A front-and-center garden puts artwork on display and invites accolades or criticism. I’ve got nothing but accolades for this Oregon homeowner.

Designing a garden is a humbling experience, period. But when your design is instantly on display because you are planting an entrance or a driveway, it’s a worrying experience. And, if you know that someday in the near future, gardeners will visit, scan your efforts and possibly pronounce them lacking, the process is just plain terrifying. Hell, I’ve even got non-gardeners visiting who are more than happy to voice their thoughts at a possible lack of creative vision.

The pressure is killing me.


For months I have been struggling with the bed at the top of my driveway, hovering between glimpses of the sublime and soul-bending disgust. If I had access to the type and size of plant material to which I’d like to have access, I’d have to find a very different subject for my column this week. However, constrained as I am by budget, time and energy, a design that might be the work of a moment for the Ms. Stewarts of this world is a teensy bit harder for the likes of me. To elaborate:

  • Budget    Consists of Lowe’s 75% death racks and one-off specimens of rarer plants for which I lusted, but which had to be purchased in the singular.
  • Time:         Ha! Running out of warm weather is nothing next to running out of daylight is nothing next to running out of underwear because you didn’t get a chance to run a load of laundry. Every hour counts around here.
  • Energy:      Yeah. I’m not twenty.

Though I like to think of most things in my life as a challenge, the reality is, unless I know I’m going to meet and exceed my goals, it takes everything I have to try. It’s the whole Mozart/Salieri thing, and I know way too many Mozarts that might be coming over next spring to tut tut over my tulips.

When you've got thousands of dollars for tropicals (and a winter greenhouse), designing a striking pool garden is not a daunting process

When you’ve got thousands of dollars for tropicals (and a winter greenhouse), designing a striking pool garden is not a daunting process


I want color! I want texture! I want an excess of joy! Bottom line, I want an entrance that says: The woman who lives here must have paid someone thousands of dollars to create this masterpiece. Except she didn’t so she must be a genius. Vanity, thy name is Marianne.

There are many things to consider when designing – color, texture, height and perspective to name only a few – but just because I understand this doesn’t make things any easier. As of this morning, I’m on my third re-planting of this all-consuming project. I think I may have cracked it, but we’ll see next spring when Amadeus comes calling.

What is 'lush' to one gardener may be 'messy' to another.  Go with what makes YOU smile, not someone else.

What is ‘lush’ to one gardener may be ‘messy’ to another. Go with what makes YOU smile, not someone else.

Here are a few considerations if you’re dealing with a difficult space, a non-existent budget, and a need to be brilliant in all things. I have nothing but awe for the garden designers and architects who can create beauty with a few scribbles of their magic pens. But I’m not one of them and chances are, neither are you. Good design might take us a little more time – but I firmly believe that it’s achievable.

1)   Don’t be afraid to move plants. And move them again. My gardening sister does not consider herself a garden designer, just a really good mover. Consequently, the gorgeous pathway and entrance to her deck has undergone more than four major renovations but makes her look like she’s got a gift. She does: The gift of a good back.

You’re going to lose time this way, and some plants really resent you for moving them around, but without the benefit of academic or designer experience, learning from your mistakes is a great teaching tool.

2)   If something is bothering you about the design, chances are it’s not right. We all doubt ourselves, but most of us know what the problem is, even if we don’t know how to solve it. If you don’t trust your own instincts, trust those of a gardening friend. Ask them to look at the design and tell you what the flaws are. If you’re on the same page, it’s time to rip something out and try again. Asking for some ideas may only cost you a glass of wine and some munchies. Oh, and your pride

[see ‘vanity’ above]. It’s worth it.

3)   Don’t get discouraged. Hitting what you perceive to be your own limits of creativity is a humbling experience, but despite my previous flippancy, it is precisely the catalyst you need to push you to the next level. Put down your shovel and come back to your project with fresh eyes and fresh energy.

4)   Take chances. You are not growing as a gardener and a designer if you are sticking with the same ideas, the same arrangements and the same accolades. Yes there’s going to be someone who doesn’t like your design, but you must consider their designs, their gardens, and decide whether their opinion is worth listening to.

Sometimes the simplest design is the most effective.

Sometimes the simplest design is the most effective.

Use perennials all the time? Consider evergreens. Conifers boring the hell out of your landscape? Try a weeping variety. Too much busyness? Simplify and make a statement with punchy repetitive themes.


And yes, you can do so on a budget. Even expensive beauties eventually end up on death racks. I know, I bought all of them this fall.