Garden design from the ground up

Vinca (Periwinkle) creeps over a stump.
Vinca (Periwinkle) creeps over a stump.
Most homeowners approach landscape design to meet their immediate need, whether that is screening, ground cover, shade or flowering plants.

The proper approach to landscape design is multidimensional - considering interest on ground, vertical and overhead planes.

Ground plane

Design the floor of your garden based on how you intend to use the soil.

Sometimes you need space that is firm and can bear weight, while other areas are best kept light and airy for the health of plants' roots.

If a garden is to withstand the test of time, it needs proper preparation and a firm foundation. Plants do not grow well in compacted soil.

Planting beds should contain earth with a loose, crumbly consistency that must stay light and moist and drain well.

One time-tested method of soil preparation is to lay 8cm of compost and dig it 25cm to 40cm into the soil.

Wide planting areas are most effective for creating rooting environments.

Even if you are planting one tree, enrich as wide an area as realistically possible.

The classic basin or bowl method of planting does not allow for proper drainage or root development, and plants will struggle to survive. "Natural carpeting" is a crucial element on the ground plane.

Thousands of hectares of lawns are planted for this purpose, but this is not practical under shrubs or on steep slopes.

Use other ground-cover options under trees and shrubs that are open to erosion or severe weed problems.

Mulch is recommended under trees.

Some suggested plants for covering your garden floor:

Periwinkle (Vinca minor): White or purple flowers, variegated hybrids available.

Phlox: Green mat; flowers fragrant in white, pink, red, lavender or purple.

Hosta: Variety of flower colours, many hues of foliage available in solid and variegated selections.

Sedum: Some evergreen; flowers in pink, white, red, purple, yellow; variegated foliage available.

Vertical plane

People have a penchant for enclosure and the screening it provides.

This preference for barriers blocking the line of vision has made the vertical plane the preferred area of property enhancement.

Fences, walls, hedges, woodland, masses of shrubs and trees are among the elements that create privacy.

Design them to appear as if they belong, not as if they're hiding something.

Soften fences with shrubs and trees in groupings and don't call attention to them with a row of upright-growing shrubs.

Don't focus on one plant exclusively.

All shrubs, grasses, vines and trees that grow 3m to 12m high, along with fences and trellises, are vertical elements and therefore potential screening.

Don't worry about names of plants until you know what you want them to do - attract birds, flower, provide colourful autumn foliage, fruit, berries, evergreen, deciduous, tall or short.

Specify to a plant expert that you want screening elements to fit the terrain and enhance your property.

Repeat these plantings in other areas of the garden, providing unity to your design. Use groupings of trees and shrubs with upright and spreading branching habits.

Create physical barriers by planting several shrubs, a small flowering tree and some evergreens.

Design for interesting flowers, foliage and bark.

Add some showier flora to your design by including herbaceous annuals and perennials.

Plant several large shrubs to the back of beds as screening, such as lilacs, then tall, medium and small perennials to the front.

Overhead plane

The least considered part of the landscape, the overhead plane, has the greatest impact.

Shade trees and overhead structures in the garden create overhead enclosure, providing human scale and cooling shade, as well as enhancing design.

Trees add environmental benefits by holding the Earth's mantle, filtering particulate and gaseous pollution, producing oxygen and adding organic material to the soil.

Tall trees offer a monumental scale to the garden as they mature.


• Joel M. Lerner. Author of Anyone Can Landscape (Ball 2001). His website is

Add a Comment

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter