Help with bed /border shapes in my odd backyard

maureeninmd(z6 MD)March 23, 2010

On a current thread Laag wrote: "you can tell how someone looks at their landscape by how they photograph it." I was inspired to hang out of my window and take a picture of my backyard. When I am unable to work outside I often stare out the windows and think about what to do next. Also this may mean that I garden for my own pleasure and have very little interest in impressing others? (except the family, who are unwilling to give up much more grass)

I live on a hill, and do not have an attached driveway. I use a shared driveway that ends up in my backyard. I think that the problem with my backyard is that it is too large and "undefined" to have a cozy space, yet too small to divide into separate rooms. I am OK with the beds along the walkway to the house. It's the ones in the back and against the fence that need help. I have no plans to remove the trees. The pine can be worked around, but not the maple (roots!).

The maple area seems to create a "hole". Although it now looks like a junk pile, it is usually used as a seating area. I would like to improve this area somehow. The vegetable garden is in the back.

I removed several large trees from the area with the arbor and have a few new trees planted that will eventually grow and help screen the house beyond. I am attached to both the arbor and the rose growing on it. The beds are much fuller than they appear in the photo (many small shrubs, most roses not apparent).

The side garden against the fence seems to recede from view for some reason, although it is nearly 12 feet at its deepest. I lost a few large shrubs due to flooding from my neighbor's yard (situation has been rectified).

To sum up this ramble: I guess I am mostly asking for help shaping the back and side beds and how to create a better-looking seating area around the maple. Here are a few more pictures:

Yard is very narrow. Here's a picture from the side, and look another big tree!

Looking towards house

And here's coming up driveway, showing how the side border recedes.

Thank you for any insight you can provide.


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woodyoak zone 5 Canada

Your issues strongly remind me of the things that bothered me in my backyard a couple of years ago. I was reasonably happy with the beds that were there but it looked wrong somehow, especially when viewed from the livingroom window, which looks down on the backyard garden. My 'lightbulb moment' was when I stopped focussing on changing the bed shapes and focussed instead on the shape of the lawn, and changed that. I know this looks too 'formal' for some people but we consider it one of the best things we've done in the garden. It made everything take it's proper place somehow and looks good from any viewing angle. Maybe this might give you something to shift your point of view a bit. Our back lawn (there are garden beds 20-30" deep on three sides and about 5' deep on the house side):

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 2:44PM
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This also brings back a flashback of my own situation. I had been landscaping my backyard over the years, but in pieces and not as a whole landscape. This resulted in several disparate forms, a gazebo on a berm (circular), lawn (rectangle), and playset on bermed area (another rectangle). It wasn't until I saw a little side-bar snippet and drawing in Fine Gardening (don't remember the issue) that referenced "recieving forms". I posted here awhile back my excitement about this (see link to thread below).

A recieving form is basically relating shapes to one another, be they bed shaped, lawn shapes or berm shapes so that the peices look that they "go" together, which unifies an area over a stretch of negative space. For example looking from space at the earth, it's easy to see how S. America (brazilian coast) can fit into the west coast of Africa. This type of re-structuring your lawn shape and bed shapes will help to bring together all of the areas of your backyard into pleasant spot.

Also consider adding some berms for changes in elevation (assuming drainage won't be adversely impacted)to add some interest and aid in the recieving form effect.

Here is a link that might be useful: Recieving forms

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 9:21PM
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Great response photo, Woody. These are two completely opposite approaches. Maureen is trying to make space focusing on a big tree while Woody is making space by concentrating on the void. Clearly, the void works.What else is space?
I often recycle the words of William Alexander (Magic of Oil Painting before the dude with the fro) - you need dark to have light. The same is true for space. You can't see space emerging from a blank corner of a canvas with a dominating point on it. Space is made from what is not or what is implied to not be. It is the dark between the light, so make sure to have light.
Woody's space has a perimeter which is clear and strong, so it really makes the point. It does not mean that you need to be that literal, but it is the best way to convey the point.
It is much easier to move from literal to subtle even if your goal is to be subtle (not saying that subtle is your goal or better).

