Summer Gardens: From Bones to Bounty

When steamy summer days settle in, the fun is over for some gardeners. It’s time to duck off to the beach or tuck into air-conditioned

When steamy summer days settle in, the fun is over for some gardeners. It’s time to duck off to the beach or tuck into air-conditioned houses.

But not so for this gardener. Admittedly, it’s sticky business keeping up with watering, weeding, deadheading and clearing debris from spent perennials to make way for the succession of acts in summer’s spectacular flower show. Lady-like “glistening” doesn’t come close to capturing the sweaty, earthy look I sport after a few hours of summer garden labor. So if you join me as a summer gardener, remember to drink lots of water and pause for frequent cool-down breaks as you orchestrate the show.

And the glorious show is well worth the work! Summer gardens boast a breathtaking array of blooms in a riot of exuberant colors, sizes and shapes, as well as abundant edible yield.

But before getting carried away by summer’s bounty, let’s backtrack and start with the garden’s bones. The key to a successful landscape isn’t simply lush greens and colorful flowers to catch the eye. It’s the structural framework that organizes our plant material and transforms it into a cohesive visual delight. Some structural elements are natural—large trees or rocks, a pond or steep slope; some are constructed—walls, fences, terraces, pools, pathways, gazebos, arbors and seating groups. Some pre-exist and define garden options; some are added.

So how do we go about creating good, strong “bones” for an effective garden design?

Purpose of the Garden
First, our design must meet our needs and goals—what we want from our garden. Looking back through time, we recall simple and functional layouts of kitchen gardens for culinary and medicinal purposes.

Polar opposite goals were boasted by majestic Renaissance gardens of European castles and palaces, such as the Boboli Gardens in Florence and Sudeley Castle in England. And modern-day gardens may seek to fulfill multiple purposes: aesthetic pleasure, personal enjoyment, respite, environmental sustainability and more.

Climate, Terrain and Horticultural Requirements
Whatever the purpose, garden structure is dictated by what we can actually grow in our climate and the size and topography of the space—whether it’s flat or hilly, sunny or shady, wet or dry, windy or sheltered. And we need to amend the soil to suit our plant choices.

We also want to look at how our terrain relates to the surrounding landscape. If it offers the borrowed beauty of a breathtaking vista of mountains or a neighbor’s garden, we’ll certainly want our layout to take best advantage of these attributes. Or a fence or “green screen” can hide a less appealing view.

Boundaries and Surfaces
Property lines, location of the house, other structures and driveways establish garden boundaries. We may also install fences or walls to protect our property from interlopers, winds, or unsightly views, to create microclimates, or purely for aesthetic reasons.
Within our parameters, we can design new shapes and spaces and modify existing ones by subdividing into several smaller gardens. In my backyard, I have a gazebo garden, sunbather sculpture garden, barn garden, St. Francis garden, kitchen garden, and…well, you get the point. Garden boundaries beg to be changed. Every year, I add a new garden or expand an old one in search of more sun or shade, for new plant varieties, or by redesigning a border curve or pathway.

Lawns remain a staple in Central Virginia, although the current national trend is toward more naturalistic planting design with native plants or wildflowers in lieu of expanses of turf. Other trends include using wood chips, gravel or pebbles to create breathing spaces between heavily planted areas and installing permeable surfaces for driveways and terraces to eliminate excess surface water runoff into our storm sewers, streams and rivers. If you’re not already a convert, you may want to explore these trends and become part of the fast-growing “sustainable landscapes” movement.

Culture, Style and Taste
The next step is to consider basic historic garden designs and choose your own personal style. Your preference may be a Persian or Islamic garden divided into a perfectly symmetrical pattern of four equal sectors with channeled water as a critical element for both irrigation and aesthetics. Or you may be drawn to Chinese and Japanese garden designs that are no less controlled, but offer a more organic, curvy and naturalistic asymmetrical design—or the Zen garden with rocks, moss and raked stones.

