A more formal garden design

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Change the species used, and this desert garden serves as inspiration for a temperate sun or shade garden of native plants.

I took this photo in one of the desert gardens at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, just outside Pasadena. It’s a semitropical desert environment, and many of the plants used throughout these spectacular gardens come from desert regions throughout the world. But the basic design would work for any kind of border.

First, notice the curves. Curves are dynamic; they draw the eye and force the viewer to take in the entire design. Straight lines, in contrast, are static. Always edge a border with curves.

Now look at the arrangement of plants. Create layers by using short plants in front, taller ones in back, of course. But notice the contrast of texture, color, and shape. Let’s consider how you might mimic this design with plants native to New Jersey.

For a shady border, you might begin with ferns instead of the Euphorbia (the short plants with burgundy foliage). Or, if you wanted red foliage here, you could use Heuchera villosa. For variegated foliage, and for dry soil, you have two excellent choices: Heuchera americana or Pachysandra procumbens. The next row (substituting for the aloes) could be a mid-height fern if you choose Heuchera for the front, or Aralia racemosa, which forms a beautiful green clump for most of the season but sends up large white flower plumes in early summer. Another possibility would be Leucothoe or Diervilla lonicera, two small shrub with pleasant vased-shaped forms. You have many choices for the tallest level (the palms in the photo). If you want an evergreen, consider Ilex glabra, Taxus canadensis (native yew), or the more unusual was myrtle (Morella cerifera). For deciduous plants, you could use Aronia melanocarpa, one of the beautiful Amerlanchiers, Viburnum acerifolium, or many others.

A sunny border gives you almost limitless possibilities. In front, I would choose something with a very long bloom time, such as Coreopsis verticillata or lanceolata (both with yellow flowers). The mid height level could be Penstemon digitalis, especially a cultivar with burgundy foliage, or a showy grass, such as little bluestem, which is beautiful almost year-round. Fr the shrub layer, the other chokeberry, Aronia arbutifolia, an Amelanchier (they’re adaptable), or Viburnum trilobum, American cranberry bush. There are many, many other choices, depending on your soil.

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