Sensory Effects: Adding Drama to Your Garden

If you’ve ever been in a pretty garden but felt somewhat unsatisfied, that’s probably because the garden didn’t have layers. They’re like scrims in a theatrical set, adding depth and intensity to the design. And there’s no better time to take stock of your plants than in the fall when everything should be at its fullest.

A great garden makes you feel as if you’re drenched in textures, scent and colour, revealing its true nature slowly and dramatically and building in energy and excitement.

Achieving this effect is more than having a succession of blooms for perpetual excitement; it also means layering the heights as well.

Start with the height most often overlooked – eye level. A great shrub or tree, even a majestic grass or perennial at this height, will make any garden arresting on first-time viewing.

Then, think about where you want the eye to travel – say, a focal point such as a flowering shrub. Then do everything you can to slow down getting there. If the object of desire is at the end of a path, put something about two metres tall about a third of the way in on one side and another just slightly taller on the other side about two-thirds of the way. Now the focal point is veiled and you have created something that’s not only enigmatic but beckons you onward.

Layering a garden is more than just plunking tall perennials at the back of the border. Put some in the middle and others at the front (alliums are wonderful used this way). And never add a new plant without knowing all its particulars. Size may not count in sex, but it is essential in gardening.

Keep in mind that information on the plant tag is only approximate. If you’ve grown dogwoods, for
instance, and they grow larger than the tag suggested, your conditions are ideal for this species. In the future, plant dogwoods with
this scale in mind. Plants are individuals, however, and there are always exceptions.

In combining plants, make sure that as one plant’s flowers are fading, another is ready to bloom (think hellebores and hostas). And never jam plants together for an instant garden. Overcrowding diminishes the health of all of them, and there will just be more work down the road when you have to move half of them.

Layering in the border means being able to see the plants at the ground level, those at knee height and those at midway – all working together, providing lots of colour in bloom and foliage.

When you need something taller than you, check out specimens that can be planted in very narrow spaces. This will make a huge difference to the overall visual impact. A small standard (single stem) tree usually grows from 5 to 7 metres (15 to 23 feet) high – that will add zip to the most ordinary plan. Check out Stewartia spp; Albizia ‘Summer Chocolate’ if you live in Zones 7 to 9.; Acer griseum; and the extraordinary range of dogwoods, especially Cornus kousa spp and cultivars such as ‘Summer Fun’ and ‘Samaritan.’ Both are great little variegated trees that adore being pruned.

Make use of the experts at your local garden centre, particularly when it comes to what grows well in your zone and in shade or sun.