Designs, Tricks, and Schemes

The Myth of Planning

Here’s how it goes.  Referring, inevitably, to Gertrude Jekyll’s meticulous plans for her clients’ perennial gardens and probably reprinting one of her daunting assemblages of blobs labeled "yucca" and "lavender," the books recommend that you, too, draw out similar "drifts" of blobs before you dare stick anything in the ground.

So, that is what I dutifully did as a young gardener, employing a pad of graph paper and a chart that listed the blooming times of the greatest hits of the perennial world.  I drew a plan designed to achieve miraculous combinations of shape, form, color, and size in my 20-foot by six-foot space, while ensuring a constant progression of bloom from April to October.

Here is what the books don’t mention:

  1. Gertrude Jekyll was a genius and a painter with a magnificent eye for color and form.  Presumably, you are neither.
  2. She was designing giant beds on giant estates.  Maybe if you’d been a little nicer to one of those finance majors in college, you too would have giant beds on a giant estate, but, no, you were too busy dating painters and poets.  With smaller beds, you just have to pick your moments.  They cannot accomodate enough plants to be consistently impressive from early spring to late fall.
  3. The bloom-time charts in books bear no resemblance to the reality of your yard.  Want to combine sky-blue delphiniums with orange Asiatic lilies, a combination Jekyll once raved about?  All I can say is, good luck and God bless.
  4. The height charts also bear no resemblance to what will occur in your yard.  Does the lily get four feet tall or eight feet tall?  Does it go in front of the thalictrum or behind it?  It all depends on how cheerful it feels in its particular hole.   
  5. Even if you do know precisely when everything actually blooms in your yard and how tall it will get, there is simply no way to manage all the variables–color, size, shape, season, soil and sun preferences–at once, unless you are Bobby Fischer.  Or, unless your best friend works in IT for a hedge fund and writes you a nifty little program.

Nonetheless, by dint of much mental effort and many erasers, I designed a plan for my first little perennial bed.  By the second season, half of the plants had disappeared, half had grown taller than I expected, and the rest of them proved butt-ugly in context.

For years, I muttered that perennials were stupid, unreliable weeds and concentrated on shrubs and vegetables, before I finally got over the trauma.

In my experience, there only two circumstances in which a plan is valid:

1. It is based on your own experience.  In other words, you are remaking your yard, not making it for the first time.  So you know perfectly well what will work where.  But in this case, you probably don’t need to pull out the graph paper at all!

2. You make your plan based on careful observations of your neighbors’ yards.  The problem with this, of course, is that it’s a good bet that your neighbors are unimaginative in their choice of plants, just picking up whatever is lying around in the parking lot at Wal-Mart.  And if you spend your valuable time reading gardening blogs, it’s a good bet that you would prefer something prettier and more original.

What’s an insecure beginner to do?

Well, I think that when most experts recommend "planning," what they are really talking about is planting with conviction.  The fact that a lot of a few things generally looks better than a few of a lot of things.  The fact that repetition is harmonious and pleasing in a garden.

So how can you avoid dithering without a plan?  Well, how about first figuring out what grows really beautifully in the yard and then, planting lots and lots and lots of it?  Enough to astound all passers-by.

How about accepting the fact that there is no substitute for the actual experience of your terroir?  No substitute for the knowledge that is gained with the passing of a few seasons.  No substitute for experimentation in your own laboratory. 

Yet, when they’re not recommending tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of stone-work, garden experts are so parsimonious: Don’t buy it unless it works in the scheme! 

Well, who says every plant has to work?  Who says they all need even to survive?  Even the most experienced gardeners I know kill plants.  My friends Bob and Gerald, who have the most beautiful garden in my part of the world, conducted an elaborate exercise in futility a few years ago involving a hornbeam hedge.  Did they feel foolish?  Absolutely not.

So why not buy all kinds of weird things from weird catalogs and weird corners of the local nurseries and the weirder neighbors who contribute to the local plant sale?  If it does well in your yard, you can buy more.  If it kicks the bucket, you can be philosophical and shrug.  The plant is probably cheaper than your undershirt.  So why not take a flyer?

In my opinion, something as static as a plan is antithetical to the whole spirit of gardening.  Gardening is about the adventure, the chase, the pursuit of eternal mysteries that can only be found in an endless series of plastic pots, some of which will make your yard beautiful–and some of which will make you considerably wiser next time.

