The Principled Gardener

No, I don’t mean the gardener who has principles (though I’m sure you do); I’m referring to the gardener who uses principles – design principles that is. Last month (Good Lines Mean Good Designs Part 1 and Part 2) I discussed the first two stages of the design process – functional drawings and concept drawings. The final stage is a Planting Plan, but before we can complete this design process, a look at the principles that guide it is in order.

So what are design principles anyways?

Design principles are guidelines that help create pleasing relationships between the various elements of a composition. If you’ve ever picked up a garden design magazine or attended a garden design lecture, you will no doubt have been introduced to the concepts – they may not always be presented in exactly the same framework or use exactly the same terminology, but the constructs are nevertheless the same. I like to think of Design Principles not so much as rules that must be followed, but rather as a way of understanding how the human eye perceives its surroundings and using that to its best advantage.

Gardeners don’t always recognize when they’ve utilized a design principle. Though it may happen by accident, a well designed garden will most certainly have some or all of these principles incorporated in it. It would be so much easier though, if we knew what they were and how to use them, instead of the trial and error approach that most of us employ.

So let’s get started. As I mentioned, Design principles can be organized or categorized in numerous ways, but for the sake of simplicity I’m going to call these principles Unity, Balance, Movement, Scale and Proportion.


According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Unity is defined as:  Oneness, being one, interconnection of parts, coherence of parts. So how do we bring that ‘oneness’, that ‘coherence of parts’ into our gardens? There are several ways we can achieve this – repetition, dominance, unity of three and interconnection. Unity then, is an umbrella principle for all of these concepts. Today I look at Repetition.


Repetition refers to the repeated use of the same or similar elements throughout a composition.

Plant Material

One of the easiest things to repeat in your landscape is plant material – gardeners often do this unknowingly in their early gardening years, and then abandon it. For many of us our first gardening ventures are somewhat tentative and often constrained by budget limitations. We gladly accept our next door neighbour’s offer of perennials that she’s dividing or discarding. We take a few clumps of each, and spread them around the garden; hence many plants are repeated several times. As we get more adventuresome, we want to try all manner of new things and before we know it we’ve arrived at the ‘one of this and one of that’ scenario, which is anything but coherent.  It’s an expensive mistake and wasteful at that – in order to repeat you now have to reduce. Restraint people, restraint – you don’t need one of every plant in order to attain beauty and diversity in your garden. So, the next time you have some perennials that need dividing, don’t discard the extras, or give them away –  repeat them!

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Numerous plants, including creeping thyme, Goldmound spirea, blue oat grass and bugleweed, are repeated throughout my front garden beds. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Marg Gaviller

Hosta and red Astilbe are the recurring plant theme in this mature garden.
Photo: Marg Gaviller

Building Material

The repeated element can also be a building or hardscape material, for example; brick, wood or stone. Repeating this in the landscape allows house and landscape to appear as one entity. Conversely, using a material in the landscape that doesn’t also occur on the house, can result in a visual disconnect between house and landscape.

Incorporating a building material from the house, into the surrounding landscape, unites house and landscape. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Incorporating a building material from the house, into the surrounding landscape, unites house and landscape. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Stone pillars echo the stone facing on the house. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Architectural Features

You can also repeat an architectural line or feature. For example, the shape of an arched window could be repeated in the shape of a garden bed or in the arching branches of a weeping tree. A unique detail on the house could be the inspiration for a fence or arbour design.

repetition - line

The arches on the house are repeated in the arching form of this Caragana arborescens ‘Walker’s Weeping’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The diamond shape detail on the windows was the inspiration for the fence I designed for a client’s home. The fence is being installed as I write this, hence the computer generated image.


A colour can be repeated as well – bringing a colour from the house into the landscape or using a recurring colour within a garden composition, can unify your whole outdoor space. A purposeful colour scheme will allow you to do this with some real finesse (more on colour schemes in another post). Keep in mind that choosing a plant for its flower colour will provide colour repetition, but only when it’s in bloom – to achieve this throughout the season, choose plants with colourful foliage too.