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 9:27PM
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The grass around your maple does seem to hanging in there, maybe because it's not quite summer yet, but there maybe some option for more planting around it.

Look up some plants like horny-goatweed.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2010 at 9:14AM
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maureeninmd(z6 MD)

Thanks for the replies. I will try to focus on these receiving forms when I head back out with my shovel. Woodyoak's garden is a lovely example. I think you have diagnosed the problem - why this space seems "wrong". I understand why I am happy with the other areas of my garden - why they "work" and why this one (the big one, the visitor side, unfortunately) does not.

I do not think I am consciously focusing on the big trees. I was trying to incorporate them, somehow. This is difficult as they are not exactly graceful specimens. I wanted to border the garden area on 4 sides so as to detract from the cars, so I brought the garden up past the pine about 10 feet or so. This created a new problem - a "hole" where the maple is. I was thinking about eradicating the grass here and covering it with mulch to create a more defined seating area? I suspect that this will not work either, as it might cause the focus to be???

I really like the idea of shaping the lawn but it seems to spill out in all directions.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2010 at 9:46AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada

Maureen - I played with your first picture to try to figure out what I'd do in your situation. I'm far from bing a 'pro' and this is a very bad scribble of first ideas but here's what comes to mind:

I was attemping to draw an oval for the lawn :-) I'd put a curved bench (to pick up on the oval shape) under the maple tree. I'd paint the shed a dark olive-y green to fade it into the background (on my 'to do' list this spring for our shed...). I'd move the plants that got replaced by lawn to make a continuous bed along the path and lawn to under the pine. I'd leave a grassy path along the driveway - so it links nicely to the stone one and frames the new bed on the drivevay side. I'd put some trees and shrubs in the back corner and near the shed. I'd add a few shrubs in the foreground of the bench area and fill in that side with perennials and ground covers. So essentially you'd have the lawn surronded by a garden and set off by the stone and grass path on the driveway side. You'd probably need a path through the bed on the house side for access to and from the lawn - or perhaps you might want a patio on the house side to replace some of the bed there. The ideas need some tweaking but something to think about...

    Bookmark   March 24, 2010 at 10:30AM
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mmm.... horny goatweed is the herbal remedy made from epimediums, maybe that's the under the maple plant recommmendation?

    Bookmark   March 24, 2010 at 8:16PM
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Your yard is not too small to divide into garden "rooms" if there are divisions and spaces that have purpose and if you want them.

Just a "big picture" point not to take that design approach off the table arbitrarily. It may be that you wish to approach the yard as one large "room" and that is your choice.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2010 at 10:03AM
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maureeninmd(z6 MD)

Right now, it does need to remain as one "room" as the husband and sons are insisting on a grassy area. Woodyoak has given me an idea of what I may be able to do over time (Thanks Woody!) The planting of trees in the back corner seems to make a tremendous difference but I'm not sure when they would be willing to give up home-grown tomatoes for the sake of design.

Painting the shed is a good idea. The rose growing on the back used to cover most of it but was damaged by the heavy, heavy snow we got this year. There was a large pine in front of the shed that was removed because it was shading the tomatoes but I am lamenting the loss of it now.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2010 at 10:40AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada

I'm glad you found my scribbles useful Maureen :-)

It occurred to me though that some people are probably saying 'Isn't this just the reviled 'perimeteritis'?' I would argue that it isn't. As I see it, in the case of 'perimeteritis', the shape of the lawn is the more-or-less accidental fall-out of shaping the garden beds. In the case of my rectangular lawn and my scribbles above, the starting point was shaping the lawn in a deliberate and obvious way (the oval above needs to be much more refined and obviously an 'artificial' shape to have more impact). The garden beds get adjusted as needed to make the central lawn shape. The end result is the lawn has a substantial presence on its own. So you have two things of interest - the lawn and the garden - instead of just the garden. Don't underestimate the power of the shape of the lawn - when people come into the backyard for the first time, that lawn literally stops them in their tracks and they tend to say 'Wow' or 'OMG!' It's a response to both the beauty and the unexpectedness of it. Their next impulse to to go wander through the paths in the surrounding beds to see what else might surprise them there.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2010 at 1:30PM
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