Seeking sanctuary: Ideas for a new garden space

Maybe it’s because I’ve been home with the kids all summer (only 3 weeks until school starts!), or because I have a giant project for a volunteer commitment for the next three weeks (good timing), or because it is hot outside, but I am seeking a little sanctuary.

In the few moments each day when something or someone is not making harsh demands on my attention, I try to think about what I want this new garden space to look like. The room addition is progressing; the block walls of the foundation are laid and the drainage work is done. Framing should begin this week (hurrah!). What I see forming is a kind of squarish courtyard, framed by the ell of the house and two large oaks at the edge of our deck.

Part of me wants a cloister garden in this space.

By Jjpetite (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Cloister at Fontenay Abbey, Marmagne, France by Jjpetite (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Typically, a cloister garden is formal in style; a quadrangle of calm framed by a sheltered but open walk.

Westminster Abbey cloister, By Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Westminster Abbey cloister, By Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

This grandeur, clearly, is not part of the renovation plan. However, if we are willing to stretch the definition of cloister to a courtyard that can be viewed in part from all four sides, we may be able to develop this idea further. I can see this spot from the rooms in my house where I spend the most time, so I think I must insist on its being visually calming. The trick, though, is that I know I won’t devote the time to perform the fine maintenance that a formal garden requires to keep it looking top-flight, and I won’t set myself up to look at mess from all sides. That would rather defeat the purpose.

This section of the garden receives good sun from midday on; I am working on a list of plants that I may need to move into this spot.

How do you find sanctuary in the garden? I’d love to hear ideas.


A new project commences: The away room

There’s always something under development at the MHM home and garden. Sitting still is not part of my toolkit.

The weather has finally cooperated to the point that we can begin building our addition onto the back of the house. We’ve been close to starting the project for two months now.  I came back from the beach to find that the footings had been dug. Yesterday the materials for the foundation were delivered and today the foundation will be poured.

I love house projects second only to garden projects, but I’ll keep the focus on the garden (probably).

The renovation objectives

We (I) have been planning for this addition for a long time. Our architect developed the plans for this room when we remodeled our very inadequate kitchen three years ago. It’s not going to be an especially large room, but it will give us tremendous flexibility. Either it will serve as an occasional guest room and frequent “away room” (a concept developed, as far as I know, by architect Sarah Susanka, author of the “Not So Big House” series), or else it will be adopted by our oldest child for his room, and his current (very small) bedroom will instead become the guest/away room.  Last September saw the first flight of the Great Azalea Migration, when massive chunks of even more-massive shrubs, displaced from their home near the corner of the house, found refuge along the northern border fence of my garden. This May, the arborist team removed a post oak with an 18- to 20-inch diameter. And now, it is time for the real work to begin.

The renovation’s garden impact

I knew, having mapped out with fallen limbs and landscape timbers and garden hoses, that the footprint of the addition would change dramatically the way we move in and out of the garden, and the way we interact with all the connecting spaces within the garden. But it’s entirely different once big holes are dug and we are forced to begin finding our new pathways.

Finding our new pathways is also going to be slightly complicated for the foreseeable future, as our shed is presently sitting where I imagine the new garden entrance will logically be. (Another project.)

I’ve begun sketching ideas, making lists of plants to move or acquire, and trying to envision how to move through the new space. But most of this will not be able to get well resolved until the structure is finished (at least, externally). Only then will I be able to see whether the light will fall the way I think it will fall, or whether people will be determined to move from one area to another in a given path, regardless of whether that’s where I want the path.

So much to think about! I love a good project.

Color-themed borders

Helen at The Patient Gardener’s Weblog offered some interesting thoughts on color-themed garden borders, and I’ve been turning her remarks over in my mind since I read her post. I also found the article by Helen Dillon to which she refers.

My 2c: It’s your garden, so plant what you like.

If I had been in Helen’s shoes, and spoken with the woman about the Ixias, I imagine that the thing I would have found jarring was the assumption the woman made about how I garden. Perhaps it is a more sensitive cultural issue on the other side of the pond, where gardening is a serious pastime, homes and gardens are closer together than in the US,  culture is (arguably) more traditional and uniform than in the US, and there may therefore exist certain assumptions (oh, those!) about what should be done with quasi-public space, but I think the gardener should grow what she likes, how she likes it, and not worry about what the Joneses say. As for me, I have borders organized by color, or color combinations, because I like them.

In Defense of Color

Color works well as an organizing principle, but experienced gardeners will acknowledge that color is only one piece of a potentially grand puzzle. It helps to understand the limitations of color as well, to place it in proper perspective in the overall garden-planning scheme of things: Blooms are ephemeral, and orchestrating particular combinations to bloom simultaneously can get rapidly beyond the capabilities of any gardener, however experienced. Sadly, none of us can control the weather.

Some years ago I read The Gardener’s Palette by Sydney Eddison. Eddison’s perspective on color as a painter helped me to better understand the nuances of color, and how colors can work together to achieve certain effects. Understanding that, I now build borders and beds using either complementary or analogous colors, because I like to see how one plant’s color makes another’s stand out.

I have a hard time seeing colors when they’re in a crayon-box collection; I find the colors compete too much with each other, with whites and yellows usually winning. But when organized with two or three other colors, it’s easier for me to appreciate the nuances of a given plant’s bloom: how blossoms fade from bright yellow to near-white or vice-versa, or from blue to faint pink in a columbine. Selected groupings also help me better discern tones in foliage, which has much more staying power than flowers.

I try to maintain some flexibility with my color plans, though, and will break rules I’ve set for myself: Along my front walk, for example, my garden is organized primarily around red-violet tones: Hemerocallis ‘Chicago Royal,’ rose campion, Joe-Pye weed. It strayed into darker, more pure purples, and some faint pinks, like the bottlebrush flowers of Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’. And then, this year, I discovered school bus-yellow lilies growing smack in the center of the bed. And I liked them there, so they’re staying.

I like to experiment, to build gradually, and to move things around. I like to test the boundaries of what will grow where. I have areas in my garden with strong sun, and lots of areas of deep shade. It is fascinating to me to discover how plant colors (foliage and flower) read depending on the light levels available. 

Texture and foliage and form are all equally important to color in achieving an attractive or compelling presentation. These long-lasting qualities provide important balance in the landscape. They can catch the eye, or let it rest. They allow different plants to stand apart from one another in the overall composition. But we are all drawn to color, so I don’t see any reason why the gardener should not use it however he wants, and learn to play with it and enjoy it. The same goes for texture, or form, or season of interest, or whatever creative principle the gardener can identify. All approaches are valid.

Above all, the garden is for the gardener. As Ann Lovejoy said, “Plant what you like. Martha‘s not coming over.” And so, if the gardener wants to plant, as Dillon writes, using the Smarties-box colo[u]r theme, she should do so. She is the one doing the labo[u]r, after all.