Designing a Garden

LM Garden in Winter
My New York Rose Garden, photo taken on Jan. 14, 2009.



Winter has finally arrived and since it is our downtime, it is a great time to plan and design your garden. If you have an existing bed, maybe it is time to redesign it. What can you do to improve the garden next spring?  It is too cold to work outside so you can do some planning work inside. 


I usually pull out my gardening books especially those that deal with garden design. I have four books that always come up this time of the year. “Beautiful American Rose Gardens” by Mary Tonetti Dorra is great for planning a rose garden. There are some formal plans in the book where you can get an idea of planning a formal garden. “Landscape with Roses” by Jeff Cox has more informal beds incorporating other plants.  Penelope Hobhouse’s “Garden Designs” always come to mind if one wants to get an idea on how to do an English garden. “Color Echoes” by Pamela J. Harper is about harmonizing color in the garden. Armed with these four books and the garden catalogs that are coming in non-stop, I have plenty of ideas to work on. I love doing this in the middle of winter. 


Before you plan and design a garden or for that matter a rose garden, there are few things you have to consider.  You have to know why you want a garden.  We garden for various reasons.  Hundreds of years ago, people wanted a garden for food and medicine.  Gardening for pleasure did not come until later when man had satisfied his basic needs.  Nowadays, people garden because they want beauty to surround them.  Flowers make us feel good.  There is also a green movement now and lots of people are growing vegetables because they want to make sure they are getting vegetables devoid of artificially synthesized chemical fertilizers.


We have to ask a few questions before we start digging.  How much work do you want to put into the garden?  How big do you want your garden to be?  How much sun do you get in a day?  How shady is your yard?  What kind of plants are you thinking of growing?  Do you need these items in your garden besides flowers: vegetables, containers, pergola, arbor, a sitting area, lawn space, play area for your kids?  Do you need a compost pile and where do you want to hide it?  Will you use part of the garden for grilling and/or for dining?  Do you like to use the garden as a place to sit alone, read, relax or meditate?  These are the things you have to consider in planning and designing your garden.


For rosarians like us, we need at least four hours of sunlight to grow better roses.  Knock Out, a shrub rose will grow in dappled shade but will perform much better with plenty of sunlight.  Do you want to incorporate perennials with your roses?  For a cottage look, plan on planting perennials with roses.  There are plenty of plant companions that you can try.  I love white alyssum as edging for my roses in my front yard. It defines the line between the rose bed and the lawn and it has a sweet fragrance and repels bugs. I’m probably in the minority on this but now there is a growing trend to plant roses with other plants.  Somehow, roses fare better when planted with other plants than being isolated in a special rose bed.  They are less susceptible to diseases.  


With a stack of blank paper, scotch tape to attach them together, a box of Crayola crayons, a pair of scissors and all the catalogs I can gather, I start studying the catalogs to see what I really want in the garden. I cut the pictures of the plants, place them next to a complimentary color, check the blooming time and the condition where they want to live and bingo. I have my design. If I don’t have the picture of the plant I want, I use my crayons. Then I start ordering my plants. I do this every year. It’s a rite of passage for me. 


In my New York garden, the center of the garden is quite formal (see above photo taken in wintertime) with two sets of parterres with only roses and tulips planted in between the roses for dramatic spring color before the roses take over.  Around the perimeter of the yard are beds with annuals, perennials and shrubs incorporated with roses for a cottage look.  Here in Charleston where I live in a townhouse, I have a small garden. My roses share the spot with other plants.  I chose my plants for their fragrance and good company for my roses.   Annuals make a big splash in the garden and bloom their hearts out in one season.  If you want an instant and carefree garden, plant plenty of annuals.  It can get expensive unless you start from seed indoors way before the last frost date.


Container gardening is another venue to venture on.  Use your imagination.  There are plenty of choices of containers now in the market and you can really go to town with it.  Treat it like you are doing a floral arrangement.  Roses will thrive in containers as long as there is plenty of room for roots to grow.  Plan on having a big pot or container.  Consider a tree rose with some annuals for dramatic display.


For the waterwise gardener, there is the Xeriscape Gardening.  There are plenty of choice native plants and you can save plenty of water bills in the process.  High Country Gardens specialize in native plants and their catalog and website provide plenty of great plants. They even sell roses.  For three years before we moved permanently in Charleston, my roses thrived on benign neglect.  We only came for a couple of weeks every three months.  Twice we did not visit for four months.  When we came back, my garden was like a jungle.  Everything was overgrown and my roses survived the summer with just the rain if it came at all.  The secret is I planted all my roses with Scott Moisture Control potting mix.  During those visits, I also sprayed the roses with Messenger once and they did not get any blackspot either. 


There is one area which some people consider too hard to garden, the shady spot in your yard.  Don’t despair, there are more plants now that are suited for the shady nook of your yard.  Some have colorful leaves that can enliven your shady spots.  Besides azaleas and rhododendrons, there are plenty of coleus, caladiums, hostas and begonias to choose from.  They all come in various shades of leaves and flower forms.  Some begonias have a rose form and some non-gardeners will even mistake them for roses.  A few roses will thrive in partly shaded sections of the garden.  Gruss an Aachen, a floribunda and Bow Bells, a David Austin Rose will do quite well in dappled shade.  Bow Bells continuously bloom in the shade.  When some of my roses take a break in the summer, my two Bow Bells are still blooming their hearts out.


Once you have figured out the plant requirements and what you want your garden for, then it is time to prepare the soil.  The soil is the most important aspect of designing a garden.  For roses, you need a sandy loam.  Take a soil sample and have a pH test done.  After you find the right spot in your yard to start a garden, dig the sod out and add plenty of compost to the bed before you start planting.  I know some gardeners in England don’t use fertilizer in their garden but plenty of compost and they have the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen.    A majority of us rosarians started our garden years ago with possibly five roses.  I know I did and over the years you just keep on adding more roses.  As we get older, we tell ourselves to slow down or even stop but somehow we can’t.  Gardening is good exercise and the beauty it creates is good for our wellbeing.  It gives beauty and pleasure to everyone.  So don’t stop now.  When you stop gardening and smelling the roses, life will stop too.


Happy Gardening!

Until Next time. Stop and Smell the Roses.

Rosalinda R Morgan




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