The colour of the front door is seen again in the Chrysanthemums. Black is also repeated, as is the architectural detail of the columns, which is repeated in the planter pedestal. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Repeating a colour within a planting composition is very unifying – here the dark wine colour of emerging Acer palmatum leaves picks up on the same hue in the tulips.
Photo: Jane Reksten

By repeating elements that are the same, or have similar characteristics, the eye posits each recurrence into visual memory and ties them all together in one coherent theme – voila Unity!


© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

All Creatures Great and Small

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

I doubt that when Cecil Francis Alexander penned the chorus to this popular children’s hymn, she was staring down at a rabbit-chewed stump that was once a rose – or a tree trunk stripped almost bare of bark, or ornamental grasses mown down in the first flush of spring growth.

It can be immensely disappointing when our favourite trees, shrubs and perennials are razed by the likes of Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin. Unfortunately, solutions to this nuisance are less than perfect but there are a few.

The Design Solution

Designing a garden that is rabbit resistant entails housing vulnerable selections i.e. ‘rabbit candy’, in raised beds, containers or enclosures of some kind. Obviously rabbits do jump, but a 2 foot raised bed can act as a deterrent, and while a rabbit can squeeze through small openings, a fenced yard or courtyard does offer some protection.  In my own experience, my front yard is fair game for the rabbits but I’ve never seen them, or any evidence of their presence in my fenced back yard.

Unfortunately I can’t say the same for the squirrels – they are ubiquitous.

The smooth shiny bark of Caragana arborescens ‘Walker’s Weeping’ is a rabbit favourite. In this client’s raised planter it is somewhat protected. The underplanting of Berberis thunbergii ‘Cherry Bomb’ offers further protection since its thorny branches serve as a barrier. Photo: Sue Gaviller

And what about deer? Fences and raised beds aren’t going to keep Bambi out – unless they are 8 feet tall. A Shishi-odoshi (Japanese Deer Scarer) is one design solution that comes to mind. This can work for most nuisance wildlife but there are a couple of drawbacks. For one, the aesthetic is expressly Japanese so may not work thematically with all gardens. Second, it may discourage desirable wildlife from visiting. And third, the more brazen intruders like squirrels, could soon habituate to the sound.

Shishi odoshi 日本語: ししおどし

Shishi odoshi 日本語: ししおどし (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those living in the country, deer present a much bigger problem, due largely to habitat proximity – this may require a design approach calledDeeroscaping(awesome resource when deer pressure is extreme).

Underplanting susceptible trees with Lavandula or other aromatic, as I have with this client’s top-graft Syringa meyeri, may help deter pests. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Including some aromatic plants in your planting design can also be helpful. Salvia, Lavandula and Nepeta are all objectionable to deer and rabbits – they don’t like the smell. Happily these are pleasant smelling to us and very attractive additions to a garden. Keep in mind though that Nepeta will attract cats – in my neighbourhood we already have a cat problem (a topic for another post), so no Nepeta for me.


Salvia nemerosa ‘Maynight’ is a strongly aromatic ornamental sage which may discourage rabbits and deer. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Some gardeners will use wire baskets or chicken wire contraptions to cover anything that’s showing signs of pest activity. From a design perspective this is a poor solution – while it may indeed protect your plants, it is unsightly. I don’t think sacrificing the beauty of a garden for 6 months of the year is an acceptable price to pay, so unless these devices can be obscured from view, I personally don’t use them. The exception would be trees. Rabbits and deer love to nibble on the bark of certain trees; Malus, Populus, Salix and other trees with thin bark (also young trees). If the bark is damaged more than halfway around the trunk, the tree may not survive. Therefore I do recommend protecting trunks of susceptible trees, particularly in the winter – if you can do so inconspicuously, all the better. The trunk of my Malus ‘Pink Spires’ sustained extensive rabbit damage this past winter, until we wrapped it (loosely)with chicken wire. Because the tree is fronted by a bird bath and obscured from other vantage points by shrubbery, the chicken wire isn’t visible.

