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The Bones of a Garden

By Paul James

I get more ideas on how to improve the look of my garden this time of year than at any other time. That may sound strange, but the reason is simple — I can see its skeletal structure. Because what remains after the flowers have faded and the lush green foliage is gone are the garden’s bones. And you can learn a lot by examining those bones. 

The first thing you may realize is the barrenness of your garden, especially if it’s full of deciduous trees and shrubs. That’s not a bad thing by any means, but ask yourself what a difference a few well placed conifers and evergreens would make. A specimen plant (or plants) as a year ‘round focal point can do wonders to alter not just the look but also the “feel” of your garden. And a mix of evergreens of varying heights can create a sense of rhythm, plus provide visual impact in the dead of winter, as well as cover and nesting sites (and in some cases, food) for birds.

If your yard is mostly grass, imagine the difference a stone path might make, ideally one that meanders to a garden bench or two, a water feature, or a chiminea or fire pit. And what if you lined the edges of the path with boxwoods, or even a few boulders here and there? I think boulders are great accents for all seasons, and you don’t have to water them!.

What about your bedlines? Is it time to rethink their layout, softening straight lines and hard angles with soft curves (or vice versa)? Or perhaps expand them to make room for more plants, or line their edges with stone to enhance their look and definition? 

I love using large pots as accents in established gardens, especially colorful, double-fired pots that can handle the weather. and I don’t necessarily plant anything in them. I do likewise with statuary, driftwood, and yard art. They really pop when there’s not much else popping in the garden.

Consider walls and fences made of wood or stone. Fences provide definition (and make for good neighbors) and create a backdrop for plants and a surface for vines to climb on. A short stone wall, whether straight or curved, can help establish garden “rooms,” and when capped with wood or flat stones, also serve as benches.

Another great feature to consider is a bird-feeding station, one consisting of wooden posts or metal poles to which you can hang feeders filled with seed and attach suet cakes.

And while you’re at it, don’t forget the birdbath.

Happy gardening, ya’ll!

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10 responses to “The Bones of a Garden”

  1. Tom Peters says:

    I agree 100%. I’ve always spent winters walking my property and absorbing my surroundings. Sometimes I’ll sit on a bench or swing to just observe garden structure as well as the contours of my yard which made up of small hills. The best part is I have a couple months to plan and envision my next step or steps. The best part is your forced to be patient because there’s little than can be done in the winter, and as I learned from you and others is a big part of gardening is patience, oh and a strong back helps too! Keep up the great work Paul, your blogs take some of the sting out of winter!!

  2. I have tried all my life, I’m 74, to have a blend of some color in small amounts in my beds for winter and LARGE amounts in summer! I can visualize the winter with small bushes, but when I think of summer and try to visualize an abundance of flowers in my beds among the tiny shrubs I picture it looking messy! I still do the best I can and have always had lots of flowers and people stopping and commenting how beautiful my yard looks! And one day my husband and I had a contractor giving us ideas about a pergola and he brought his designer with him…we all sat outside looking at my not pristine beds of shrubs, and flowers and the designer said, ‘your backyard is absolutely beautiful,’ and I said well, I’m really not good at designing the beds. She said, that’s just it, because it is not so manicured and balanced, that’s why it’s lovely in a natural way!! I’ve never had a better compliment in my life. But every year at this time I look and ponder about what I could do to make it better!!! I have enjoyed you for YEARS!!

    • Paul James says:

      How sweet! And I totally agree with the landscape designer. Too many gardens look contrived. I’ve never had a design class in my life. I just do what I like and it seems to work out fine — well, most of the time anyway.

  3. Greg Rosta says:

    Hi Paul,

    Thank you for the Q&A! As always, a lot of fun, and super informative! I wasn’t able to get to a question I had for you, so I figured I’d post it…do you have a suggestion for a groundcover or other low laying plant under an overhang, where there is not a lot of sun, and not a lot of water? Perhaps pachysandra?


  4. Felicia Crozier says:

    If you discover a root that is girdling a Japanese maple what can you do about it? I’ve been told if you cut it you will lose the corresponding branch. Thanks Paul.

    • Paul James says:

      It depends on the size of the root — anything larger than 1″ in diameter is best left alone. If the tree seems healthy, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

  5. Clark Diana says:

    I really enjoyed the Q&A session yesterday evening. Thank you so much. Diana Clark

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