Make Your Yard a Work of Art

by Phyllis Edgerly Ring

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Gordon and Mary Hayward's garden designs always begin with people, since "that's who gardens are for," says Gordon, author of numerous books, including Your House, Your Garden: A Foolproof Approach to Garden DesignThe gardens around the couple's 200-year-old Vermont farmhouse have been featured in Horticulture magazine.

"For us, the plants are the last step," notes Gordon. "We first establish a relationship between a house and its surroundings, creating spaces in which people will want to spend time and relate with those surroundings.

Their "people-friendly" designs for outdoor living emphasize views and other pleasing elements, shade, and stress-free maintenance.

Do Try This at Home

To evaluate your yard, the Haywards recommend standing with your back to the door you use most, usually a side or back door.

"Identify existing fixtures that you can use as anchors to link the doors of your house to the surrounding landscape as you develop your garden," says Gordon.

Then take a folding chair and spend time in various places around the yard to see which lend themselves to outdoor living, he says. "Note the feeling and mood of each, its existing trees, views, and sunlight."

Sit and Smell the Roses

"Why plant perennials only to walk past them?" asks Gordon. Instead, place sitting and other activity areas right in the middle of them. That way, you create an extra "room" where you can eat or read the newspaper, and the plants' appearance and fragrance become part of your experience.

Expanses of field or lawn also qualify for Gordon's "room-with-a-view" treatment. He mows a curving, eight-foot-wide swath from their gardens' edge into a meadow, where he then mows a small circle around a bench shaded by small trees the couple planted. "It's a great place to watch the sunset," he says, "and see lots of bird activity." A similar sitting area can easily be sculpted into or at the edge of woodland property, he notes.

Benches are an easy way to enhance outdoor-living space when their design and materials fit a setting's mood, says Gordon "They draw people to them and emphasize the best views on your property and its surroundings."

"Always provide some kind of external support for all types of seating," reminds Mary, "such as shrubs, or anything that keeps your back from feeling exposed."

Rooms without Walls

The couple's inviting outdoor "dining room" nestles under the shade of a circle of 75-year-old trees. After dark, up-lights on the trees accentuate the overarching branches that provide the area's living "ceiling." The "floor" was constructed from a simple two-inch-deep sand foundation overlaid with stone slabs.

The Haywards reclaimed another area in their garden from space many might never think to use and that is the back of an old shed. Using its rustic barn-board exterior as backdrop, they shaped this east-facing location into a field-stone-paved patio sheltered by a grape arbor whose simple design includes four support posts fashioned from the bark-covered logs of local trees they felled. They've also used these rough-hewn logs for fence and clothesline posts.

Made in the Shade

Water's presence creates a cool retreat on the north side of the house, where a garden pool has received the approval of "ten green frogs," says Mary.

For homeowners, constructing such a pool can be as simple as digging a 12-foot diameter, 18-to-20-inch-deep bowl into the ground, putting down two inches of sand, then laying a rubber liner on top of the sand. The Haywards edged theirs with river rocks to hold the rubber liner in place and then covered the liner with 3/8-inch pea stone. Add a fountain hidden among rocks to shoot water up through a jet in the middle, and for about $200, you've got a pool, says Gordon. Homeowners can also introduce the element of water more simply by installing a birdbath near activity areas and floating flowers in it for decoration when entertaining, says Mary.

The Rule of Three

Once they've built their outdoor-living spaces, the Haywards choose all plants according to a property's physical characteristics and a hierarchy that begins with trees and then adds shrubs and perennials.

"Gardens need all three," says Gordon. "Trees provide vertical structure against the sky as well as a 'ceiling.' Shrubs define and enclose space and add fragrance. Perennials, which bring the highest maintenance, are detail plants that provide color and leaf variety, from the smallest, used for edging, to the drama of tall grasses."

"Once you've defined the spaces where people will be, very often, the plantings you want to have there will simply suggest themselves," Gordon says.

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