Most shrubs and perennials that have been chewed by rabbits will recover. Trees on the other hand may not – if more than half of the trunk circumference is damaged, the tree’s chances of survival are slim. The trunk of this Malus ‘Pink Spires’ is almost completely girdled in one spot, so it may well succumb to its injuries within the next year. I am keeping my fingers crossed though.

The Horticultural Solution

For most of us, by the time we discover we have a ‘critter’ problem, design solutions like raised beds or courtyards are no longer options, at least not without a costly and/or time-consuming redesign. So what can we do? Well we could remove altogether, anything that’s being eaten. However, what a particular animal finds tasty may not be consistent – in my own garden, the squirrels consistently bite the flower buds off one of my Scabiosa caucasica ‘Ultra Violet’, but leave the other two alone. Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ was sheared to the ground by rabbits every spring (and again as soon as it recovered from the first assault), until I moved it to the back yard. Spiraea bumalda ‘Goldmound’ is also ‘pruned’ to the ground every winter. It grows back though and stays quite compact thanks to the rabbits, so it’s not a problem. For many years these were the only plants bothered by nuisance wildlife.

Then last year I noticed elevated rabbit activity; all of my Heucheras were bitten off (silly rabbit didn’t eat the foliage, he just ate the tender juicy stems and left the beautifully coloured leaves scattered on the ground). Helictotrichon sempervirens – big bites out of it (weird because it has a very unpleasant tactile surface). Roses – gnawed to the ground (ouch, don’t they know roses have thorns). It seems a bunny is living somewhere very near my garden, though I’m not sure exactly where. I see him basking in the sun on my lawn or my neighbour’s lawn. And I do mean basking– splayed right out as if he was dead. And brash he is too. When I shoo him away he moves off slowly and nonchalantly – if he could speak I’m sure he’d be saying, ‘Yo, lady. What’s your problem?’

But I digress.

There are commercial rabbit, deer and squirrel repellents on the market, some of which are safe and environmentally friendly, others not. In addition, there are home remedies you can try – some target a specific pest, but since all are herbivores with similar fear responses, what works on one will often work on all.

  • In a comic strip a few years ago, one of the characters placed dog hair around plants to deter rabbits and squirrels. I tried this and it was actually working until the birds discovered the dog hair and decided it was excellent nesting material. My dog couldn’t shed fast enough to keep up with the demand for her hair so I gave up.
  • Blood meal is a strong disincentive for deer, rabbits and squirrels. A teaspoon or so sprinkled around the plant works very well, but it needs reapplication after it rains. Unfortunately blood meal can attract cats, though in my experience it doesn’t seem to draw them with any more frequency than usual. If you live in an area where bears and/or cougars are common, blood meal is not recommended as it may attract them. As well, because blood meal is a source of nitrogen, if frequent reapplication is required you run the risk of encouraging too much leafy growth. This can then create other issues; slugs and aphids to name a couple.
  • Crushed garlic in some water, steeped for a few days, then strained and sprayed on plants can be an effective repellent.
  • The presence of human urine, particularly male urine, is also purported to deter nuisance wildlife. Several years ago I advised an acreage client to, ahem, ‘mark his territory’, which he did and I believe it in fact reduced pest activity. Hard to say how it would have worked in the long-term though as I don’t think he was willing to continue this practice indefinitely. For city dwellers, you’ll have to be a little more creative in the method you ‘apply’ this if you don’t want to be noticed. And be sure to drink lots of water.
  • Other homemade concoctions may be also effective, but I urge you not to use any that have cayenne or Tabasco sauce as ingredients – I don’t think our aim should be to cause pain.

The Culprit – this fluffy fella camped out in my front yard all winter. I suspect it is the same rabbit who made my garden his favourite lunch spot last summer, as he has the same brazen attitude.
Photo: Pat Gaviller

So now that you have a few weapons in your arsenal let me offer…

Another Perspective

When we first embark on the journey that is gardening, it’s very much about ourselves – what we like, what we want. It’s not intentionally selfish, but we’re a bit like the youngster who is determined to ‘do it by myself ’. We’re content to putter and play in the dirt and we’re not much interested in what the experts, or the neighbors, have to say.

