fbpx skip to Main Content

Design Tips from Master Gardener School

Design Collage

My favorite part of Master Gardener School was the presentation about design. It’s a great topic and the PowerPoint show was pure eye candy, specifically what gardening addicts call “garden porn”, so who could resist?

The Instructor

Our guest lecturer on Garden Design was none other than Joel Lerner, local designer, columnist for the Washington Post, and author of numerous books, including Anyone Can Landscape! And Joel’s talk bears repeating here because because I smelled the truth in everything he said.

The Classics

First, we learned about the classic “Principles of Design” in every textbook:

  • Balance
  • Sequence
  • Contrast
  • Repetition
  • Proportion

I love these principles because they apply to everything, not just landscaping.

And Joel’s Extra Principles

Then Joel listed his “considerations for interest,” including:

  • Designing for 12-month interest
  • Designing for all your senses
  • Choosing plants for form, size, texture, and color
  • Designing for the ground level and for the vertical and overhead planes (those nature-mimicing layers from top to bottom.) He says beds need to be 10? wide or more to accommodate these layers.
  • Creating progressive realization in the garden.

Did I lose you on that last one? I had to rack my brain to remember what it meant, and here’s what I remember. It means that as you progress through the garden new elements unfold, rather than everything being visible at once.


I remember a designer 20 years ago suggesting I create “surprise” by placing plants so they’re hidden until I round a bend and I slapped that idea down immediately — no surprises for me, thank you! Boy, I knew nothing and it took me years to appreciate that suggestion. Luckily, I went along with everything else she suggested and I’ve never regretted it. The plan was one of those free-if-you-buy-from-us designs through a local nursery and not only was it excellent design-wise, but it included large shrubs I’d never heard of then that have come to be the mainstays of my garden — viburnums, pieris Japonica, nandina, and cherry laurels.

Design Concepts for Humans

  • The first is “total outdoor living: maximum use for maximum number of people,” an idea I’ve hinted at occasionally myself because I totally agree that the main purpose of landscaping should be to get people outdoors.
  • Then Joel tells us to create “smooth indoor/outdoor relationships” because they integrate people and structures with the environment.
  • Finally, “spacial enclosure” is important because who wants to sit outside in full view of everybody? Enclosure isn’t un-neighborly; it creates wonderful spaces.

Design Errors

Finally, “common landscape design errors” are:

  • Planting before planning
  • Planting plants too close together or too close to structures
  • Failure to ascertain the mature size of plants
  • Not massing the same plant varieties together (what I call planting in “onesies”)
  • Sporadic or non-existent program of maintenance (which I’d call a follow-up mistake, not a design mistake, just to pick a nit. So I’d amend this to say: Failure to consider the maintenance burden in the design.)

by Susan Harris 


Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 0 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back To Top