Friday, July 21, 2017  

Structure in the Garden
Give Form or Arrangement  

Sure you say, I can do structure…but what in the world is it?

Structure is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as “the interrelation of parts,” or “to give form or arrangement to.”

Landscape design is multifaceted. Perhaps the term “exterior design” is more appropriate. The process includes visual evaluation, verbal communication, and a great deal of puttering around. Consideration needs to be given to architecture, taste, location, color, texture, climate, form, shape, cost, and maintenance. Every part needs to be blended with the wishes and dreams of the owner of the land and the proposed or existing garden area.

When a garden area is established, its shape is defined by the spaces and shapes that surround it, the use of the plant material and their form. Structure can be established using many forms. Now I am not talking about birdbaths, pergolas and arbors. Although appropriate for many situations, these are not the only choices. Thinking out of the box gives us all a chance to personalize the space.

Structure in the garden should augment the garden and perk it up using form, color and interest.

Garden Lighting
Garden spaces can be complimented with the use of lighting. Fixtures can be installed to give a soft glow to pathways, or highlight certain features. Lights can be directed to shine in a downward direction, sideways to light a wall or building or a certain piece of statuary. Uplighting, the placement of lights at the base of trees and shrubs, aimed upwards into the structure, augments the nocturnal view.

Always consider your neighbors. Similar to pruning, you need to evaluate your potential lighting up close and from a distance before making a decision.

Exterior lighting needs to be con­sidered from the aspect of complimenting the style of the surroundings and not distracting from it.

Lighting with low voltage, plastic, black bumps can have the effect of highlighting the fixtures and not the area. Lighting comes in many forms. Low voltage, solar and 110 each has their benefits. Taking the time to become educated in consultation with an electrical contractor can help you avoid costly mistakes. Often they are willing to set up trial areas before you make your decision. As in many design features, less can be better than more.

The Importance of Color
Color is such an important feature in the garden….actually in life, but that is another subject. Punches of color using structure can be very effective to highlight surrounding plantings. Picture a bright blue gaze ball surrounded by a wash of sky blue verbena to give the “wow” feature to a garden.

Keep in mind that dark colors recede and lighter colors advance. So if you are dying for that dark blue or purple plant in the distance, back it up with a brighter variety or a plant with variegated foliage to promote its visibility.

We all know those broken brightly colored glazed ceramic pots or chairs that are beyond being repaired. They make great architectural features in a garden. Turn a broken ceramic pot into an interesting feature by placing on its side with the broken part down into the soil, filling the opening with soil and placing the plant material as if it is flowing out of the opening.

Bits of brightly colored glazed pots can be used effectively in casting homemade stepping stones. Check with your local nursery or a pottery shop for any broken bits they may be willing to part with. Kits for making pavers are available in nurseries, hardware stores and craft shops.

Large leaves such as those from Elephant ear philodendron and castor bean plants make wonderful bird baths. Simply form a mound of sand that fits the inverted leaf. Your leaf needs to be kept subtle and green. Smooth the leaf over the sand mound. Mix up mortar and apply a thick coat. Note that the courser the sand the rougher the finished product will be.

Smooth the edges and surface of the mortar surface, using your rubber gloved hands. Cover the surface with wet paper towels. Top off with plastic wrap. The entire structure should remain in place for about 2 days. Then remove the plastic wrap and allow the paper towels to dry for another day or so. Remove the paper towels. When the item is dry to the touch, brush off the remaining paper towels, and carefully turn right side up. The edges can be brushed to smooth them out or left rough.

The entire bird bath should remain to dry for another week or so and then can be painted and glazed or left to the elements. Some prefer to use a straw to make a hole in the form while the mortar is wet, to facilitate drainage. These can be placed part way up the sloping side of the basin. These are especially helpful when the form is large and heavy. Brick and cement scrap can be used in sustainable gardening to form a wall or a free form structure.

Bottle trees make wonderful sun catchers and are a great use for those empty wine or colorful sparkling water containers. (Some restaurants are more than willing to donate them to you.)

I have a favorite way to commemorate a vacation. I look for old brick and only when given permission, take it home to add to the edging of a small sundial garden. Stolen bricks kill plants!

Fencing made of wrought iron, an old rusty gate, brick walls, picket, vinyl or wood add texture and tone to any landscape. The use of decorative fence panels to serve as an arbor for climbing plants can be very effective. Contrast the color of the fence and wall it is placed against for even more interest. If maintenance is an issue, there are panels made of aluminum that can be very effective.

Evaluation of the surrounding area to determine the appropriate scale and architecture is so important. Occasionally, you can take a chance and add something just for fun that is a little out of character and style. These items give the viewer an opportunity to relax and feel more casual and are best used for the less formal areas of the property.