Once we’ve gardened for a few years, and after countless mistakes (sometimes expensive ones) we recognize that some advice from a garden designer or coach might be helpful. And we become all too interested in what the neighbors and passers-by have to say.

Eventually enlightenment comes, with the realization that our gardens are much more than just playgrounds for our green thumbs, or a source of affirmation for our needy egos. Our gardens are enormous ecosystems, home to millions of life forms, some we can’t see, some we can’t pronounce and some we’ve never even heard of. While not all of them can be deemed ‘beneficial’, they all have a role to play. Aphids for example are pests to be sure, but they are also a food source for an army of beneficial visitors – ladybugs, green lacewings, hoverflies, midges (and the larva of all), and many birds (especially the young). If there are no aphids these predator bugs lose a significant component of their diet. An enlightened gardener therefore, learns to leave well enough alone.

There is wisdom to be gained from Ms. Alexander’s refrain. When I find myself lamenting the loss or damage to a prized plant by some hungry critter, those words ‘all creatures great and small’ start playing in my head. Yes, all have a role to play.

I haven’t figured out yet what role that ‘Wascally Wabbit’ has to play (they do love to eat dandelions), nor the pesky squirrels (I guess they too are a food source, most notably for the magnificent birds of prey), but I can’t help feeling some compassion, even kinship, with these animals that make my yard and garden their home – in a way we’re all in this together. I have a particular soft spot for the young ones. A touching experience with a very young squirrel the other day underscored my feelings. I don’t know where he came from or where he disappeared to, but to me he appeared too young to be without his mama. He was quite enamoured of both me and my husband and stayed to ‘visit’ with us for a bit, then scampered off. He sure was a cute.

Some years ago my father and his wife sent me this lovely birthday card – don’t know if they chose it just for its garden theme or if they recognized the gem of wisdom it contained:

The garden is home to so many – kinda puts it all in perspective doesn’t it?

So fellow gardeners, take heart  –  ‘Lucky is the World……to have you in it.’

Happy Mother’s Day,


© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

CURVES WONDERFUL CURVES: Good Lines Mean Good Designs – Part 2

At the end of March, I published a post on some of the early, though somewhat obscure, Harbingers of Spring – for me these offer hope after a long cold winter (my tolerance for winter must be decreasing as I get older, because this winter was neither long nor particularly cold).

The glimmer of colour I noticed radiating from tree branches last month is now a full-on flush of green as plumped-up buds become tiny unfurling leaves, especially after this week’s rain. The waiting game it seems is over. Hooray, gardening season is upon us! Perennials and annuals have been arriving at local greenhouses for a few weeks, trees and shrubs are here now too. Rakes, shovels, gloves and overalls are coming out of storage – it’s time to start ‘digging in the dirt’. Okay hold on there gardeners, slow down – remember you need to get those garden design lines right first. Guess I better finish Part 2 of GOOD LINES MEAN GOOD DESIGNS before your attention turns to the array of bright shiny things at your neighbourhood nursery.

Alrighty then … last post we looked at Landscape Design Concepts that contain straight lines – from that discussion you might conclude that a rectilinear design theme is my preferred concept form. Not so – in fact my back yard is curvilinear and my front yard, arc and tangent.  So you see I do like curves, but if I’d presented curving themes first, would you have read further?


Curves are the design line most favoured by gardeners, often to the exclusion of other design themes. Admittedly, there is something very captivating about voluptuous curves – the problem is curvilinear designs are the hardest to execute skillfully. The curves required to make this design theme work, are sweeping arcs as opposed to wiggly lines.

The curvilinear design theme is a design formed from continuous flowing lines using the circumferences of adjacent circles and/or ellipses. The fewer circles used and the more of each circle you can utilize, the more effective this theme will be.

Weak vs. Strong design lines. The top image illustrates weak design lines formed from many circles, utilizing a small portion of each circle. The bottom example illustrates strong design lines formed from fewer circles utilizing a greater portion of each circle.

Unfortunately the tendency is to use too many smaller arcs. As I’ve mentioned before, gardeners tend to subscribe to the adage that more is better – they equate simple with boring and mistakenly assume that adding a few more bows and bends will up the wow factor. It doesn’t. Instead it creates an awkward kind of visual movement as the eye wanders along a vague path.

The extra curves (top left) unnecessarily complicate this design line. The simplified curve shown in the second image (bottom right) would create a more effective curvilinear design.

Not all sites or space allotments are ideal for a curvilinear design theme. It’s really best suited for a site that is relatively large – large enough to accommodate some big bold arcs. Sometimes though, there may be a reasonable amount of space, but only in one direction, say a site that is either narrow and deep, or wide and shallow.  In this case, the solution might be to choose a different concept form altogether, or you may just have to be a little creative in your understanding of the curvilinear theme.

Side yards are typically long and narrow – gardeners often opt for a weak serpentine line like the one on the left, assuming there isn’t room for larger arcs. Instead, one could reinterpret the curvilinear theme to include a straight line, resulting in a bolder design line.

A back yard with very little depth can still be designed in a curvilinear fashion, but not with the use of weak wavy lines(left). Including one or two straight lines can allow for the use of longer deeper arcs even when space is tight(right).

But what if you have no appreciable distance in either direction – does this mean you are limited to straight lines?  Not necessarily. While a very small urban yard doesn’t lend itself to a curvilinear design theme, there are still ways you can incorporate curves into your garden beds. The Arc and Tangent Form I discussed in my last post can work nicely in a small yard, or you could try a circular design form, which is made up of circles and portions of circles. There are several circular design themes, but the simplest of them is overlapping circles.


An overlapping circular design is formed entirely from the arcs of overlapping circles. The key to making this design theme work is to use a variety of sizes, with one dominant circle. The circles should overlap enough that they can intersect at 90 degrees or more, thus avoiding acute angles.

An Overlapping Circular design theme can work equally well on a small site or a large site, because the circles can be moved in any direction. Note that on the larger property space is taken up, not by increasing the number of circles, but rather the size of the circles. This ensures that they will be in scale with the site.

A lovely example of an overlapping circle design. Photo Credit: Merton Designs, Dublin


Regardless of whether you choose a curving or straight line design there a few things to keep in mind.

  • Maintain continuity – stick with one design theme, as mixing themes will result in disunity.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t include an arc or a circle in an angular design, but the dominant theme must still be angular. It’s also acceptable to use one form in the front yard and a different one in the back, assuming that they are visually separated hence wouldn’t be experienced together.

This angular design contains a single arc for the purpose of creating emphasis.

  • Avoid acute angles – when design lines meet at less than 90 degrees, acute angles are formed. These are best avoided if at all possible. Aesthetically, these sharp angles appear awkward – in fact as a design instructor, they are first thing my eye goes to when critiquing student’s work. Functionally, there are several reasons to avoid them – in concrete, the use of acute angles creates weak areas prone to cracking. In beds and borders it creates tiny unusable spaces, too small for plants to grow in, and in lawns creates tight spots that are difficult to mow.
The use of acute angles in garden design is not recommended, for both functional and aesthetic reasons.

The use of acute angles in garden design is not recommended, for both functional and aesthetic reasons.

  • Use design lines to guide planting – the outline of your garden beds can influence ‘where you plant what’. For example, the space that is created when a design line arcs or juts out, is a great place for a feature plant or Focal Point. As well, you can accentuate your design lines by planting a single type of plant along the entire length of that line. Or you can alternate two or three different plants in a rhythmic pattern along the line, which will also serve to emphasize it.
The generous curves in this simple curvilinear design are accentuated by the alternating blue and green Junipers. The Malus 'Rosyglo' in the foreground is nicely 'framed' by the arching design line around it. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The generous curves in this simple curvilinear design are accentuated by the alternating blue and green Junipers. The Malus ‘Rosyglo’ in the foreground is nicely ‘framed’ by the arching design line around it. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Okay gardeners, I’m finished talking about arcs & angles, form & function and other designerspeak. Now you can go plant shopping – if you’re like me you’ll be the proverbial ‘kid in a candy store’. They say you should never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry….

Happy Gardening (at last),

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.