By Cyndy Crist
Dorothy has just given you lots of great, practical advice about how to grow healthy tomatoes, so I’m going to take a little lighter approach this week and focus on some elements of how a garden looks.
I continue to be amazed by what a difference it makes in a garden to include more than just plants. Obviously, it’s primarily the plants that make the garden, be they vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers, shrubs, or small trees. And plant selection makes a huge difference in how the garden looks. By choosing plants that offer a contrast of leaf shape, color, and texture as well as a variety of forms and colors of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, a garden can be beautiful to look at, productive, and healthy (growing a variety of plants can help attract beneficial insects, reduce the damage caused by insects, and limit the impact on the garden as a whole of diseases that primarily attack a limited number of plants).
But that’s a subject for a future blog. Today, I want to focus on the use of non-plant items in the garden to add beauty, structure, color, texture, and/or height to your growing spaces. The only limits here really are imagination and available resources, but neither has to get in the way of creating fun and attractive garden beds.
Let’s start with two of the more practical elements of garden design that can also be decorative: edging and plant supports. Edging can be as simple as that black plastic stuff that is widely available and that frankly adds very little aesthetically to your garden (though it’s hard to deny how great a neatly edged garden bed can look). But there are many other options for edging a bed, including bricks, stones, and edgers made to look like them. These can be laid on top of the soil or set in slightly, flat or at an angle, to outline garden spaces.
I recently saw garden edging that looked great but made me wonder about it’s practicality over time: sinking rows of empty wine and beer bottles into the ground, necks down, so that an inch or so of the bottoms emerged from the soil. I can imagine them sparkling in the sunshine, and the smooth surface and green/brown colors were really attractive. But I wonder what freezing and thawing would do to the glass, and the possibility of breakage could make them a hazard for small children or barefoot gardeners. Still, it looked great in the photo!
Short fencing is another option to create either an intermittent or continuous edge or barrier to garden beds. In my experience, the best options are heavy cast iron or wrought iron that lasts for years and survives any kind of weather. I also like short pieces of fencing made of twigs; they add a natural, rustic look and if well made, they can last several years in the garden. Still, they won’t outlive metal fences. Short fencing, depending on its height and sturdiness, also can offer the advantage of helping to keep animals and small children out of gardens, thereby keeping tender plants out of harm’s way.
For the look of fencing without any real strength or barrier, I’ve used inexpensive hoops made of bamboo to create an approximation of a fence for very little cost and with the benefit of flexibility (e.g, there’s more than one way to arrange the pieces, which can also be rearranged as desired). An added benefit of this approach is that the hoops can be placed so that they prop up floppy plants at the edge of a bed.
And that leads us into the next practical category, plant supports. Of course, bamboo stakes and something that will gently and effectively fasten plants to them are effective and not unattractive, and sometimes a gardener wants to use support that blend in or disappear into the garden. But there are also many attractive stakes available that can add quirky charm and perhaps color to beds containing tall plants. The ubiquitous tomato cages now come in an array of colors that can really liven up a vegetable bed or mixed border. For my tomatoes and annual vines, I like to use a trio of tall bamboo stakes held together at the top by a kind of terra cotta finial made for this purpose. You can achieve a similar result by using twine to tie the poles at the top. Either creates a kind of teepee structure to support your plant of choice.
Trellises and tuteurs of various sizes, shapes, and colors also add beauty and height to a garden bed while providing crucial support to plants. Trellises can be constructed of bamboo poles or other stakes held together with twine or wire woven between them that provides something to which vining plants can cling. While they may look fairly basic to start, they aren’t unattractive, and they’re positively beautiful when covered with cucumbers, peas, hyacinth beans, squash, morning glories, clematis, or any other vine. For some plants, this can also be a real space saver, keeping cukes and squashes from taking over small beds.
Trellises and tuteurs can also be constructed from twigs for a rustic look or of wood of various weights and sizes appropriate to your practical needs and aesthetic preferences. The wood can be left unfinished to weather over time or stained or painted to create a color scheme or look of your choice. I like some simple wooden trellises that I nailed to the side of our screen porch and on which I grow a variety of clematis. They have weathered along with the porch and will eventually need to be repainted or replaced, but they blend in nicely while playing their supporting role to the clematis stars.
I also have several metal tuteurs up which clematis climb in places where something freestanding was necessary from a practical standpoint and desirable from an aesthetic one. Some are now virtually invisible under the full growth of their partner clematis plants, but they look great all year long, providing height and a sense of permanence in places where a bed of mostly herbaceous perennials can look a bit bare during our long Minnesota winters.
And this brings me to my third category of non-plant items in the garden – those that serve a purely decorative purpose. By adding height where there is little from plants, a contrast of color where it’s needed, and/or a different texture (for example, something smooth or shiny), I find they can transform a small space. Most of my garden ornaments are things that I’ve purchased – glazed pottery balls, plaster and terra cotta mushrooms, and garden statues among them, but I also love the look of large rocks set among plants, especially when a ground cover cozies up to them, creating a very natural look. I also have a few pots that I set, empty, into garden beds to add color contrast. And I’ve seen people add whimsy and beauty with everything from small items like worn boots used as containers, figures constructed from small terra cotta pots, old watering cans, and re-purposed dishes to larger pieces like old chairs, iron headboards, footed bathtubs, and laundry tubs.
A final benefit of using garden ornaments is that they need not be fixed in place but can be moved about through the seasons. While moving a plant requires a bit of time, effort, and planning an isn’t something one wants to do often, moving a pot, a gazing ball, or a small figure is easily done and can fill in those little spaces that appear from time to time in a garden bed (this can be a great option in a kitchen garden where harvested garlic, for example, may leave a large gap mid-summer). I have a darling little girl who has now all but disappeared among Solomon’s seal, a tree peony, and wild geraniums and is due to be moved some place where she can be better seen and appreciated. Again, the impermanence of garden objects is one of their virtues.
In general, the key is choosing something of a scale and style that fits your garden and your home. A formal garden will likely be best adorned with items that might be described as “finished” and perhaps traditional, while a more eclectic or informal space invites more natural materials or perhaps a bit more whimsy. But there are no hard-and-fast rules here, really, and a gardener is primarily limited only by his/her imagination and preferences – with one general exception. Sensitivity to one’s neighbors is important, too, with some of the items I’ve just described being perhaps more suitable to a backyard than a front yard garden.
But then, that’s true to some extent for anything we put outside, isn’t it? When we’re not the only ones to see it, we owe it to our friends and neighbors to consider how they might feel about what they see when they drive up to their house or look out their front windows. And that may not be an old wringer washer, however quaint and fun we might think it looks. It’s similar to the old tradition of putting the “finished” side of one’s fence facing out (a practice that I hear is sadly beginning to disappear as some folks care more about what they see within their yard than what everyone else sees from the outside).
I like to think of gardening as a kind of act of generosity, as something that I do not only for the enjoyment I get from the planning, planting, maintenance, bounty, and beauty of the garden, but also for the habitat it provides for wildlife, the pleasure it gives to neighbors and passers-by, and its contribution to our environment. Adding bits of non-plant beauty does nothing to diminish those purposes; rather, it can enhance our enjoyment. To my mind, that’s reason enough to do it.