5. The Best Gardening Advice – Learn the Big Stuff


The last post talked about the puff stuff. You know morale and inspiration. But honestly, they are very important in keeping interest and motivation. Working in a garden can easily demotivate you. It can be something very small, like a fungus or insect, or it can be something very big and damaging like poor drainage. But what most commonly stumps even seasoned gardeners are three things.


Help, I’m Stuck

As a professional, I find many people do not understand a few important aspects of design. Many have difficulty with what comes first, massing and scale.

Massing gives the landscape visual impact, it creates form, color and texture. Massing of plants keeps like plants together and reduces maintenance. Here is how you know how many plants to make up any given area, from my post, Mass Those Perennials Right With A Handy Chart.

When mixing different species, although adding visual punch and interest, the varied plants will compete for light, water, and nutrients. Having larger masses of each alleviates some maintenance by keeping weeds at bay.


Note plant grouping, but also look how the design has big elements. Natural meadow plantings develop this way as well, on the fringe of forested areas often.

You can see nature does the same thing, keeps like plants happy together. Meadows develop surrounded by protective trees and understory growth. Make nature your teacher.


Natural meadow flanking the woodland, some areas are mowed for recreation and use.

Visual Weight

In a garden, the composition is given more importance by combining the differing elements based on the massing of those elements. Some parts of a composition are more noticeable, while others become background elements.

Mass is also what you might look at in groups of solid color, like the goldenrod above. Visually weighted mass is also the ‘big’ plants like trees or groups of shrubs, seen in the Chanticleer image of the poppy meadow two above. This concept flows right into scale. What is big and what is small.


The background elements create the cohesiveness of a design by linking together features of great visual importance. This is the “what comes first” aspect of design.


Working with levels in a design, creating interest.

Oh Yes, the Big Stuff Goes in First

The largest items and items to most disturb the site come first. Many times people start with perennials and annuals, which are the last things to be placed in a new garden. Hardscape items are preferably first, followed by trees.

Drainage is added to save existing trees, your home, and newly installed hardscape. Drainage is considered and installed when grading a site. Assuming your site is existing, drainage occurs when adding any hardscape. When one alters where water flows, tree and plants start to die.

This is stuff best left to professionals, but on a small-scale, experienced gardeners can handle the little stuff. Just making a berm redirects water, so think about that next time you are out mounding soil.ย  Also, think about these images next time you want to make major changes to your property. Getting an idea what you want early saves time, plants and money.


Installing drainage.

Trees can be first if not in the way of construction or heavy equipment. You can see how gardens and trees above were removed to add the hardscape. Grading the property is important in keeping the home dry, but also adds interest to the property.


Dinky Doesn’t Do It – EVER

Scale always stumps a beginner. They start planting all tiny plants, not realizing the monotony that will follow. Don’t be afraid of big plants. Put in your trees and shrubs to give structure to your gardens. Big leaf plants adds a level of texture and visual interest. Even small gardens benefit greatly by having large plants, just not too many.

You have to think in terms of the architecture which is big, and you need to balance it in the landscape. Don’t think dinky. You should combine the scale of the built environment with human scale. Your circulation or paths should have some human scale elements (elements people sized), and your building should have scale to balance itself (trees and shrubs stepping down in scale).

To learn these design elements of mass and scale, talk to the experts. Once you conquer these two major design elements, you will have that magazine worthy garden. Just remember to put in the big things first and worry about the small flowers last. Even if you make a few mistakes, allow yourself. You will retain the information for a lifetime.

How do I know? I have helped some clients understand these principles. Next, I show you a few different gardens.



About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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42 Responses to 5. The Best Gardening Advice – Learn the Big Stuff

  1. lucindalines says:

    Interesting. I like the advice. I am still trying to figure out some of our yard and this all makes good sense. Hopefully this summer puts some of the finishing touches on things.

  2. EcoGrrl says:

    Good stuff. Design is definitely my challenge, but what has always helped me, as with all gardening, is that if I don’t like it, I can change it! When I first tore out my front yard I bought “one of everything” and watched how it grew. Some stuff is still there (amazing how that groundcover spreads from just one plant!), some stuff has been relocated to better areas, and each year I learn more about not what design “should be” but what I personally like. Playing with height has been fun – sometimes you just have to plant it to see how it looks (designs drawings have never meshed with my visual brain – I keep a scrapbook instead of magazine clippings and, of course, a page on Houzz.com!).

    • Many garden as you do, with the trial and error approach. One can learn mountains form this too. Design drawings are visual if done properly and in the right type of drawing. When I do presentation drawings, it is like the mature garden is in front of you.

  3. janechese says:

    Like a painting-large to small. here I was so proud of myself planting a couple of varieties of plants in a planter on the front steps of the house where I stayed and planting strawberries and tomatoes in a plot of land in the back yard where I used to live. I will have to post some photos from my friend’s garden later on.

