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Designing a Garden? You’ll Need a Plan

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When Bill Noble first saw the Vermont property that would become his garden, it looked overwhelming.

“It was a gorgeous landscape, spectacular, but it was huge,” he recalled thinking on that day nearly 30 years ago, when he looked out from the deck behind the modest 1830s Greek Revival farmhouse, across hayfields and forests, to the White Mountain foothills. “Way beyond the scale of anything I could imagine gardening with.”

But garden there he did, with every action geared toward one resounding goal: creating connection.

As he writes in a new book, “Spirit of Place: The Making of a New England Garden”: “Much of what gardening is about is the feeling of being connected to a place, fostering a sense of belonging, and becoming familiar with the natural rhythms and cycles of a particular piece of the earth.”

Although Mr. Noble, a garden designer and former director of preservation at the Garden Conservancy, is telling the story of his own garden, it is an object lesson on the considerations involved in the making of any garden.

ImageTexture can transport, bringing a tropical look to New England in a 70-foot border of bold foliage, including ornamental rhubarbs and Rodgersia. “The way the foliage can move draws the eye, too,” Mr. Noble said.
Credit…Bill Noble

In Mr. Noble’s environment, the process involved two kinds of efforts. He accentuated the best views, with their rural character and agricultural history. At the same time, he developed various human-scale spaces within his boundaries — among them, a flower garden and another garden for vegetables, a rock garden and a number of inviting spots to sit awhile.

“I’ve tried to make a variety of places in which to garden, or be, or work,” he said. “All it took was seven bare-root Lombardy poplar trees and some columnar evergreens, and that changed everything.”



To make a garden that belongs contextually and emotionally to its surroundings, Mr. Noble asks clients the same thing he asked of himself: to set guiding principles.

“The process is a self-assessment: What do I really care about?” he said. “As a designer, I need to understand context — the surrounding environment, its landscape and architecture — as well as how the person will use the space and their goals as a gardener.”

One guiding principle for his own garden listed in the book: “Plants should be the primary means of creating structure and interest, rather than architecture or garden ornament.”

Mr. Noble used plants “to set up sightlines to feature nearby farm fields and distant mountains,” he said. “And to make certain I could no longer see what was on my neighbor’s television screen each evening.”

His practice, then, is about strategic plant placement — whether to frame, erase or just show off and delight. Determining the right plant for each task is not merely about size, but also shape, color and even texture, and which seasons it offers which characteristics in.

Mr. Noble shared a few lessons he has learned about strategic plant placement along the way.

Designing (or refining) a garden doesn’t begin by just walking around outdoors, but by going inside and looking out from various places in your home, registering potential views from key spots.

“Determine where the best views are and where you want the garden or the scene to present best from,” Mr. Noble said. “Is it a window? The deck? A porch? First, find your vantage points.”

He knew right away that the view from his dining room window was “the most glorious inside-outside view,” he said, and that “the garden should present well from the deck.”

Consider the quieter season, too, and “think from snowdrops to snowfall,” Mr. Noble said. “Establish focal points to draw you to, even in months when you are not outside.”

Most sites don’t have such obvious viewsheds as his, but if you frame a smaller slice of borrowed scenery it can make all the difference, creating the illusion of expansiveness.

Credit…Bill Noble

It’s hard to imagine a garden-in-the-making where something didn’t need hiding, Mr. Noble said, whether it’s a propane tank — or an entire house. A large, bright home with that distracting television set stood to the west of his property, and a just-sold building lot to the east needed addressing, too.

Mr. Noble sought deer-resistant evergreen for the first instance, planting a staggered row of Norway spruce — which, unlike some conifers, can hold its lower branches when older. He added a grid of apple trees inside, as though there had been an orchard there.

The result? “What was originally meant to be a utilitarian screen is now one of the garden’s real joys,” he said.

Sometimes a single, well-positioned plant can do the job, and Mr. Noble thanks the gardener who lived in his house for 60 years before him for one such placement. “She erased any awareness of a telephone pole effectively with a suckering white lilac,” he said.

Credit…Bill Noble

Like many old homes, Mr. Noble’s is set close to the road — just 25 feet away — which can limit its sense of privacy, and also means unwanted noise.

“In the 1830s, people were really glad to see people passing by,” he said. “But we wanted more privacy from within the house, and when I’m out in the garden.”

Some people build sound barriers; Mr. Noble uses plants. A side benefit: “Our own buffer keeps down dust, too — we live on a dirt road.”

For this and all screening jobs, which tend to be in less highly maintained areas, Mr. Noble creates a decision-making matrix before choosing plants. His own criteria included whether the plant under consideration was reliably hardy and could survive the deer. Was it fairly disease- and pest-resistant, and how much care would be required, including pruning? How would it perform over the years? Some fast-growers age poorly.

He considered how aggressive a plant was and its affordability, because multiples would likely be required. And whether the plant was native and had wildlife value was also important to Mr. Noble, who favors native shrubby dogwoods, willows, sumac and Amelanchier in looser areas.

While a traditional hedge — an expanse of a single plant like hornbeam or arborvitae — has its purpose, Mr. Noble prefers a less conventional method of screening.

For a client whose porch felt too exposed, he took a three-layer approach. Along the road, he chose a mixed planting of pine, hemlock, dogwood and birch. On the lawn, one strategically sited deciduous tree created a sense of privacy between the road and house. The final touch: a group of lilacs on the porch corner.

“All are serving the same purpose, to screen the road for people on the porch,” he said. “But nobody would think it’s screening.”

When screening along a road or other shared boundary, Mr. Noble said, remember both sides.

“I prefer a more generous mix of conifers and shrubs on the public side to a hedge,” he said.

On the inside, they form the backdrop to a more intimate garden space, with perennials and grasses. “The same plants serve as the spine,” he said, “but each side’s view is very different.”

Screens can be rendered less formidable by introducing what Mr. Noble calls “pocket views,” like his carefully placed break in a dogwood-willow hedge: “I wanted to give passers-by one peek.”

Credit…Bill Noble

The neighbors whose house Mr. Noble wanted to conceal are friends, so he let them know ahead of time.

“The surprise there was that they wanted screening,” he recalled. “I worried I’d impact their view, but it gave them more of a backyard — and they didn’t have to look at us.”

Then they took it a step further: “We mowed a path so we could walk back and forth to one another’s gardens. We screened, but also set out an invitation to visit.”

When Mr. Noble needed to “set a boundary for the garden,” he said, he used Lombardy poplars and columnar DeGroot’s Spire arborvitae.

The poplars punctuate the edge of the field, marking quadrants of the adjacent flower and vegetable gardens, but most of all saying, “The garden is not infinite; it ends here.”

The columnar shapes draw the eye upward. “Remember that the sky is part of the garden, too — and the clouds, and even storms,” he advised.

As counterpoints, shrubs with lower, rounded shapes, especially those with wine-colored foliage, have “a density that helps ground the garden,” Mr. Noble said.

Some plants advance visually, saying “look at me,” especially those with silver or gold foliage. Variegated leaves of gold, yellow and white are likewise refreshing, and draw the eye.

Cornus sericea Silver and Gold, a native twig dogwood with white-variegated foliage and gold stems, is a standby. Maroon has become a signature, too. “Shrubs with burgundy foliage enhance the color palette of flowering perennials,” Mr. Noble said. “It shows off blues and pinks and silver foliage really well.”

Credit…Bill Noble

Repeating signature decisions — and plants — unifies a design.

Mr. Noble added a poplar at each end of the far garden’s reaches, as well as an extra columnar arborvitae apart from the rest. “That strategic repetition tells you that you are in the same garden,” he noted.

Plan to make a shady place — or at least include a shade tree.

Better still, Mr. Noble said, plant a number of trees grouped together, to “create space and shade, a cool place for people to gather.” His choices for a grassy area: paper birch and quaking aspen.

And all gardens, however large or small, need one private place. Mr. Noble positioned a teak bench in the shade of an old apple backed by a stone wall, a spot offering a long view through birches to the foothills.

“You need a refuge,” he said. “My place is that bench — screened above from the road, but with more intimate planting around it that tells me that’s where I want to go.”


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