GARDEN THERAPY: Big Picture versus Detail – Macro meets Micro – July 2018

By Mel Bellar

I am, first and foremost, a big picture guy when it comes to the landscape, as well as in most things in life. I see the line, the bones, the architecture and then maybe I will have time to focus on some detail. However, there are many folks (and serious gardeners) who get their jollies from walking through the weed patch bed to see the 2 blue Himalayan poppies blooming down by the barn. FYI, in case you are one of these people and think that I just turned you on to a cool new detail, the blue Himalayan poppies are hard to come by and a real pain to grow.

This macro/micro play shows up in various ways in my thinking and writing. It has a lot to do with my focus on scale, mass plantings, big rocks (the more and the bigger the better!) and the importance of the line, even if it is just a mow line between the “garden” and the weeds. Having said all of this so emphatically, my own garden is crazy full of details. This is mostly because when I started it I didn’t know anything. I did know to start by making a large flat area by creating a big retaining wall (with boulders) and paths to create the bones for my rustic cabin cottage garden. Then I proceeded to plant one of everything, mostly stuff I was given. However, this foundation did provide me with enough of a concept that I have been able to claw my way into a sort of big picture feel on my property over the past 15 years. It can be done; you can back your way into it.

In my column, I don’t like to emphasize my being a professional or having clients, but the “big picture” perspective it gives me cannot be underestimated. With a new client, I always start with a top down approach to a design, trying to get the house setting and function of the property, look and feel great. Then, if I have a relationship with them over the years, we can fill in with details to tune the flowering progression: add bulbs, add some containers or an object. In my experience, many people tend to want to focus in on the details right away and take the big picture for granted or ignore it altogether. However, when I take on a garden makeover project and persuade the client to let me add some big picture elements, like some mass plantings, some nice lines, a couple of shrubs or a path, they suddenly “get it” and see how it brings their details into focus. It is sort of like putting a nice frame on a painting; it suddenly just looks so much better!

So, I am pretty sure that you are thinking that the big picture is very pricey and making some nice details is a whole lot easier. You are mostly right, but there are a few things you do inexpensively that can help shape a property. Add some shrubs in your beds. Young shrubs (2 gallon pots) don’t cost much more than perennials at a nursery. Big shrubs are good at making a statement in a large area and some can grow quite fast, but there are many cool dwarf shrubs available now that can really spiff up a bed (and not get too big.)  Look at Little Lime, Bobo and Little Quickfire hydrangeas, Little Devil Ninebark, Spilled Wine Weigela or the Palabin Lilac.

I just put in 24 tiny trees from whips that I got from the Delaware County Soil and Water District,  I am making an allée of American larch along my drive and I put in a grove of the native canoe birch on a messy bank between the driveway and the road. I am trying to improve the macro view of the entrance to my property on the cheap. I bought the 2 to 3 foot whips and they cost about $2 per plant. It took me several hours to plant them, using a pick ax to create an adequate hole, put in a little soil and stick in the whips. I did spring for stakes and tree tubes to protect them from the critters while they get established and grow a little, but mostly I added the tree tubes to protect them from me, the weed-whacker and the mower. A grove of trees can add a great element to the big picture. Of course, you have to be patient and think long term, but they should start to provide some enjoyment after a few years, especially if you water and feed them.

Finally, you can mow to create a nice line and frame for your lawn area, not just making it whatever is leftover from mowing around the obstacles. Often times, what you mow once in the spring will produce a nice meadow effect with volunteer wildflowers and grasses.

Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener