
He is only available after his work at Loma Vista – that is evenings and weekends – but he is quite sure he will be able to do the job. And so far he has come through.
He started out by going to the site and getting soil samples and had them tested for me; he’s mowed the entire site, clearing away dead underbrush, removing some barbed wire fencing we discovered along the south border; took down a dead Cottonwood tree right at the edge of our property line that was threatening to damage some power lines.
And soon, that is as soon as I complete the detailed planting plan with lists of plants, he’ll be sourcing the plants for me and with his crews, doing the planting.
One of the pleasures of making gardens is being part of a community of the like-minded. And I feel as if my community is starting to form.
As I work on the design of the various gardens I have to go back and forth in my mind between designing the big picture – the 6 acres of garden as a whole – and designing each of the separate gardens, and the relationships between them. With every plant I put in…every shape of every planting bed…I have to answer questions like: Do I want the Perennial Border to be visible from the house? Do I want the Meadow to be seen by someone strolling along the Woodland Walk? Should visitors coming up the driveway see the house through the Cherry trees?
And the answer is the same every time – Yes and No. I do want to create an awareness of what is beyond immediate perception, but not full visibility. Just a suggestion that no matter where you are in the garden there is something more to see…a reason to move on. A hint of vibrant color that is the Perennial Border – but not the whole border. A sight of the house glimpsed through the trees from changing perspectives, as your car moves along the curve of the driveway. A distant glow of the open Meadow, like a burst of light seen from the shade of the Woodland Walk.
What I am trying to do is control where you look, so that everywhere you are in the garden is pleasing – and yet you can’t help but be curious about what is just tantalizingly out of sight.
In an Agatha Christie mystery it’s always surprising when you find out who did it…but it makes sense too. You kind of knew it. That’s what I’m after. Surprises that are not totally unexpected.