Posted by on October 27, 2006 at 4:00 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes.
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29 Responses to “The Myth of Planning”

  1. ginger says:

    Well said, Michelle! I have learned much more from the mistakes than the successes and hope to continue to do so!

  2. Leslie says:

    This is so true…where is the joy in dot-to-dot gardening? Gardening come from the heart not from a grid and, as with all forms of art, we become better at what we do with experience.

  3. Colleen says:

    I totally agree. Real gardening is about falling inlove with plants and then having the joy of growing with them year by year, not adhering to some predetermined plan.The joy of gardening is in the little surprises, as well as the “mistakes” that we make.

  4. firefly says:

    Hear, hear. I’m printing this and keeping it with my garden notebook.

    I know humans tend to seek out things that reinforce what they already think, but after just one season of gardening in a yard with at least three different shade zones, I can’t see how any approach other than this would work.

  5. Pam/Digging says:

    I’m still a believer in starting out with a graph-paper plan. Just “seeing” your space from a bird’s-eye perspective will help you allocate your garden beds in a more pleasing and useful design than if you just start plopping stuff you love in the ground.

    However, I believe wholeheartedly that a plan is merely a jumping-off point. Once you start actually digging holes and watching plants grow, your successes and failures will become readily apparent. Then come the fun—but to some people, anxiety-producing—years of rearranging and experimenting.

    This is what I try to convey to clients when I design a garden for them: it isn’t static, like a beautiful painting on your wall. A garden is alive, and it changes and plants move around and they’ll die on you. That doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t mean the design we came up with failed either. That’s just what gardening is about, and you’ve got to have fun with the inevitable changes.

  6. Taryn says:

    I agree, but I also say, don’t buy loads and loads of plants if you are are complete beginner expecting it to turn out fine. That’s just idiotic and that’s what a lot of people do. We have a lady who knows nothing about any of the plants she buys and comes in the next week buying more because the others kicked the bucket!

    Research of the plants themselves is a good idea and don’t forget to read the tags on the plants before you buy them! I ALWAYS see people buy some shrub or tree that gets huge and plant it about two feet from their home. Maybe a detailed, graphed plan isn’t logical for the average gardener, but please, know the basics people.

  7. Jane in Zone 3 says:

    I’m a huge planner. I constantly redesign my garden on graph paper – so far little of it has been implemented, though :)

    I think for planning on the macro-scale (bed size, shape, placement, and location of major features like rocks and trees) a plan is useful. I’ve never been able to use a plan effectively for the small stuff, though – I always end up with a lot of crosshatching labelled “perennials” and “drought-tolerant annuals” and then I go to the nursery and see what’s there :)

    Graph paper plans are very useful for the square-foot vegetable garden, though. I couldn’t manage without them.

  8. Amy Stewart says:

    Hell, yes! And may I add–why not buy loads and loads of plants? It beats spending your money on anti-wrinkle cream or stereo equipment! I get a total rush out of buying plants and bringing them home and sticking them in the ground.

    I strongly believe that “garden” is a VERB. It’s something that you do. The result–the collection of plants growing around your house–is almost incidential to the act of getting OUT THERE.

    And I completely agree that it takes time to get to know your own space. After five years, I’ve figured out a few beguiling combinations of plants that I’m starting to repeat because they work so well, but that shit takes time! And who knows if it would work in anyone else’s garden?

  9. Kathy says:

    If you were smart enough to measure your garden before the snow flies, then making graph paper plans is an excellent way to stay out of trouble in the winter. And if you have trouble visualizing exactly how big 12 inches is, a plan can be a good reality check. But I have to confess that it is much more fun to fall in love with a plant and then figure out where to plant it–within reason. Don’t go buying a mighty oak without first considering whether your site meets its requirements. What a gardener should do is plan to improve the soil. That makes impulse plant purchases more likely to succeed.

  10. Nancy Kelly says:

    Yes! I like to buy one of everything that is pretty, then when I find out what they really look like/how they behave, I fine tune. For example, on the proverbial whim, I bought a packet of 5 drumstick allium from a nursery. After the second season I decided I absolutely love them. I just finished planting 210 bulbs of 3 different varieties (including drumstick), mail-ordered off the net, all around the front yard. Man I cannot wait for spring!!!

