6. The Best Gardening Advice – Practical Experience


Even experienced gardens can fail in making a successful garden. They look out onto their gardens and do not have an idea what is missing. It is when they keep making the same mistakes over and over and not realizing what is not working. Remember I said to make friends with those in the know?


I have had clients (now friends) that hired me, not because they did not know their plants, but because they did not know how to use the plants. They did not understand that all gardens have and need some form of order and design. Design is not just for big projects. Let me explain.

Ironically, some people who are very long time gardeners do not always know what is not right in their gardens. They know something is off, but what? They keep investing money too.


Two very experienced gardening clients (not any of the images of gardens shown here) told me they did not see what was missing in ‘their design work’ until I was hired to redesigned the gardens. As a designer, it is my job to bring cohesiveness to the landscape and make it work within the character of the home. It is also to listen and make sure I meet their needs and wants.

In the image above, this woman loves red and you see the roses? Well far behind those roses is a row of Burning Bush (and below) that will keep the red following through Fall. To the left is a Sentry Maple doing the same. Red tulips grace this bed in early Spring.


Take note of all the trees. They give presence and scale. This design had to incorporate a park-like feel and also include a putting and chipping green. This would have been overwhelming to the homeowner to design on their own. But not all design is out of a homeowner’s reach when they understand design principles.


So back to my two clueless clients questioning what is off.  Well it is that which is off all the time? It is what I discussed in the last post. It is mass and scale every time. People just don’t get it.


Once a new garden is professionally installed, they can understand the important design principles of massing and scale – two things often overlooked and misunderstood. It is important in every part of a good design too.


Below, this side path could be very forgotten about because this property adjoins a country club and is in view of their swimming pool. A pleasant screen had to be made, and you can see how the newly planted hemlock and hydrangea are massing out the view beyond. The shaded path is still kept intimate and scaled to people, functional too. The use of scale and mass through layering of the planting will create an intimate side path. Do these two factors cost money? Well yes they do when the planting scheme is layered.

What I was told by both clients after the money was spent and work completed, was although they were afraid of the cost initially, both realized they had spent that amount ten times over in failed attempts on their own. Once they learned, it was the best money spent on their gardens.


Newly installed plants.

Just because people garden does not always mean they ‘get it right’ so to speak.  My clients read every book and gardening magazine ever printed, but it never occurred to them why the gardens in the colored images work so well.  They were reading all about something and not being able to understand until they SAW it. It is like the light bulb goes off.


In garden photos, often one misses things like texture, scale and massing.


Because with all the color and visual drama, these elements go unnoticed. The image overwhelms. A trick is to turn an image into black and white, strip away the color to see design elements more distinctly. You can do this with your own garden photos, it works especially well differentiating textures. See my post, W4W – Texture and Pattern in Design.


My advice to gardeners embarking on their own designs, really look at well designed gardens and try to pick out these design elements. Notice their relationships and juxtaposition.


The two clients both have huge properties and there was plenty of space yet to make gardens. They both did so, and when they were done, were so proud of themselves for what they accomplished. It only took understanding what was missing.

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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40 Responses to 6. The Best Gardening Advice – Practical Experience

  1. I love your tip about photographing your yard, then turning the photo into black and white. That should really help us to see just the shapes and sizes of plants and objects in the garden.

  2. Karen says:

    Good advice as always. The work of a professional always shows.

  3. I so want to go exploring gardens right now – loving your captures:) Happy Thursday!

    • Thank you. The garden with the putting green also has a woodland garden complete with trails. Also a meadow too, partially seen. It was newly installed in these images and plants did not have a long time to grow and fill in.

  4. newvoice says:

    I just want to jump into the pictures they are so delightful. Thank you for this!

  5. mazza18467 says:

    I love gardening, but I garden in my own way, it needs to be messy , untidy so that animals, birds and sorts can find a place for their own. through circumstances I had to leave all of my gardens and a new challenge is waiting. This year we are moving again hopefully for the last time. And that garden is like a blank canvas. My friends dad is terminally ill and we will inherite the house. Dad has a vegatable garden with a big birdcage. And we have birds of our own, that need a place there, the soil is poorly dry sand. So …….big challenge. we will start at the beginning, we start living there and see wath is there and how wecan use wath already is there and watch and watch how the wildlife uses the garden. I am pretty sure ii will sort itself out.
    The thing I hate most is People that destroy everything to replace it with something different. like a 50 year old tree just because somebody thinks it is to big or give to much rubbish and then change for a new tiny tree. So the trees will be safe.

