Pleasure over perspiration

Design: Ann Lovejoy says a garden can give back more than it takes, with carefully chosen plants and a bit of planning.

In The Garden

April 15, 2001|By Denise Cowie | Denise Cowie,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Garden designer Ann Lovejoy thinks gardens should offer more pleasure than work.

Not an unreasonable idea. But it's a goal that can be surprisingly hard to achieve. How many gardeners actually get to sit on those inviting benches they put in their gardens?

She contends that maintaining a lovely garden doesn't have to be back-breaking work -- if you set it up the right way in the beginning.

"I'm getting old," the mother of two teen-age sons said during a recent lecture on naturalistic design at the Philadelphia Flower Show. "I'm trying to create a garden that doesn't need me as much as I need it."

That's the underlying point of her new book, "Ann Lovejoy's Organic Garden Design School" (Rodale, $35), a primer on creating naturalistic, organic gardens that are relatively easy to look after once they are established.

She has the experience to support her advice. Lovejoy has created gardens from Massachusetts to Colorado and in Italy, where she studied the language and cooking for three years.

She has written 18 books on gardening in the last 15 years. Five years ago, she began a garden school at her home on Bainbridge Island near Seattle. She runs a volunteer program, the Town in Bloom, that turns neglected public spaces into gardens. And earlier this year, she became a partner in a century-old nursery, Bainbridge Gardens, which is on its way to becoming completely organic.

She has been an organic gardener all her life.

"I thought chemicals were scary, even as a child," she recalls. "When my mother used anything, she took all these precautions, and I thought it was scary. In the '60s, when I was a teen-ager, I was sold on organics and never looked back."

Assess the garden

Her latest book on organic design "is really about common sense," she says. "Because of all the restrictions I have on my time and my money, I have been a creative gardener rather than a free-spending one. If you keep track of which parts of the garden are the most rewarding, and which have the most chores, usually they are not the same."

The trick is to maximize the pleasurable aspects and minimize the maintenance. One way to do that, she suggests, is to work with nature, rather than try to control it. Create designs that echo nature's layers of canopy, understory and carpet. And "garden where you live," which means using plants and a style appropriate to your region.

"One thing that I learned through my travels is that the basics are really the same everywhere," she writes. "Make great dirt and your plants will grow well. Create healthy, ecologically-sound plant communities and the gardens will largely take care of themselves."

Lovejoy's guidelines

Lovejoy sprinkles her conversation and her writing with colorful terms that most gardeners have probably never encountered. She talks of sandwich gardening, chainsaw relationships, shovel pruning, and the rule of thirds. They're all shorthand for gardening do's and don'ts.

"Sandwich gardening" is the planting of several kinds of plants with compatible needs in the same piece of ground, to mimic nature's cycle of having spring bulbs, say, go dormant as early-summer blooms take their place, while yet another group of plants pushes through the ground for a later show.

It's a do, as long as you combine plants with cooperative needs.

A don't is chainsaw relationships -- and the result may be shovel pruning.

"Chainsaws" develop when you put a shrub that will mature at 12 feet beneath a window that's only four feet off the ground. You're going to be constantly cutting back that shrub, which is a chore no one needs. Instead, choose plants that will mature to the size and shape you want. If you've already made this mistake, Lovejoy says, "it's time to shovel prune" -- dig up the plant and relocate it.

The rule of thirds is her guideline for achieving pleasing combinations in garden design: About a third of a garden's plants should be evergreens; another third should be structural deciduous plants, such as small trees and shrubs; and the final third, seasonal color plants such as bulbs, perennials and annuals. This ratio helps avoid two common problems: gardens with all flowers and no trees, and gardens with lots of trees and hedges but no color.

A busy life

She follows her own advice. Her extensive gardens, with complex, layered plantings containing thousands of plants, take her only a few hours a week to maintain.

Lovejoy, 50, has raised her two sons alone for the last 10 years. A nurse who once did rehabilitation and hospice work, she built the Sequoia Center for the Healing Arts on property behind her home. She teaches tai chi there 10 hours a week, in addition to working in the nursery and the garden school.

Lovejoy finds all of this energizing.

"When you go through a whole day doing things that nourish your spirit, you don't feel exhausted," she says. "Your emotional life is more resilient when you have a lot of satisfaction, just as a garden is more resilient when it has deep roots."

The character of the garden

Garden expert Ann Lovejoy relies on what she calls "the five senses of the garden" to give each space she designs its own character. Those senses are:

Welcome. In a welcoming garden, Lovejoy says, the garden-maker and visitors alike feel at home, satisfied, at ease, and at times deeply joyful.

Enclosure. Defining the space with plants, walls or fences declares the garden a space apart, a place to be.

Entry. A well-designed entry, whether arch, arbor or gate, invites you in without giving up all the garden's secrets at a glance.

Flow. Gardens with good flow use paths, seating areas, vistas and curves to maintain interest and lead the eye and the foot forward.

Place. The character of the house, the owner, and the surrounding habitat should all be part of giving a garden the feeling that it belongs to its setting.

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