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The Well-Designed Garden

When I walk around the City, I look for gardens, big and small, that seem not only to embody principles of sustainability, but which add to the beauty of the City. I admire some that are simple, some that are complex, some that grow edibles, some given over to annuals or shrubs, some replete with California natives and some full of exotics. Some I admire for neatness and symmetry, some for abundance and exuberance, some for usefulness, some for creativity. Clearly, they are an eclectic bunch, so what are the qualities that my favorite gardens share, regardless of size?

  • Unity: There is a clear, unifying idea underlying the garden. The theme may be formal, cottage garden, sensory, meditation, California native, birds, garden art, irises, vegetable, and so on. The design of the garden elements fits with the architecture of the home.

  • Focal points: There are a few, but not too many, places that catch your attention, causing you to spend more time looking at them. A focal point might be a tree, a patch of brightly colored flowers, a bench, a raised bed, etc.

  • Line: There are generous lines created by walkways, beds, etc., for the eye to follow.

  • Form: The forms of the larger plants fit with the intent of the garden— weeping trees bring the eye down to the ground often to a focal point, vase-shaped trees provide shelter for sitting areas, rounded shrubs form a pleasant background to flower beds. There are some intermediate forms moving the eye from trees to flower beds.

  • Texture: There is interest resulting from differences in the size and shape of leaves, the arrangement of leaves and branches, colors, the shiny or matte surfaces of leaves, the interplay of light and shadow, the inclusion of hardscape elements.

  • Color: The colors fit with the theme or intent of the area. A formal garden often has limited colors, a cottage garden, many. Red, orange, yellow are lively; blue, purple, green are more restful.

  • Scale: The size of the plants is in keeping with the size of the house so that the house doesn’t look dwarfed or loom over the landscape, but instead looks firmly anchored within it.

  • Balance: Either there is symmetrical balance, in which the two halves of the area are essentially mirror images or asymmetrical balance in which the plant material may be different but the visual mass is the same; for example one side may have a shrub and tree and the other several shrubs, but the visual “weight” is the same.

  • Repetition and variety: The same plants, colors, or textures are repeated in good-sized groups in a number of places to avoid the look of “one of everything”, but there is enough variety to avoid monotony.

  • Movement: There is a feeling of movement given by a directed change throughout an area in some element--perhaps a progressive decrease in the leaf size, or in colors from red through orange to yellow.

  • Surprise: There is some interesting element such as a statue seen only from one place, unique paving stones, or a surprising color combination.

All of the Claremont gardens I admire give me ideas for mine. You can take the opportunity to get inspiration for your own garden by visiting six outstanding and varied local gardens on the 2014 Garden Tour “Claremont Eclectic”, Sunday, April 6, from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. The ticket price includes admission to Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, as well as to the special “Tomatomania” event being held there. You can purchase the $25 tickets online at www.sustainableclaremont.org, or under “Events” on the RSABG website, or at RSABG on the day. (The tour is a fundraiser for the Sustainable Claremont Garden Club, the Claremont United Church of Christ, and Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden—it’s a chance to support some local non-profits, as well as have fun and get some great garden ideas!)

“Demystifying Sustainability” is a project of Sustainable Claremont. Information about the SC Garden Club, which meets the second Wednesday of the month at Pilgrim Place, can be found on the SC website, where you can also find a list of actions to make your garden more sustainable. A new program called DRIP is forming with the aim of reducing landscape water use, and we’d love to have your help getting it going. For info on these and other SC activities, please visit www.sustainableclaremont.org or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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