The Bones of Landscape Design
Shadows are longer. Days are shorter. Critters everywhere are stocking up on whatever food they can find, adding a layer of fat to help get them through the winter. It's getting pretty nippy out and the weather can be downright nasty. To add insult to injury, our gardens are a whole lot less colorful. What's a gardener to do?
It's time to study your bones. Bones are structure. They are your trees, your shrubs, your rocks and logs and edges. After your perennials have gone into dormancy, imagine your yard covered in a light blanket of snow. All the bumps are bones. (
Photo left: a long, twisty branch edges a path--birds perch on it and scratch under the higher parts.
Many of these bones maintain their boneliness in the greener parts of the year--trees and borders, obviously, and larger shrubs or boulders would be good examples. How do these bones connect or relate to each other? Trees are the dominant element in the landscape, or they will be once they have time to achieve some height. In fall, it's time to decide where these big guys go and get them into position.
Better than any other time, late fall is a time for planning. Once the distraction of your perennials is out of the way, it's easier to visualize the forms that you have and where you might need to create some diversity in your "bones."
As I've discussed
, part of how you create unity in a diverse landscape is through the repetition of chosen elements. In our landscape, stone paths and borders are used to unify the front and back yards and to establish a specific movement throughout the yard. Curves make this movement a gentle suggestion. All but one bed in the garden features at least one tree--these both anchor the beds and become the element(s) to which the other plants in the bed relate.
In natural forest, there are canopy trees and understory trees. There are also dead trees and fallen trees. All of these serve very specific functions necessary to forest health. When you have the space to allow it without threatening your home or another structures, dead trees should be left standing for use by other species that require cavities for nesting. You can replicate fallen trees in your yard by collecting large branches or logs and laying them into your beds--either dig a shallow trench or mulch up to them for a natural look. These "fallen trees" are an important asset to the health of your natural landscape and can also serve a design function--they become a backdrop for perennials or annuals or an accent in the shrub garden. Insect activity based on these logs will add immeasurably to your soil fertility. (
Photo above, left: fungal organisms go to work on a log--wrens have been cleaning out insects just inside the bark.
Canopy trees--to state the obvious--form the forest canopy, the upper layer of wildlife habitat. If you're thinking "shade trees," you're right. If you have these large trees in your landscape, consider yourself lucky. If you had to wait for those puppies to grow to that height, you'd be waiting awhile! Understory trees are what we usually call "specimen" trees when we are speaking the language of design. If you have enough of both, you are helping to create or maintain the urban forest which is so necessary to clean air and wildlife habitat. If you have no shade trees and are the master of your landscape--make sure you plant at least one. For the most wildlife impact, select an oak (
)--they support more life forms than any other genus of tree. (
Photo above: upper right, tulip poplar; left, "Forest Pansy" redbud; foreground, cut-leaf coneflower. Click to enlarge photo.
In the home landscape, tree canopies (regardless of height) help to create a feeling of intimacy. When pruned strategically, you can keep your trees in a form that doesn't overpower the rest of your landscape but provides the structure on which you can hang the rest of your garden. Dem bones be necessary for the meaty parts of the landscape! Understory or specimen trees are your next step, and there are any number of delightful species to chose from that will provide multiple-season interest and/or wildlife assets. Selecting carefully will enable you to have multiple heights, multiple blooms and multiple fruits for you or your wildlife. So get out there and study the skeleton your yard has become. See if it needs some new bones!