Creating a well-designed garden


I imagine it can be said of most things you’re learning that, once you get the basics down, you move on to tackling the tougher stuff. For gardeners, design is often one of those difficult things. I know it is for me, anyway. I read about garden design all the time, and knowing the strategies and rules is definitely helpful. But in the end, I’ve found that nothing beats seeing well-designed gardens, the kind that just make you stop and stare, in person or even in photos.

I suppose that’s not surprising when you think about it. What’s easier to understand and emulate, a paragraph about how gorgeous, interesting gardens consist of plants with varied bloom times, heights, foliage colors and textures or actually seeing gardens like that yourself?

Not to discount the power of words or anything — especially since I’m about to write more about design. All I’m saying is, if you’re like me and you’re looking at your gardens right now and thinking they look kind of blah or chaotic or lacking in that “Wow!” you feel when you see an inspiring garden, don’t despair. First of all, that “Ugh, my garden looks terrible” feeling is normal this time of year when everything is overgrown and tired. The upside is, now is as good a time as any to start thinking about what you can do differently next season. 


Though it’s getting late to go on garden tours this year, I can’t recommend them highly enough as a way to get ideas and figure out what you like and what you don’t. I went on several tours this summer and I have to say I was inspired to write this column after going on the Tangletown Garden Tour a couple of weeks back. Hosted by Minneapolis’ Tangletown Gardens, the tour is an annual July event and this year featured a stop at co-owner Scott Endres’ house.

Words could never the capture the magic Scott makes using combinations of annuals alone or mixed with unusual and underused perennials. You’ve got to see it for yourself. I’ve posted some photos I took at his place, and other spots on the tour, on my blog: if you want to check them out. If you’re in the mood to ponder ideas, I would also suggest stopping by Tangletown Gardens to have a look at the colorful beds that border that property and Wise Acre Eatery (also owned by Endres and his business partner Dean Engelmann) next door.          

Don’t be thrown off by the bold colors if those aren’t your thing. What you want to study are the combinations of plants. Notice how they mix leaf shapes and intersperse mounding plants grasses and upright plants of all sorts. Another great place to visit and learn from is Noerenberg Gardens in Orono ( The garden’s curator,

Arla Carmichael, has a remarkable sense of design, and I’ve studied her plantings for sun and shady like a textbook. She is especially adept at planting for all seasons, so keep that in mind if you head out there.

By the book

Seeing gardens close up is wonderful, but not always practical in our climate. So if you really want to delve into garden design, you’ll need to look at some books. What you choose will obviously be dictated by your taste and style preferences — edible landscaping versus cottage gardens or Japanese gardens, say. I’ve got a few favorite books that I find particularly inspiring to look through. (Reading the text is good, too. But, again, the photos will really help you see what particular plants look like on their own and in combination with others.)

Topping my list is Succession Planting for Year-Round Pleasure by the late writer and gardener, Christopher Lloyd. In fact, I would recommend any book by Christopher Lloyd. If you like gardening with native plants, you can’t go wrong with Lynn Steiner’s Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota. I’m trying to incorporate more edibles into my landscape, so I’ve been studying Rosalind Creasy’s Edible Landscaping lately. She gardens in California, so we’re not able to do what she can, exactly. But she has a lot of great ideas that be extrapolated on in our climate. Plant-Driven Design by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden has fantastic photos of all types of gardens. It is absolutely worth paging through, but I have to say that I found the text a bit snarky and off putting at times so beware.

The last thing I want to say may be the most important, so I hope you’re still with me. As you look at gardens in person and in books, I want to suggest that you commit to memory what moves you. Don’t worry so much about the rules. Like good cookies, the best gardens are always the ones you can tell were made with love.           

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