Other design choices, influenced by the Renaissance period in Europe, also feature geometrical, rectilinear and axial plans.
The backbone of the classical Italian garden is a central axis with cross-axes leading to sculptural focal points, and evergreen plants are used to form patterned knots or parterres. These, as with Persian gardens, may be filled with flowering plants, such as roses, or left open.

Perhaps you’d even like to try your hand at creating a human-scale version of a grand and formal French Renaissance or Baroque garden with elaborate highly-stylized parterres, topiaries, and espaliered trees and shrubs pruned into improbable shapes and sizes that defy nature.

But a less rigid, more relaxed approach seems to be the mainstay of our local aesthetic. Most local gardens tend to take their cues from the English landscape garden style popularized by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, Gertrude Jekyll’s “garden rooms” with overflowing herbaceous borders, and noted Southern landscape architect Charles Gillette.

Should you prefer a more modern, minimalist garden style featuring little more than sleek lines of hardscaping in stone, hardwood or rendered walls, the planting style is simple with a few drifts of one or two plants, such as interesting ornamental grasses, to highlight summer bounty.
For today’s gardener, anything goes. We are free to choose formal or informal, traditional or modern designs—or an eclectic style. Taste is personal, so we home gardeners can design what feels right for us.

Putting It All Together
Experts advise developing a long-term plan and detailed strategy and then placing plant “bones”—trees, evergreen hedges, anchor plants. We can create our own design and plant it ourselves or hire professional landscapers for challenging areas. I’ve done both.
If we are unsure of soil conditions or what to plant, we can always seek free advice from the Hill City Master Gardener Association (434-455-3740;

When planning, we want to define circulation patterns and areas for living, playing and other functions—some practical and some purely sensory. We’ll want to select materials complementary to our homes and embrace principles of design for scale, proportion, repetition, sequence, variety and balance. And, of course, we don’t want to forget the garden view from inside the house!

If you love formal gardens, a simple design could be a trimmed evergreen hedge of geometric shape enclosing a flowerbed filled with summer-blooming flowers. Or, if you prefer, you could define borders and beds by trenching edges between beds and grass, outlining with edging plants or hardscaping.
You may even wish to create a Shakespeare garden, memorial garden, white or red garden or any other creative theme that lights your fire! Have fun and add a secret garden or other elements of surprise!

When putting soft flesh on those garden bones, for a more abundant, bountiful look, choose plants with a variety of texture and form. Mix low, medium, and high; spire, creeping, mounding; and create focal points to draw and hold the eye. Envision how the succession of bloom, scale and speed of growth, and combinations of plants will affect the appearance of the garden. Oh, and don’t forget to consider how maintenance requirements relate to available time and funds.

Finally, add garden furniture that suits your lifestyle—tables and chairs for entertaining, play places for the little ones, and serene spots for meditation. If you enjoy garden art, go for your style—whether classical statuary, contemporary sculptures, or whimsical rust art. (I love them all in my garden.) And don’t forget the value of safety lighting and spotlighting.

Some gardeners, including myself (I confess), start digging with a general vision, but without a formal game plan and will always find a home for any plant that’s a gift or strikes our fancy. The important thing is that your garden is YOURS, reflecting your personality with plant material that makes you happy. If you love a plant, even if others call it a weed, go ahead and enjoy it in your garden, as I do.

The “Country Cottage Garden” concept sparked my flame and has been right for me and our colonial-style house. My summer garden is filled with blooming roses and countless varieties of perennials, most conspicuously hundreds of daylilies—robust perennials, easy to grow and boasting a variety of bold, cheerful colors.

And all came from 10 original plants gifted by a neighbor.

My latest craze for summer bounty is tough care-free native plants that thrive on summer heat and survive drought—butterfly weed, milkweed, Joe Pye weed (that “weed” word again), summer phlox, Rudbeckia, and so many more. Borders and beds overflow with an abundance of flowers successively blooming from June into fall. They speak to me not of formal grandeur but of grace and casual charm.

Then as one cluster of blooms drifts into another, creating a natural summer lushness, they sing the word “bounty” to me.

And at the end of the day, I sit on the terrace with my glass of wine and savor their beauty.

Words & Photos by Susan Timmons

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