How to design a garden

What to consider before doing the planting

By Lorraine JohnsonLorraine Johnson

Design a garden

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As you plan your garden layout, keep in mind the following considerations:

Before finalizing your design, decide where paths should go, and which path materials would best enhance the native-species theme. Janet Davis, a cottager on Lake Muskoka, near Bala, Ont., for example, chose woodchips for her path because they are “soft, easy on the eyes, and much more sympathetic to the surroundings.” Of course, the more absorbent materials, such as woodchips, pea gravel or, landscaper Robert Allen’s favourite, composted pine mulch, have the important advantage of soaking up precious rainfall and tainted cottage runoff that would otherwise roll off hard surfaces and head to the lake.

Arrange mossy rocks and fallen logs from your property around the plants. If you dig down a couple of inches and let them settle into the earth, they’ll look like nature put them there. As well as adding visual interest and easing grade changes, they provide great habitat for beneficial insects. If you’re short on your own rocks and decide to import a few, make sure they fit with the local look – nothing is more jarring than limestone boulders plunked down on Canadian shield!

When planning where to situate your beds, consider the views you most enjoy at the cottage – sightlines from the porch or dock, for example – and give extra attention to their design, since you’ll be seeing them a lot. Likewise, something you’d like to screen out of view, such as an unsightly addition to a neighbour’s cottage, might call for a strategic hedge planting.

Take special care designing the transitional edges, where the garden abuts the natural landscape. “This is often overlooked,” says Allen, “but it’s the big deal.” Instead of an abrupt edge of regimented plants that stops unnaturally where the more random wilderness begins, you want a softer, more irregular placement of perennials and shrubs to ease the transition. “Pick up on the meandering line that’s already there and just organize it a bit more,” explains Allen. “You want the woods to seem part of your property.”

Many native woodland plants bloom exuberantly in spring, but few cottagers are there to see them. Because the summer woodland garden is more subdued, with cooling greens and foliage texture providing interest, you can add some colour by planting perennials that produce berries later in the season, such as false Solomon’s seal, and berry-producing shrubs like elderberry. The fruits will also draw an enthusiastic audience of birds.


This article was originally published on May 14, 2003

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