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Fall in the garden

The onset of fall marks the end of the active gardening season for most. It also marks the beginning of some gardeners’ favorite time of year — several months of unadulterated day-dreaming about next year’s garden.


It’s time to dust off the gardening books and pull out back issues of those gardening magazines and let the imagination run wild. Gardens aren’t static landscapes, but require constant upkeep. Is that climbing rose cutting the mustard, or should I add a clematis to the arbor? Should I try that new variegated hydrangea variety or a second butterfly bush? Wouldn’t this clump of columbines look better behind the phlox instead of beside it?

“Gardening is an ever-changing and ever-evolving art for those of us who are gardeners,” said Sylvia Elwin, a gardening instructor at the N. C. Arboretum in Asheville. “With garden design, even if you think you have it right, you will probably end up making some changes.”

And what better time to plan for next year?

A workshop led by Elwin at the N.C. Arboretum last week jump-started these innate gardening urges with a discussion of garden design tips. At times, the workshop seemed more like art class with Elwin spinning a color wheel to demonstrate how the pairing of contrasting colors can bring out the best in blooms. Other times the workshop took the feel of a confessional as participants shared deep-seated struggles with problem areas of their gardens. And at other times, the class seemed like a gathering of grandmothers — instead of lavishing out-of-control praise for their grandkids, they swapped stories of their favorite perennials.

Elwin imparted numerous tips about plant combinations and general garden design. Here’s a sample of the ideas she shared.

1. Space things closer together.

Instead of spacing plants according to the presumed plant size at maturity, use two-thirds of the mature size as your spacing guideline. “You have to figure your plant may or may not reach its full potential size,” Elwin said.

2. Play up texture.

Fine, feathery plants should be combined with smooth broad leaf plants. “What I’m finding in garden trends right now is texture, less blooms and more texture.” Try lavender with tulips, or the classic shade combo of hostas and ferns.

3. Read Fine Gardening.

Elwin rates it as the top gardening magazine.

4. Install focal points.

Arbors and garden art make great focal points. Place focal points so they draw your eye through the garden. “When you are talking about a focal point, you have to know where to put it,” Elwin said. Make sure it fits the garden style as well.

5. Buy or build a bench.

Every garden needs a bench. It gives the garden a restful feeling and encourages lingering. As an added bonus, build a path through the garden that dead-ends at the bench. It will draw the eye through the garden and create a focal point.

6. Use a color wheel.

A color wheel is an artist’s tool that gives color combinations. But also follow your personal taste. Yellow and orange are good candidates for a pairing according to the color wheel, but Elwin dislikes the combination. “A lot of times it comes down to a personal thing,” Elwin said.

7. Create seasonal interest.

Plant combinations so that something in the garden is always in bloom from spring through late summer. “One of the best ways to achieve all-season interest is plant lots of bulbs,” Elwin said.

8. You don’t have to put your garden plan on paper.

“Not everybody does a plan on paper. A lot of people are more visual, and it helps them to do that. But others, all their designing is done in their head,” Elwin said.