    Nancy

  11. Claire Splan says:

    I’m a big fan of planning, although for some people long-term visualizing works just as well as a paper plan. I agree that it’s very important to live and garden in the space for a good while before you do any serious re-landscaping. I also agree that doing what the neighbors do is a bad, bad idea because the best you can hope for in doing that is to end up with a garden that looks like everyone else’s.

    The problem with planning is that it doesn’t take serendipity into account and I have found that some of the happiest outcomes in my garden have been unscripted. The problem with not planning is that few people are really able to just throw together a garden that is interesting year-round and workable as the plants (especially trees) mature. Surely there is a middle ground between spontaneous planting and Gertrude Jekyll-like planning.

  12. This post and the guest post from Rick Anderson at Whispering Crane a while back reveals again the palpable antagonism between some avid and newbie gardeners and landscape designers. This antagonism has broken out into war in some well known gardening forums.

    I agree with you Michele that graphing out a single perennial bed plant design for the entire nation is frought with stupidity. What the designer anywhere should be doing is designing the shape and placement of the bed in the larger landscape and then recommending an appropriate local plant list.

    The plants are the absolute last thing a good landscape designer thinks about when designing a garden. Function, space, movement, form, regulations, people, pets, cars and on and on all come before the plant choices.

    I always tell the client I am designing the backbone of the garden. When it is installed you are going to find some holes while things grow in and intended holes for changing beds. After we are done go knock yourself out filling it in with what you like.

    You can hire a designer to plan your single perennial bed, but a designer’s real job is to look at the big picture and how it all connects. That is what makes a garden work even when there are a few of a lot of things.

  13. susan says:

    Terrific discussion. I too like planning for the big picture – the borders and the large features, including the largest plants. Then within that framework, having at it, plant-wise. The REAL fun is in the tweaking and rearranging, like constantly.
    Another way to try out new plants is through local plant exchanges. Do you have one in your town and if not, why not?

  14. Carol says:

    Plan? You are supposed to have a plan before you buy the plants? Hmmm…

    When I had a blank canvas of a yard, I went to garden centers and nurseries and sought out shrubs and trees that I wanted and liked, then brought them home and moved them around to various places to decide where to plant them, keeping in mind a “sorta” plan in my head. I even returned a few plants that just weren’t going to fit anywhere.

    Yep, I am a plants person. I buy plants because I like them and hope I have a place to plant them.

    I find that keeping written records of what worked and what didn’t work in the garden aids in sorting out the landscape, more so than looking at a plan to see if I am following it.

    That said, I’ve considered engaging an actual landscape architect to also help with some “fine tuning”. But having a plan would not stop me from buying a plant I wanted. I’d find a place for it, regardless, because it is about the plants for me.

  15. Interesting that the entire rail is against planning/planners/designers/ but the talk is about buying a plant or two and where to put it.

    Which has nothing to do with what a good Landscape Designer does. Which is to look at the entire space, the demands of the client, the space, the environment, the culture—-everything that’s here, is what we look at.

    The design process works from the large to the small, to finally where those perennial beds go, how to fix the soil, what is the micro-climate? What are the 5 best perennials for the site? Do they work together?, etc. This is design.

    You only talk about plants, what about driveways, walkways, ponds, pools, fences, structures, sheds, pergolas, and on and on and on. if you want to just throw these in without a plan . . . go ahead. But don’t call me when nothing works, or you’ve wasted 1,000′s or tens of 1,000′s of dollars. With a failed waterfeature, or a rolly sidewalk, or a driveway not curved correctly, or a pergola not connected according to code.

    To you remarks on English Garden writers, these were highly skilled professionals who did fantastic work. If you are others can’t figure out that the climate in Florida, or Nebraska, or Arizona is different than the British isles . . . . well . . . there are other issues there.

    I think Gardeners are great if they want to buy by the seat of their plants, and move, and move, and move again, their favorite Ligularia-so be it. They’re having fun.

    But to say (*planners* we are Designers actually)planning has no place, and to knock the profession to way you have, and in such a unprofessional manner is way off base.

    *Ranting* is one thing, what you’ve done is another.

  16. Michele Owens says:

    Rick, I feel you have completely misread my post. I said nothing about professional design services whatsoever–or garden architecture for that matter. And I did call Gertrude Jekyll a genius.

    I just feel very strongly that the working methods of geniuses are not necessarily very helpful to enthusiastic amateurs who lack reams of knowledge and long years to experience.

