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Gardeners' Dirt: It's all about garden design

By Kathy Klein - Victoria County Master GardenerEdited by Charla Borchers Leon
Sept. 1, 2011 at 4:01 a.m.

The entrance of Victoria Educational Gardens, inside the main gate, contains various design elements that could be in a real English cottage garden.  Notice the lines of the walkways, the shapes and mass of the features, numerous flowers and trees with various textures, and colors interspersed throughout.

For the purpose of this article, design is differentiated from style. Garden styles, to name a few, include English cottage garden, herb garden, vegetable garden, water garden, Zen garden, xeriscape garden and cactus garden. Each style brings to mind a specific mix of vegetation and accessory features, but each of these styles has an underlying structure that is the garden's design.


The bones of garden design incorporate some elemental principles of design including line, shape, mass, texture, color and empty space.

Hidden within the style is elemental design, the bones of the garden. For example, if you want a square foot garden, do you want 3 square feet by 3 square feet, or 2 square feet by 4 or would you prefer 5 square feet by 5 squares? If you are designing a water garden, will you have one level or more so that you can incorporate a water fall?


A garden, such as a square-foot garden, is built on shapes, and in this case, squares, that are combined in usually a rectilinear fashion to produce the designed structure. Next, the mass, texture and color, and in this case the functionality come into the picture. Tall plants are placed to the rear or center to allow proper light for closely planted neighbors. Texture and color are incorporated by the distinct differentiation produced by the variety of plants, such as ferny-topped carrots, red tomatoes and peppers, a few marigolds adding color and other green leafy vegetation.


An herb garden is sometimes a closely planted mixture of many interesting herbs, and other times it is meticulously designed as a medieval, intricate, interlaced garden near the kitchen of a castle, manor or estate. In the latter case, lines may intertwine to form the appearance of shapes, such as knots and chains of plants. Colors may vary from the palest sage green, to the darkest purple basil, and mass will also be identifiable interspersed with empty space. Once again, the texture is produced by the large variety of contrast in leaf shapes and sizes. Do the above descriptions form a picture in your mind?


Now, bring the idea of garden design closer in view. In fact, take the idea to the Master Gardener Victoria Educational Gardens, across from the control tower at Victoria Regional Airport. With further reading, refer to the included photos.


The lovely area inside the main gate of VEG on Bachelor Drive has some of the characteristics of a real English cottage garden. The Master Gardeners, who care for and maintain this section of VEG, somehow manage to always provide a breath of beauty for us whenever we enter the garden. Think about the design bones or concepts that underlie the beauty.

Line is evident in the walkways and the edges of the beds. Shape and mass are represented by the water lily feature, the beds, accessories, structures, fences, buildings, plants and trees that fill the area. Color abounds. Textures are varied and the empty space is indicative of butterflies flittering through the area.


Travel to another part of VEG on the opposite side of the Officer's Club building. Tucked away with the ground covers, behind the water garden, you will find the Zen garden. In its simplicity, it is a good place to examine structural bones and think about garden design.


Empty space is a very important design element here. Lines are established by the edges, the visual sight path within the Zen garden and the lines raked into the gravel that can vary with the elements, the strokes and how recent the raking. The raked lines can represent a stream of water to the degree that it seems to flow, and this is the most fluid part of the existing design.

Form is established by a rock that split in transport, Japanese lanterns, and these same elements contribute mass and texture to the design. The lantern, rocks, raked lines in the gravel and edges are varied textures in the design as it presently stands.

The other design element is color. There is no color, right? But look closely, is the lantern lighter than the stone? What about the shadows that are cast?


In talking with one fellow Master Gardener, the idea arose that a much larger rock would enhance the Zen garden. While working with another master gardener, we discussed that the Zen garden needs a Japanese maple. What do you think? How would you arrange or change the space in relation to the other elements? While you are thinking this way, you are working in garden design.

No wonder novelty shops sometimes sell desktop Zen gardens complete with sand and pebbles and a tiny rake to allow people to practice various arrangements at finger tip level.

Next time, you view a garden, look beneath the style and see the bones or design concepts that are in the garden.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at



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