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10-step guide to design for landscapers and gardeners

1. Know this: Perennials do not bloom all season long. They have a season of bloom which may range from two weeks to two months, or even longer. When designing a landscape or perennial garden, it is important to truly understand just when and for how long a particular perennial blooms in your area. The best choice may not always be the plant that blooms the longest.

2. Dig deeper: Now that the season of bloom of for the plants have been recognized, it is time to dig deeper into other important characteristics of the potential plant. Characteristics such as: Does the plant not emerge in the garden until May or later?
Does the plant go dormant after blooming?
What is its mature height and spread?
What are the features of the foliage?

3. Know the theme: Is the landscape one for season-long interest, or simply a spring garden? Is it to be solely a garden for native plans, or are plants from other ecosystems welcome? Is deer pressure intense? Will foodscaping (food plants incorporated into the garden) be part of the design or are vegetables to be in their own space. What about cut flowers? A garden is not just a bunch of plants, rather a place to help people smile. Think before planting.

4. Know the Foliage: Some people say that foliage is the most important part of the plant, much more so than the flowers. Thinking about the leaves is not the first thing on the minds of inexperienced designers, landscaper or gardeners, yet they are present far longer than the blossoms. In fact, many perennials have highly attractive foliage that can be a valuable garden asset. Textures (bold, wispy, wavy) and color (deep purples, golden or variegated) allow for even more creativity even when flowers are finished. On the down side, some perennials bear that must be cut back or become very unkempt looking as the summer heats up. Know the foliage.

5. Think for the entire season: Once you have appraised the plants that will go into the landscape, work with their strengths and weaknesses to create a season-long picture. Inevitably, some plants decline over time, so combine those with summer and spring flowering plants. Surround early bloomers with strong late bloomers. Thinking the long game helps to avoid the gaps and unsightly holes that many gardens suffer from. If gaps still occur, use spring, summer and fall blooming bulbs in between the plants. They go dormant and disappear after blooming, quickly filled in as the perennials mature.

6. Plant in drifts: There is nothing lonelier than a single plant in a landscape. Plants are social things and look far more striking when surrounded with their own kin, otherwise known as planting in drifts. This is especially true with plants less than two feet in height and width. A drift is usually defined as three or more of the same plant. The larger the garden, or the farther away from which the garden is viewed, the larger the drifts should be.

7. Think about scale and repetition: Make your garden as wide as possible allows planting in drifts from tall to medium to short in the same general area. A general rule of thumb is that the height of the tallest plant should be no more than half of the width of the bed. If tall plants are designed for narrow beds, then one plant will fill it. If limited in space, make the garden wider and not as long. Repeating the same plants or combination of plants in a different spot in the garden provides unity and a soothing effect on the eyes. Consider color echoing, i.e. repeating the same color or color combinations, throughout the garden, even if the actual plants are different. Additional themes, such as using silver foliage plants or ornamental grasses for dramatic vertical accents, can be repeated.

8. Think about maturity: It is easy to overplant. The container plant today may double or triple its height/width in a few years. If the mature size is significantly underestimated, maintenance will be a nightmare in three to five years Finding the balance between sufficient plants to look good the first year and too many that look bad later requires experience, and plant knowledge.

9. Think about marriage: When designing, think about plant combinations that bloom at the same time, rather than trying to spread out bits of color all about. Plant marriages can even be more effective if the colors are complementary or opposites, creating exciting contrast. 

10. Think about differences: Try placing plants that are markedly different, next to each other. Perhaps the combination of spiky plants to offer vertical accent will be even better when placed near billowy, mounded plants. Other differences that work are plants with broad textured foliage combined with those with delicate lacy foliage. Bold dramatic flowers look all the more dramatic if paired with light airy flowers.