Monday, February 7, 2011

Garden design: where to start?

By Lauren Sims
Photo by William Cullina

This spring, many of us will head to a local nursery or garden center and select a few new plants for our yards. Perhaps you are looking for a couple of containers to sit on the front porch, or maybe some brightly colored annuals to line the path to the door. This seems simple enough, right? But for a lot of people, “designing” a garden space is a completely different and more daunting endeavor.

“I think design is intimidating for most people,” says William Cullina, a gardening author and director of horticulture at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. “There’s a sense that there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way to do it, and if you do it wrong it’s out there in your front yard and everybody is going to see it and you’ll be embarrassed.”

But Cullina is quick to point out that garden design does not have to be intimidating, and there is no such thing as right and wrong.

“In a sense, design is all about perception, right? It’s our perception of beauty.”

Some homeowners like the idea of a garden space that blends in with the natural landscape surrounding it, or one that suggests a landscape that they wish surrounded them, says Cullina, who counseled many Triangle gardeners back when he was nursery manager at Chapel Hill’s Niche Gardens. Others prefer a more abrupt design that sets the garden apart from its surroundings. Choose what you like, he says; no one aesthetic is better or worse than another.

One key to designing a garden space is to take the time to think abstractly, Cullina says. Right now, before that spring trip to the garden center, is the perfect time to play around with new ideas. Daydream about what you would like for and from your garden. Sketch out some ideas. Take digital photos of plants, or cut them out of a seed catalog, then lay them out and shuffle them around to see if and where you like them. And if you don’t like what you see, just grab a new piece of paper or snap a few more photos and experiment some more. No harm done.

The most important part of garden design is to enjoy yourself, says Cullina.

“Everybody has an opinion about what’s beautiful and everybody thinks that their opinion is the best one,” he says. “So I think you have to take it all with a grain of salt and have fun with it.”

You can learn more from Cullina when he visits Duke Gardens for two special events this month. On Feb. 12, from 9 a.m. to noon, he’ll lead a workshop called “Beyond the Surface: Soil Demystified.” Then from 3 to 5 p.m., he’ll present a talk titled “The Botany of Design.” For more information, please call 668-1707 or e-mail To see Duke Gardens’ full roster of discovery programs, please go to

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Lauren Sims is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens. This column first appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on Feb. 5, 2011.

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