Divide and Conquer: Garden Design Made Simple

Tina Purwin’s dry river bed under catalpa tree

You do not need to take a course in garden design in order to design a garden. In fact, there is only one principle to which you need to adhere in order to achieve reasonable success in any garden design endeavor. And that principle, although it is found more typically in political or military strategy than in horticulure, can best be described as “divide and conquer” or “divide and rule,” words that were first made famous by Phillip II of Macedonia, whose son was Alexander the Great.

As a garden design principle, divide and conquer refers to breaking up a yard or other plot of ground into various parts. By doing so, you give the eye a chance to focus on discretely divided plant groupings, one by one, as opposed to getting lost in a melange of undifferentiated species that make a lot of noise, but not much of a melody, when combined haphazardly together. While I will admit that the wild look has a certain appeal, it is more often frustrating than calming to the senses and if a garden, ultimately, does not offer some sort of retreat or respite from the cacophony and confusion of the world out there, what is the purpose in having one?

Although there are no hard rules that apply to divide and conquer, it seems, generally speaking, that a small garden lends itself to a more symmetrical than assymetrical presentation when it comes to drawing lines of separation between one section of plants and another. The larger the space, the freer and more flowing and curvaceous the lines of separation would naturally become.

So called dry river beds are increasingly used as a means of dividing and conquering yards and garden spaces. Tina Purwin, in front of her home in North Hills, has created a stunning and inviting dry river bed that extends nearly to the street. It is the warmest and friendliest such feature I have yet to encounter. More often than not, dry river beds are composed of small stones or gravel of only one color, usually a dull white or grey, surrounded on both sides by ornamental grasses that tend to look weedy at times. Purwin has softened this effect in three ways. First, the stones she has chosen are large and include some that are charcoal gray or rose colored to contrast with the white. The size of these stones is also a plus, giving the bed a solidity and stateliness that is sorely missing in gravel beds. Second, she has selected flowering plants such as lavender, ornamental sages, and lantana that add more color to the overall effect. Not only do they flower, but they have a shapeliness about them that is also a welcome sight, as compared to the unruly if not shabby mien of those ornamental grasses. Third, as mentioned, the bed meanders all the way to the street, a welcoming visage for passersby.

Adjacent to the river bed at the front of her property, Purwin has surrounded a catalpa tree with decomposed granite (DG). The circle of DG echoes the roundness of the stones, in addition to serving the practical purpose of mulching the ground so as to minimize evaporative water loss under the tree. Once the DG is in place, some designers opt for placing ceramic or other artistically crafted containers upon it. Planting living ground covers in the ground under a tree is never a good idea since they take away water and nutrients from the tree and can cause real problems if allowed to grow up to the trunk or to cover woody roots that extrude above ground. However, placing pots on top of DG, even under a tree, is not a problem. In such cases, a variety of colorful succulents are recommended since they will add vitality to the DG expanse and will only need to be watered on an occasional basis.

The most common method for dividing and conquering an extensive yard or garden space is by creation of pathways. You can make your pathways out of almost anything and spend a lot or a little in the process. Wood chips from a tree trimmer work just fine for making informal pathways as long as you are prepared to replenish them every six to eight months. Or you can opt for simple stepping stones.

Menachem Weinberg, a rabbi who lives in Tekoa, which is a village in Israel’s Judean Hills only ten minutes from Jerusalem, decided to make the simplest of all pathways. He procured small planks of water-sealed wood, around 24“ long by 8“ wide and simply laid them on the surface of the ground. The same thing could be done with large ornamental stones, whether they are left completely above ground or partially dug into the earth but still extending above ground level, a technique that is sometimes used in constructing pathways in Japanese gardens.

You can make as many pathways as you desire, whether laid out symmetrically or winding freely about. The more pathways you create, the more planters you will have and more possibilities for experimentation you will invite. You can devote one planter to fragrant species, another to milkweeds and other plants that attract butterflies, another to bulbs and rhizomes, another to bramble berries, bush berries, and strawberries, another to vegetables, and still another to succulents and natives. There are so many horticultural possibilities and you only get to live once, so why limit yourself?

Tip of the Week: This is the moment for Chinese flame trees to show their true colors. In this case, we are talking about the colors of seed capsules, which may be red, pink, salmon, orange, or bronze, depending on the weather and the quality of light. Chinese flame trees (Koelreuteria bipinnata) are sometimes used as street or parkway trees due to their deep roots that are not known for elevating sidewalks. Depending on availability of water, they will grow anywhere from twenty to forty feet tall. Chinese flame trees are cold hardy and should handle Antelope Valley winters without complaint.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.