    No one ever says to my mystified neighbors who watch me dig away and then mumble about why gardening never for works for them, that gardening is easy and enjoyable. And that if you get things wrong at first, no matter. Something will eventually thrive.

    No, the how-to books that tell amateurs to make meticulous planting plans before they stick a shovel in the ground offer a different message: gardening is esoteric and difficult.

    I’m sorry, but that is the most useless message on earth. We need people to proselytize for gardening–to convince my neighbors not to be so scared of failure. That’s the best way to beautify the joint. And the best way for you, ultimately, to wind up with sophisticated new customers.

    P.S. You can come build me a pergola anytime.

  17. Betsy says:

    I sure wish I had read this last year when I was a beginner (still am) and got all flustered because I suddenly felt like a total loser for not wanting to make a graph paper plan. Math and gardening just can’t mix for me. (math and anything, for that matter) SO, I just went for it and had a darned good time and now I just keep learning from my very own non-planned mistakes. (and some fabulous triumphs!) It was also very clear to me that you weren’t directing your article to people who might be lured away from professional designers—don’t worry, Rick, your job is still secure.

  18. Perhaps it was this statement that set the designers here a little on edge,

    “Yet, when they’re not recommending tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of stone-work, garden experts are so parsimonious: Don’t buy it unless it works in the scheme!”

    and this one

    “That if you don’t plan your garden, you will inevitably wind up with a disorganized mess.”

    The rant may have only been about a single perennial bed but the undertoad was hopping around for all to see.

    All to often designers see people who try to create landscape designs and beautiful gardens starting with the plants first, completely backwards from a garden design perspective. It rarely turns out well unless as Michele has said you have already learned from your mistakes and now have a wealth of plant knowledge.

    Designers are not going to encourage people to go buy tons of plants willy nilly unless the garden has already been designed as a plant cemetery.

  19. A couple of remarks:

    Michele if you notice I did not stick up for *authors* of garden books, or even worse TV shows that solve problems in 22 minutes for 25% of their real cost. Those are my enemies here, and I sense some common ground.

    Also I admit nerves get hit when I hear that plans/designs are not needed. I obviously feel that the
    design process is important. If I sounded harsh . . forgive me. But I will always defend my profession-which is so misunderstood.

    So what I wish you would have ranted on was authors, publishers (media) who don’t get it. And they really don’t get it.

    That way my blood pressure would be okay. So that I can live longer and design and build more pergola’s :)

  20. Whoa.

    The tension in this post and subsequent discussion have just undone a season’s worth of gardening peace. Make a plan. Don’t make plan. Follow it. Don’t follow it. Whatever. I’m on 10 acres. Little cottage. Lots of gardens. Big old trees. I planned the whole thing. I look at the plan at the beginning of the year. At the end of the year I walk my gardens with a clipboard and camera to see what I actually wound up doing and what the things I planted actually did. And then, depending upon what I see, I use the snow months to make a new plan. Rinse. Repeat.

    I like pergolas.

    Plus, I’m like a crack head with bulbs. I can’t walk past a bag without buying it and finding a place of whatever it is somewhere. It’s a problem.

    I need help.

    But that’s in my plan too.

    I think everyone should come over to my gardens. I’ll pass out some gloves. And maybe everyone can chill.

    Whoa. I need some time in the hothouse to mellow out.

  21. Ha Ha, County Clerk you sound just like my mother, “I’m like a crack head with bulbs”, who gardens with my father “The Planner”.

    Their garden http://tropicalembellishments.blogspot.com/2006/06/i-have-been-to-mountaintop.html has turned out beautifully. Thank goodness they have twelve acres and can always expand.

  22. Taryn says:

    Amy- I know you like to have fun and bring plants home on a whim here and there, but what I’m saying is I’ve seen people spend HUNDREDS of dollars on a weekly basis killing their plants (which is sad for me to see those plants go to waste like that, I spent hard time caring for them and keeping them alive!) and then going straight out and buying loads more without even bothering to notice what the names of the plants that they are buying. It’s ridiculous.
    Of course some plants will die, that’s to be expected and that’s fine, but wasting hundreds of dollars on dead plants is no better than wasting it on makeup (why waste your money on either?). When an amateur buys plants on a whim, I wouldn’t encourage spending big bucks all at once on a bunch of plants that you have no idea how to care for…spread it out over time. Many people don’t have that kind of money to waste…I know I don’t. That’s all I’m saying.