Statuary, pots, furniture, old window or mirror frames, church pews, old wheelbarrows and yes the occasional old metal bed frame planted as a “Bed,” add texture, interest and fun to the garden.

Antiquing architectural items can be very effective. Wooden pieces can be tortured…abusing on purpose, to cause a “used” look. Cement features can be coated with sour milk or buttermilk, then covered with plastic wrap and left in the hot sun for a couple of months for a very interesting patina. Moss makes a great stain, and rubbing down a new piece with soil and sand will often add the look of years in days. Unfinished, unsealed items take up stains more readily.

Consider using structure to create a ceiling for your garden. The top of an arch, large column, pergola or adjoining wall helps to put an upwards visual limit on the garden area. Picture an open field or expansive garden area. Now picture some structure that gives that area a height limit, as in a large gate. Visually this puts an upward limit on this area and again the sense of bringing it down to human scale.

Plant Structure
All plant material has its own unique structure. Used individually they become specimen plantings. Used in combination, the color, texture and structure play off each other. In all plantings it is very important to be aware of mature size. Mature size, although listed often on the plant tags and in horticultural publications, varies with the exposure and conditions the plant is placed within. Like children, you never really know how large they will grow.

Think of planting like organizing an outfit. You can wear those crazy leopard print capris, but you may want to tone down the top and cute shoes. Or not!!

Combining plantings, while allowing for contrast in texture and form, adds interest. The general rule suggests that plantings progress from small to large, front to back of the garden. Advancing size of plant material from shorter to taller at the edge of woods and by a large structure helps to visually take the eye from the smaller to larger plants in an orderly way. This can apply to rural mailboxes, entrance gates or at a transformation in the landscape, such as passing from one area to another.

Native plants have the advantage of being acclimated to the soil type and climatic conditions of the area. They offer increasingly recognized opportunities towards versatility. Stag horn sumac (Rhus hirta), with its wonderful shape and stunning fall color, is newly used in the ornamental garden. Golden rod (Solidago) delights us with its burst of bright color in summer. American beauty berry (Calicarpa americana) with its stunning violet berries in the fall, sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and all the wonderful grasses offer a full range of adaptable, low maintenance plants. Their contrast in form, color and structure make them wonderful additions to any garden. When obtaining native plants, never dig from the wild and only purchase from a reputable nursery that grows or purchases plants grown specifically for sale. Many natives will not transplant from the wild.

Create your own structure using your plants. Heidi Dawes, of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina has created an oasis using simple plantings and structure. She has created forms and texture with the use of her insight and love of plants. A wall covered by creeping fig encloses her courtyard. Shrubs are shaped by her hand and according to “how they like to grow.” Within the courtyard she has an eclectic collection of statuary, fountains, a painted chair, a colorful ceramic pot and wonderful plantings of her own liking. Her second floor deck overlooks this bucolic area. Even the railing leading to the deck has bits of structure, a small pot and some shells on the posts. It is no surprise that they like to frequent this area, as Chuck strums his guitar from the deck and “many turtles” enjoy the gardens below. Sometimes just staying with what you like and delights you is the best rule. Way to go Heidi!

Size indeed makes an impact in plantings. Who can resist a field of 7 foot blooming sunflowers or a Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) in full bloom (thistle family), with its 4 foot purple flower stalks. Castor bean definitely makes its own statement. These plants grow to a height of 7–9 feet; have reddish stalks, large palmate leaves and a showy long central stem of spikey green blush seed pods. Like many plants, castor bean is toxic (philodendron and pointsettia as well) so prevent your grandchildren, children, pets or husband from ingesting this showy species. This plant has the added benefit of being a mole and vole retardant.


Pots, urns, logs, old wheelbarrows, wagons, and numerous items that can serve as containers are usable in your garden. Look for interesting texture and color as well as scale. Tiny containers by themselves may not have a large impact, but if grouped in interesting combinations they may add large interest. A pot placed on top of a second upturned pot, flat rock or a column, not only increases its height and scale, but lends itself well to hanging plantings.

Creatively plant your containers. Seeds go a lot further than already established plants from the nursery. Think scale, color, texture and form as you may find many interesting alternatives or additions to the potted geranium.

Plant a series of containers near your kitchen door with herbs, tomatoes, lettuce and a tower with peas. Rainbow swiss chard, beets and ornamental corn make stunning combinations. Try growing cotton or tobacco or fill your pot with a few varieties of onions, or potatoes.

Marie Butler, curator of the gardens at the Norfolk Zoo says, “Use hangy downies, and sticky upies and roundy ballys.” Go there! You are sure to come away with wonderful ideas on how to use large structure plants. The animals are OK, but the plantings are spectacular!

Use red, blue, bright green and copper pots. Plant them with less frequently used plants. Build them up on bases and place them in unexpected places.

Now enjoy the creations you have made. Happy Gardening!

—By Judy Ripley—contributing writer