    • My own garden supports a lot of wildlife if you are familiar with my posts. Messy is not always mandatory, but I do not cut back plants in fall so the birds and insects benefit. None of my jobs are clear cut. The two gardens above have very large trees and both properties saved trees. You can see in the path images how close trees are to the large home. That is new construction and the trees were saved.The putting green was formed not taking any trees down. It fit between where trees were not there to begin with. Many new trees were also installed on this property. Many bat houses and bird houses are on the property too.

      • mazza18467 says:

        I would love to have a walk through your garden, some gardens , especially here in Holland are so tidy that they are dead. People here tend to sweep their gardens every day and every loose leaf has to go, no compost heaps, but everything in the dustbin. An other thing is here that people fill their gardens with gravel in the hope there is no weeds, so they don’t have to work in their gardens, to me it is murder to a lot of wildlife. Some species like the common house-sparrow are declining rapidly because there are no hedges, no sand ( for their baths) and no crumbs anymore to eat. only pavements, gravel and the odd sculpture. This give a better idea what I mean with messy gardens.

  6. I need you at my house! After 12 years, I still do not adore my gardens!

  7. A compelling case for the value of the professional garden designer. I like to think I have some appreciation of massing, but it is often a casualty of my desire for new kinds of plants!

    • I was not really advocating hiring a pro, but rather mentioning that learning a few things makes one start to think like one. I have a series on the Process of Design which really spells it out how pros think when designing. It was posted a while ago and is very popular with searches.

  8. Christy says:

    Great information as usual!

  9. HolleyGarden says:

    Photographing the garden in black and white is a great idea. It’s almost like seeing the garden with snow all over it. The bones show, and you’re not distracted by color.

  10. Great tips, it gives me a lot to think about as I continually shape my own garden.

  11. I am not a gardener but I learn so much from your thoughts even in just observing gardens through photographs or the actual experience of being in one.

  12. What a great walk in the garden this morning!

  13. Jennifer says:

    “It only took understanding what was missing.”- It is so true that a fresh pair of eyes (preferably eyes that have a good design sense behind them) can make all the difference. I see more poorly designed gardens, than I see well designed ones. Hiring a professional is well worth the investment!

    • Thank you, Jen. Many would pooh pooh “design” in the garden, but whether they realize it or not, they are designing. It just may not be in the best interest of the plants or their neighborhood. Hiring a pro does make sense for some individuals. I don’t do small gardens generally, because the big ones are the ones usually out of reach to most homeowners.Plus, I often have home architectural work that goes along with creating an outdoor landscape. I have done some small gardens but they are mostly people I know or friends of others. Small is too time consuming because there are many more of them calling.

  14. A.M.B. says:

    “A trick is to turn an image into black and white, strip away the color to see design elements more distinctly.” What a great piece of advice! It makes sense that it would be easier to tell what’s missing when you’re not distracted by the colors (particularly because so many of us choose plants because of the color). I never would’ve thought of it, though. You also raise a very good point about the value of investing in someone “in the know”–you’re definitely going to spend more money in failed attempts when you set out to DIY! Have a great weekend!

    • What many don’t see, is that if the count plants bought through the years, how quickly it adds up in mistakes and failed plantings. There is no magic bullet in design, but trial and error is usually not very cost effective.

  15. EllenP says:

    Donna, can I ask where you got the putting and chipping green? I’m fielding that request now for the first time (Boston.) Thank you.

    • I don’t advertise for any manufacturer on my site, but you will find them locally in your area. It is best to have them done by a local installer and the companies that provide the artificial turf do the installation. There is very precise grading involved. I am not a golfer, so relied on the experts from the turf manufacturer for actual design. The homeowner gave them her needs for the design and they came back with a nice design to fit the space. They did a nice job too.

  16. I always can see it in someone else’s garden but mine is so close to me it takes a while for me to see what is wrong or what is right for that matter. Really enjoying this series and all the great pics to illustrate the ideas.

  17. supernova says:

    Superb Donna, how wonderfully effective and professional your gardening strategy is 🙂 James

  18. Fergiemoto says:

    Great information and great advice!

  19. I imagine my scale is still off, but I have started with smaller plants………giving them the room to grow to their fullest potential. Your ideas and your eye are a great asset, I know the newly designed garden owners are quite happy.

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