GARDEN THERAPY: My Parting Wisdom (or at least opinions:)

By Mel Bellar

After nine years of writing this column, it is seriously hard to know what to write for a final offering. I don’t want to be pithy, mushy or too matter-of-fact. The truth is that it has been great fun and such a learning experience to write for the Andes Gazette. What a pleasure to really take the time to think and organize my thoughts and to have an outlet to express and share what I have learned over the years. Andes is my home and I hope to continue to contribute, but it is time for me do so in some other way. It is an honor that my musings will live on at the website, Just search for “Garden Therapy” and you will find them all in reverse chronological order, complete with photos—many of them in color!

For this final article, I thought it might be fun and informative to see if I could consolidate my personal design principles, preferences and quirks into a single column, in case you ever want a quick “what would Mel say” reference to all things garden design.  Here goes:

Scale is everything:  This is the most important aspect of design. While I don’t have a hard and fast rule (and the concept evades many folks)…simply put, don’t place little things in large spaces or vice versa. For instance, don’t put 3 small trees or shrubs dotted throughout a lawn area, but rather put the 3 of them in a group to have a bigger presence. Don’t have skinny garden beds around a big house or patio; make them generous enough to create a sense of gracious balance.  Balance is a key word.

Go from the details near the house to a wilder and grander scale further out:  Don’t waste detail in large spaces (remember that principle); save it for areas you see all the time near the house and in smaller spaces.  I like to think of a property going from the more managed to the wild in stages like ripples emanating out from the house.

Never waste an opportunity for a beautiful line: The line defines the horizontal architecture of a property, and it is cheap (you have to have lines, so they should be important).  Straight lines are usually boring unless you are in a more formal context, which is rarely the case in the Catskills. Make your beds, patios, walls, and paths have an elegant curve (not wiggly) whenever it can work, without being contrived. One of my pet peeves is the way people mow right up to the rough edges of the woods or other obstacles, leaving a raggedy edge with no style.   Make a nice mow line that is graceful and easy to mow (no tight curves or angles) to accommodate the obstacles and turn the mow line into a thing of beauty.

Gardens need contours as well as nice lines:  Mound up beds a little to create a nice shape and subtle elevation changes. Plant trees a little higher than ground level and create a beautiful mound around them; it gives them good drainage and another architectural aspect.  Having everything flat to the ground is not nearly as visually interesting and (bonus for ease of planting) it is more work to dig deeper beds. In addition, higher beds make for better drainage.

Take advantage of grade changes: We rarely have much flat space on properties in the Catskills. Use these grade changes to make walls and steps to create some interesting vertical elements. Steps, landings and small retaining walls are very functional, add interest, and can add impactful visual/functional elements.

Gardens need paths:  Always have paths, large and small; it doesn’t matter. If you find yourself stepping through the garden to get somewhere, put in some steppingstones and call it a path.  They add structure and look great. However, don’t have paths as borders! They need to go through the garden, not beside it.

Use rocks and gravel:  Beautiful rocks always look good! They add structure, texture, and verticality. Gravel can make something boring… totally beautiful.  It can be used for stunning paths, patio areas and in some cases mulch. There are many different nice-looking gravels, and they all can add additional texture and color. However, while it is hard to have too many rocks there must be some plants to soften it, or it will look contrived.

   Use shrubs and trees: You need height and some woody structure in the garden. Remember, evergreens and interesting branch structures are there for the entire year and colorful foliage and varied textures last the whole season. Trees and shrubs also provide some shade, which is good for people and a variety of perennials. Think of shrubs and trees as the “bones of a garden” that provide structure and support.

Plant for the 5-year garden: This is the “beginner mistake” for many folks. Don’t plant shrubs and trees too close together, too close to wires or structures (right plant, right place) and most of all give them room to grow! Perennials and grasses can be planted a little closer together (than the labels say) to fill in a new garden more quickly, but plan to move things around as the garden matures. You can’t plant a new garden that will look right at 1, 3, 5, 10 and 20 years without editing. Plants grow, some die, and we can never know exactly what is going to do well or not … and you know I always say “nature is fickle.” The point being, gardens always require editing and updating.  Rule of thumb:  Plant the big stuff with enough space for its nearly mature size and fill in the rest with easily moveable perennials and grasses.

Plant in masses: Don’t plant one or two of something unless it is truly treated and and placed as a “specimen.” Planting a one-of-a-kind tree or shrub as a focal point makes good sense and can be very effective. for example, you don’t need a grove or cluster of smoke bushes or catalpas. However, single perennials dotted throughout the garden will become lost unless you are right up on them.  Plant groupings of the same plant and use drifts of plants (especially crossing paths).  Masses of plants speak so much better in the landscape and make a statement from a distance, and most gardens get viewed more from a little distance.

Foliage, masses, natural materials, structure and line are my parting words.  I could go on and on with this, but the sun is setting.  My email address is if you want to discuss any of my opinions or just ask questions.  Get out in the garden!

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