November 29, 2023

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Tom Karwin, On Gardening | Landscape design – Santa Cruz Sentinel

6 min read

Care for your garden

Gardeners are now less than three weeks before the fall season begins, marking the ideal time for installing new plants in the garden. You could add plants now but resolve to coddle them until the start of the seasonal rains, which we hope will begin around mid-October.

Now is the time to prepare for planting season. Preparations include taking a good look at your garden, first to appreciate what is working well and then to address areas that could be improved by subtracting, dividing, multiplying or adding.

We could explore each of those functions, but let’s instead take a longer view of your landscape’s design.

There are countless concepts of garden design concepts related to styles, themes, terrain, exposure, personal preferences, etc., making a design review of your garden like getting stranded in an unfamiliar environment.

To narrow the scope of this exercise, we will consider a short list of design ideas included in a recent issue of Garden Design, a magazine that I have long enjoyed and that has evolved into a virtual publication.

Our springboard is Jan Johnsen’s article, “8 Landscape Design Tips for Creating an Enticing Garden.” To read this and other articles by this designer, go to and search for “Jan Johnsen.” Here are my comments on these design tips.

Curves in the Garden: The shape of planting beds or walkways reflect the straight lines of property boundaries, street sidewalks, driveways, and the residence and garage. This rectilinearity supports efficient development of urban areas, but curving lines add interest and a natural feel to the garden. Look for opportunities to convert straight to curved in the garden; you’ll like the result.

Hide and Reveal: A reliable landscaping guide is “smaller plants in front; taller plants in back.” This approach works in specific instances, but when applied to the full landscape, it is what techies would call a “core dump,” which Wikipedia defines as “any output of a large amount of raw data for further examination or other purposes.” The design tip is to use plants, mounds, or structures to interrupt views of portions of the garden, and thereby to add interest.

Guiding Garden Visitors. A garden of any size can be laid out to provide visitors with clear and enjoyable tours through the space. Johnsen suggests using path widths to guide movement: narrower = faster, wider = pauses to appreciate features of the landscape. Branching paths of equal width might need directional clues (or even signs); dead end paths should be avoided or kept short with an art piece or other “payoff” to justify the side trip.

Borrowed Scenery: Look for opportunities to draw attention to attractive features beyond the garden’s boundaries, to complement the smaller space. This might be a distant vista or (more commonly) a nearby tree with colorful blossoms or leaves, or appealing form. Plan your own garden to frame the view of this borrowed scenery. This tip’s flip side is to plan your garden to block less attractive perspectives. Strategically placed trees or large shrubs require time to develop but can be worth the wait.

Three-dimensional Design: When entering your garden, you or your visitors ideally would see foreground, middle ground, and background areas. Planning for such depth in the landscape works best when you have established a preferred entry to the garden. This need not be a formal gateway, just a logical point of access to the garden from the home’s back door or a walkway around the house. Developing landscape depth in larger gardens requires vision and time. It’s more easily achieved in smaller gardens, with the same inputs.

Playing with Perspective: Pathways, planting beds, or other elements seem farther away as they narrow in width. This phenomenon, employed in painting during the Renaissance, has long been applied in landscape design. Its success in garden design depends on one’s point of view, so using this tip begins with deciding on a particular location in the garden from which the view could be enhanced by tricking the eye.

Exploiting a Long View: Some gardens have a long, straight view by design or the natural environment. Long views can be contrary to other concepts included among these design tips, but when they exist in the garden, they draw the viewer’s attention to the end of the feature. The design opportunity in such cases is to present the viewer with a visual destination: a specimen plant, sculptural art or ornament, a structure, a bench, anything to reward the viewer.

The View from On High: Even gardens that are elevated relative to the surrounding environment provide opportunity to design one or more outlooks to attractive views beyond or even within the garden. Hillside gardens might stage a long-distant vista by framing it with plants and providing seating from which to look down on the natural or built environment. Even gardens with lesser slopes could be shaped in a selected area to provide an elevated view of an attractive setting.
Review your garden to explore possible improvements based on these design tips.

Advance your gardening knowledge

Here are upcoming webinars to expand your knowledge and ideas.

Reminder: The Cactus and Succulent Society will present the webinar, “The New Era of Lithops Information” at 10 a.m. Saturday. Dr. Roy Earle will discuss the Lithops Foundation’s work, resulting in a new book and projects to preserve and re-establish Lithops colonies in Namibia & South Africa. Lithops, called “living stones,” are small succulent plants popular with collectors. No one loathes lithops. To register for this free event, visit

Garden Design, the virtual garden magazine, presents monthly live garden tours. The upcoming event is “A Journey Through Your September Garden with David Culp,” at 3 p.m. Sept. 9. These online events require a $20 registration fee, which yields limited “seating,” program notes including a plant list, a Q&A session, and 30-day window to view the recorded version of the program. This is an emerging model for garden webinars intended to satisfy viewers and support the producers. To register, visit

The Berkeley UC Botanical Garden has announced several webinars for September:

Zoom Photography Workshop: Blooming in Place with Becky Jaffe, at 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. repeated on Sept. 7, 14, & 21, 1.
Virtual Butterfly Walk: 11 a.m.-12 p.m. Sept. 12.
Oaks of the UC Botanical Garden, 1-2 p.m. Sept. 16.
Crafting with California Native Plants (family program), 10:30-11:30 a.m. Sept. 19.
Cork oak woodlands: human-shaped systems of conservation value, 10-11 a.m. Sept. 21
Oak Galls for Natural Dyes with Kristine Vejar, 1-2 p.m. Sept. 30.
For more information and to register for these free events, visit

The Berkeley UC Botanical Garden also has posted a series of virtual tours of its plant collections, available on Explore this world-class garden from the comfort of your home! For descriptions of these tours, visit

The UC Santa Cruz Farm & Garden will present a webinar, “Top Ten Medicinal Herbs to Grow in Santa Cruz County,” at 5 p.m. Sept. 22. English Medical Herbalist Paula Grainger will share hints and tips on cultivating and harvesting these selected herbs and using them to improve your and your family’s health and wellness. For information and registration, visit

The Ruth Bancroft Garden will present the webinar, “California Natives in Dry Gardens,” at 10 a.m. on Sept. 22. Research scientist and horticulture instructor Mariano Resendiz will discuss how you can create a habitat for beneficial wildlife including native pollinators and soil microorganisms that requires fewer pesticides, fertilizer, and water. For information and registration for this low-cost event, visit

Enrich your gardening days

Enjoy your garden!

Tom Karwin is past president of Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society, and Monterey Bay Iris Society, and a Lifetime UC Master Gardener (Certified 1999–2009). He is now a board member and garden coach for the Santa Cruz Hostel Society. To view daily photos from his garden, To search an archive of previous On Gardening columns, visit

Tom Karwin, On Gardening | Landscape design

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