Trading Spaces

Everyone has one but not everyone wants one. It's that trouble spot in your landscape that you'd like to trade for something else--anything else. The one where the things that are planted, be it grass or flowers, don't ever do anything more than exist, just barely. Patches of grass interspersed with dirt and rocks and tiny tufts of what should be, and would in any other location be, plants. You can take that sad space and make it a glad place by working with, rather than against, Mother Nature.

This summer I finally admitted defeat. I came to the conclusion that the area under my dogwood tree is probably never going to grow grass. I've watched it, nurtured it, raked it and seeded it for quite a few seasons, but the rewards are not forthcoming. The dogwood isn't the obstacle the grass faces in this spot. The area runs along my driveway, and the one expansion crack in the concrete of the drive empties right into that area.

The first step in fixing problem areas is to define the space you want to change and come up with a remedy. For the spot next to the driveway, I used garden edging purchased at my local home center. You can use brick, stone, railroad ties or anything that suits your fancy and budget.

I wanted a low-maintenance area where foliage predominated, otherwise I might have used flowerpots planted with colorful annuals to define my space. I used the driveway on one side and the sidewalk on the other to form the rest of my border.

I happen to like hosta, so I use them every chance I get. This was the perfect place, so I surrounded the dogwood with a green and white variegated variety that adds interest through texture and color. It's important to remember to vary these elements when relying mostly on foliage for interest. A circular planting echoed the curve of the garden edging and at the same time softened the hard lines of the drive and walkway.

I browsed my local nursery and hunted down plants that live and even long for the kind of shade my area has to offer. This is important to remember. It increases the chance of success exponentially. If the plants want these conditions, they're going to thrive.

This area called for a minimalist look rather than a lush full border-type planting, so the plants are few and take on more of a focal point. I picked two small sedges with grassy tuft-like growth, one a bluish color and the other a dark-green and white striped variety, as well as two varieties of coral bells, which grow well in shade and offer excellent foliage. One is green-leafed and the other is a purple with silvery markings. Each plant offers color, texture and size variety.

The space I was creating needed a less-is-more approach, so I limited the plants and chose to add some other elements. I used stone to create a path and to set off a few small groupings of plants that act as a bumper near the expansion crack to deflect water and keep the mulch from washing away after each rain. Stone was one of the shortcomings of the space, so I turned it into an asset.

I used one raised pot (planted with hosta, pink polka-dot plant, coleus and a few well-chosen stones) in a wrought-iron planter to add height. I wanted some type of a water feature without the complication that often comes with them. I made use of an old metal vanity chair I had purchased at a yard sale for 50 cents. I spray painted it black to work with the planter and placed a ceramic flowerpot saucer on it to create an informal birdbath. I added a black iron soap dish filled with polished rocks to give it some color and add height. It also serves as a place for my feathered friends to perch. I scattered rocks and glass stones in the saucer to shimmer in the water. I scattered the same glass stones on the rocks for continuity and color. I placed a black scroll candleholder in front of the birdbath to hold a capiz shell lotus bowl, which adds to the Zen-like feel of the garden.

I carried the black element to the other side by adding another black candleholder on a stand, which is secured to the ground with landscape fabric pins. The statue among the hosta was something I had in another garden and used here to carry the theme out.

After stepping back and admiring my work, I decided I needed to balance out the garden so I added an iron hook from the tree branch and placed an airy hanging plant to bring the green up off the ground, tying the space together.

I would like to stress that this project took very little time and didn't cost much. I purchased the plants, mulch and edging. All the other elements were items I had that were in use elsewhere or that were not being used at all. Bringing them together in one defined space gave them much more impact than each had on its own.

This idea can be used to create any type of theme. Items that have little impact when viewed alone can make a bold and beautiful statement just by rearranging and grouping them. You can use all manner of old galvanized items, such as watering cans and buckets mixed with brass and colorful annuals. You might make a grouping of small chairs holding potted plants in a ground-cover garden to add height and colorful impact. If the ground cover grows up the chairs, it's a bonus.

An arrangement of birdhouses on stands would also lend itself to a predominately green garden space or a corner devoid of color. The key is to look at things for what they are and to try to see them for what else they might be.

I've had people stop by to ask about my garden, compliment it, admire it and tell me it's inspired them. To those of us that garden, there is no greater complement than knowing what we've created to please ourselves has also brought that same pleasure to others.

Theme ideas:

  • Bird houses in a ground-cover garden.

  • Sun dials in a bright annual border or herb garden.

  • Driftwood in a shady, wooded garden.

  • Butterfly houses in a border of butterfly plants.

  • Concrete statues of like items such as birds, children, animals or baskets in sun or shade.

  • Rocks of different sizes, shapes, colors and textures to stand alone or in groups in any type of garden.

  • A grouping of gazing balls in assorted colors and on different height stands to add a vertical element in a low-growing, shady garden.

  • Iron headboards, fireplace screens or andirons and log grates are excellent elements that add flair and whimsy and give vines a step up.

  • Groups of baskets of all shapes, sizes, colors and materials filled with flowers, foliage, pine cones or even some interesting branches (curly willow works well for this) make a wonderful informal statement.

  • A few garden crosses on a fence, a bench below, some candles or torches and plants with a calming effect, such as lavender, rosemary and prayer plant can make an inspiring prayer or meditation garden.

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