Every garden book has a chapter about garden design. It goes something like – decide what you want the garden to be, what functions it should perform. Then map out the garden and note all of the micro-climates or challenges. Then come up with several rough plans. Decide which one you like, refine in and then implement.
I am not sure many people have had the luxury of being able to start a whole garden from scratch, unless you are buying a new home, and few people can afford to build and plant an entire garden in one session. With my Oceanside garden, I did have a blank canvas in a way, but I certainly did not have an unlimited budget and given that I tend to do everything myself, I certainly do not have unlimited energy these days.
But I don’t usually follow rules and don’t really expect anyone else to when it comes to garden design and creation. Instead, I will tell you what I did, the mistakes I made and what worked for me.
From Goat Trail to Path
This garden started by the creation of a goat trail. The terrain is steep and was covered in natural vegetation. It was not clear if, or where, a path could be made that would go from one end of the garden to the other. I started from the bottom with a pair of loppers and blazed a trail. Along the way I allowed the terrain to talk to me. It made me zig and zag, almost looking for the easiest slope. I found one area that was flatter than the rest and immediately my mind said that it was a good place for some kind of garden structure. Another area cried out for a waterfall (that so far has not been built), while a deck seemed like a possibility here. I saw several garden areas developing in my mind. Over time, those thoughts percolated and rough plans were formed.
One of the first things to get built was that garden structure. It started as a very simple structure (4 posts with a roof) and took on an Asian-inspired flair when the color palette for it was defined. That of course led to the tea house, the contemplation garden and bamboo fences to separate that area from other garden segments that may clash with the idea of contemplation.
At this stage, the path was still basically sand with temporary risers for stairs held in with 2×1 stakes. Sand is a terrible path material! When wet, it sticks to boots and gets trailed everywhere. When dry, it is slippery – not good for steep pathways. Looking at the local hardware store I found they had a rather nice crushed bluestone and started to lay that as the path surface. So much better. As it packs down, it may need to be replenished every few years, but it forms a hard surface, and yet remains very permeable.
Wandering Down the Garden Path
One of the secrets to unifying a collection of garden spaces is consistency of paths. This does not mean that all paths have to be same. Paths exist for a variety of function. You may want a delineation of major and minor pathways. You may want a different feel in a formal area versus a woodland walk.
When building the tea house, I purchased some red/brown pavers for its flooring. The path leading to and away from it involved steps, on curve for added dramatic impact – well, that is what the lay of the land decided, but it sounds better if I try and make it look like it was by intent. Anyway – I decided to stretch the pavers out into the step that was on the same level as the tea house.
The gravel and the pavers looked good next to each other and having the pavers extend into the path also provided a visual clue that something had happened in the path. I had a winner! Gravel pathways with paver sections where there was a significant event, such as an intersection, an abrupt change of direction, entrances and gateways.
So, off I go to the hardware store to buy more of those pavers. Um, you would not believe the story that then took place, but a highly condensed version of it is that they no longer stocked it, the manufacturer no longer made it, a store halfway across the country still had a pallet of it left in stock, that they could get to me at some point, but when I bought the pavers for the tea house they were on a clearance sale, and that would not apply to these other ones, so they would cost a lot more. So, looking around their yard, I found some other pavers that were similar but couldn’t find a price on them. After they claimed that they did not exist, they eventually agreed that they were exactly what I was looking for and they had no idea where they had come from, but – yes I could have them, at the clearance price!
So, I had some pavers with which I could carry out my unified path plan. I have to be very careful how large I make those paver pads because after they are used up – that is it!
Next, I needed some secondary paths that allow access into the beds. I didn’t want them to stand out too much, but also wanted some level of consistency. I decided to use exposed aggregate stepping stones. Because so much of the garden is very angular (due to the number of retaining walls and wood boundaries along the path edges) I decided to use round stepping stones, and went with 16″ pavers so that they were big enough to be on and to do work in the beds. However, some areas were steep enough that I could only really use 12″ pavers – but continued to use the exposed aggregate.
I am very happy with the way it has worked out so far. While I do have plans for some garden areas with very different looking pathways, this has provided a satisfying unity. What do you think? Does it work?