  23. Jane says:

    Heck! I didn’t check Gardenrant for 24 hours and it has gone ballistic. If it helps – I read all the posts as a oner just now and didn’t really interpret the thread as being anti-garden designer/landscape architect.
    Why do comments postings get so combatative so quickly ? – this is why I gave up Gardenweb.

    Amy posted further up about garden being a verb and this may be the essence – yep I want my garden to look great but more than that I want to garden, and if it doesn’t work, if there are gaps in the border because the succession planting went wonky, or if the lavender hedge I would love dies out due to too much rain – well what the heck, there is always next year and would feel worse if I hadn’t actually TRIED the hedge.

    I don’t employ a garden designer because I WANT to do my garden myself – I don’t employ an interior designer because I WANT to do my house myself, I don’;t employ a cook because . . . . My results will not be technically as good and I trade that off for personal sweat equity in the result. It is nothing to do with whether gardens should be planned or not.

    I plan but in an unplanned, greedy, castles in the air, order too much and sort it out later kind of way. It isn’t the squared paper that is missing it is the sense of proportion and reason!

  24. Taryn says:

    Okay, I’ve read some of these comments over again and I think there is a different definition of ‘planning’ here. I think you all who claim you don’t like planning actually do plan, just not in the ‘sketching in every last detail’ sort of way, you have a mental plan: a general idea of what type of plants you want to see, what sort of care you are willing to provide, seeing which combinations of plants work and so on. You all learn from your mistakes and you fix them the next time around (or try to). I totally consider this planning. Nancy tried out a small amount of bulbs that she wasn’t familiar with, when it worked out, she went ahead and bought tons. This is smart gardening.This is planning!

    What I tend to see (during my time working in a nursery) is people who aren’t interested in learning from their mistakes. They buy only what’s in bloom right then. They don’t even try to understand how to care for it.

    When I read this post saying ‘to hell with planning!’, I think no no no! Don’t go overboard with planning (of course) , don’t stress about it, but don’t not try and do some sort of ‘research’ on your plants! They deserve to be cared for!

    Am I just not understanding what Susan, Amy and Michelle are getting at or what? I feel like I must be wrong, because it seems as if everyone disagrees with me on this, but I think what I’m saying is logical here. Am I completely missing something here?

  25. susan says:

    Taryn, stay tuned for my related post on “planning” – a positive story of collaboration with an actual landscape architect. Susan

  26. Nancy says:

    Wow-amazing post and opinions. Really interesting and fun to hear so many different approaches. And finally, lots of you have pointed out a positive for me, my garden and where I live. We just bought a house last year in the Colorado Rockies at 9600 fett in altitude. Short growing season (to say the least) and often impossible conditions, even in “summer”, which is a blink of the eye. Here’s the garden “plan”. Figure out what actually grows up here and can survive in the altitude. Not a ton of choices as so many of you have. If it grows, it stays. If it doesn’t……well, that part is obvious. While before I was frustrated, now you all have helped me to be at peace. No worrying or going back and forth about plans. My biggest “plans” are buying what grows, because like many, I don’t feel right killing plants. Thanks so much for giving me peace!

  27. Nancy you should go visit Betty Ford’s Alpine Garden in Vail Colorado.

    http://www.bettyfordalpinegardens.org/

  28. Michele Owens says:

    Christopher C, you make me laugh, but I swear, there is no undertoad. Mainly because I never THINK about professional designers, because I can’t afford them and because, well, it’s a homemade cake, like Jane said.

    No, my scorn was directed towards the people who peddle advice, not actual design services. I do think, however, that many of the best gardening books were written by amateur gardeners: Dianne Benson, Henry Mitchell. And the ones that drive me completely CRAZY do tend to be written by professionals, who possibly know too much to communicate well with eager amateurs.

    Taryn, I’m all for knowledge and sophistication, and it kills me to see people waste great plants, too. I just hate how-to books that make gardening seem so tricky and difficult that no one who doesn’t teach logistics at MIT should even attempt it.

    As I see it, the rules are: 1. Add organic matter to the hole. 2. Plant the plant in conditions that it likes. 3. Water it in. 4. Mulch.

    Everything else is a matter of taste and culture. But it’s possible to have a beautiful garden following no more than those four rules. People should know that. My neighbors should know that.

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