  4. Patty says:

    Very timely reminder for me. I have been thinking about the plantings I intend to do in various areas of the garden and massing plants is the way to go. It is not something I have experience with as I am a ‘one of’ type of purchaser at the garden centre.

    • I find that massing makes such a visual impact that is hard to beat. All the big gardens do it, but even small gardens can. In my garden, I mass plants that are easy to maintain like coreopsis. Some, like foxglove mass themselves.

  5. Your information is quite useful, as always, and the pictures are stunning. It really set me to thinking through the design of my garden and yard with thoughts on how to apply and make improvements. Thank you.

    • I have my process of design series. It is how professionals think through the process. We don’t do all the steps on paper, but do think of them when designing. It could be helpful as well. I will post the links on number 7.

  6. alesiablogs says:

    I am printing this post out..I am concerned how our plants may need to be better organized. I think this post will help my husband! I like the idea of thinking through the process of where/why you plant certain plants/shrubs in a particular area. We have been very guilty of not making our garden make sense. It looks nice, but not with an eye for where things best fit.

    • The key is finding out what plants like living adjacent to each other, having the same needs. If one is more aggressive, you will lose the other. That is why you see gardens gracefully stepping down in size. This allows the sun to get to all.

      • alesiablogs says:

        This has been our problem ! We have too much! I will be discussing this with my husband. Es hope it doesn’t turn into a argument. Just kidding!

  7. A good summary of the basics we all should be reminded of. I don’t mind saying I have taken the concept of going for big plants to heart!

    • Design principles are always good to know. You might be well aware of them through long time experience, but from my dealing with many hundreds of gardeners, that is not the case. Next post I talk about two gardeners with forty years experience each that did not understand these principles. They had the big money to do the gardens over and over, but never got them to their satisfaction. They could rattle off the names of every plant, yet not understand the ways in which to use them. Honestly, it is not garden basics. These principles are a bit more tough to deal with for many, scale especially. It is very complex because it deals with perception of space, in addition to the physicality of space.

  8. igardendaily says:

    Oh, you hit my two biggest trouble spots! I know what to do in my head but have such a hard time making decisions on structure. By the time I get that done, I’m sometimes worn down and lose my resolve to mass giving myself a little freedom….them end up with too many different plants in a space! I’m getting better as I older though….:)

    • You are in great company. I cannot tell you how many people I work with that have the same issues. Many times it is a budget issue. Massing plants cost money unless one is willing to wait ten years and the multiply themselves.

  9. I like that you take concepts that might come from the artistic area, I guess you are talking about proportions, yes can be the first step.

  10. Many of my nursery customers come and buy one of ten different plants. I try to convince them that they will be much better satisfied with five of two different plants. A valuable exercise that I use myself is to limit my buying for a whole season to plants that are already in the garden—all I can do is add to existing groupings.

  11. Taking notes, to use your wonderful advice, when we get our own garden!!!

  12. Great article and great advice!

  13. Sue says:

    As a plant collector with not alot of space I admit I am guilty of designing in “drifts of one”. When it somes to shrubs and trees I find my designs effective, however with perennials not so much. This spring I am taking stock of some of my favorite perennials and plan to shuffle things around to create more drifts.

  14. That’s my big problem: I’m too afraid of using large plants. I’ve recognized that and put in some shrubs (mock orange and elderberry), but they’re taking a long time to grow. My gardens are evolving.

    • You put in two great shrubs. Mock Orange has a fragrance that makes one swoon. The berries of Elderberry are a very valuable food resource for many birds like Robins and Cedar Waxwings (not like I see them, even though they range here).

  15. This is such a great post and fantastic advice. Though the part about the big stuff going in first is crucial, I think the scale issue is immensely difficult for a person starting a garden. Getting enough size and visual weight, and covering the necessary space as a whole are so crucial to the ultimate result!

  16. Garden design is definitely my “weakest link” when it comes to gardening. All of this makes sense, but I have to hire professionals when it comes to big projects. I’m fortunate that I inherited a well-designed garden. Looking forward to the garden scenes!

    • One does not always have to hire the pros. Planting trees for instance is a big decision, but one most can do on their own. It is nice to have the trees in place in a landscape when you inherit a garden though. The place has permanence.

  17. Marguerite says:

    Some very good points here and I laughed a bit as I have made all the mistakes. and continue to despite knowing I’m making them ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. catmint says:

    good advice (and fab. photos) but my reality has been so different. Loved learning on the job, 30 years on still figuring out what to plant for more height, etc. Love perennials but realize they are difficult if you want the garden to look good all the year round.

    • Thank you. Only perennial does make it more difficult for winter interest, but the tall grasses do the trick if one lets them stand through winter. They take up a lot of space and create mass if planted in groups.

  19. As our mature trees were in first we added hardscape and then shrubs although not enough of them and understory trees…then the plants…and as I have redesigned areas for more massing. I feel like I have passed a gardening 101 test! Again wonderful advice for all of us.

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