The Elements of a Beautiful Garden

DSCN6643I love this combination of ‘All Gold’ Japanese Hakone grass and pink astilbe.

My son Alex Walker-Drennan took me to visit one of the gardens installed and maintained by his landscaping company Practiced Hands Gardening (  The garden has a strong Carolyn’s Shade Gardens connection as almost all the plants came from my nursery, and it was designed by Joan LaLeike whom many of you know from my open house sales.  It is owned by Hope and is on less than 1/4 acre very close to the City of Philadelphia.

Nursery News:  Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.


DSCN6620The front of Hope’s house has great curb appeal.


The garden was started about five years ago, and Hope works on a different section each year.  I always recommend that customers take this approach rather than trying to work on their whole property at once.  Completing an area, even a small one, gives you a sense of accomplishment and the inspiration to tackle the next project.  Hope has created a very satisfying garden in a relatively short period of time, which got me thinking about the important elements of a beautiful garden. Here’s what I came up with:


DSCN66021. A Good Design: complementary textures, heights, and colors.


DSCN6619A mixture of perennials, annuals, and deciduous and evergreen shrubs plus the lovely bark and habit of the birch keeps the garden flanking the front door interesting all year.


DSCN6618A close up of the front garden, hellebores—-my favorites!


DSCN6632A good design can be achieved without hiring a designer but knowledge of the plant material and how it performs is crucial.  Visit local public gardens like Chanticleer, Longwood, Winterthur, and the Morris Arboretum to view mature specimens thriving in an established environment before you choose and place your plants.


DSCN66262.  Lot of Plants: Hope’s garden is densely planted giving a lush and vibrant look and cutting down on maintenance by keeping out weeds.  If you are working with a big space and a small budget, tackle one section at a time and fill it in.



I am not sure who came up with the idea that plants should not touch and should be surrounded by a sea of mulch, but from a design perspective the results are not pleasing.  Leave room for each plant to reach its mature size without crowding, but once it does no soil should be visible.


DSCN66313.  Lots of the Same Plant:  Massing of this Japanese hakone grass makes viewing from a distance a pleasure and guides the viewer around the garden.


DSCN6627I rarely plant one of anything except trees.  When you shop, stay within your budget by purchasing the same total number of perennials but choose more of each variety you plant and less varieites.  Here, ‘Caramel’ heuchera and hydrangeas are massed.


Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum' & Brunnera macrophyllaA simple mass planting of Japanese painted ferns and perennial forget-me-nots used as ground cover under a tree are much more pleasing than one or two of a lot of different plants crowded into the space.


Brunnera macrophylla 'Dawson's White' A new planting masses ‘Dawson’s White’ brunnera leaving enough space for it to reach its mature size.

If you don’t make any other changes after you read this post, do this:  for the next year (or even better two years) do not buy any new plant varieties but instead add more of the same plants to groups that are working in your garden already.  I did this in my garden and the results were spectacular.


Hosta 'Cracker Crumbs', Sedum 'Antique Grill'4.  Pay Attention to Details:  While the big picture is very important, little details really add to garden interest.  Hope has a very attractive but tiny bed filled with small scale plants edging her front walk, here petunias, ‘Antique Grill’ sedum, and ‘Cracker Crumbs’ miniature hosta.


Hosta 'Blue Mouse Ears' 6-21-2015 1-44-28 PMThe bed really shows off her ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ hosta, which is planted all along the walk.


DSCN66285.  Expect Trial and Error not Perfection:  The leyland cypresses behind this bed (upper right of photo), put in before Joan took over, are failing.  Instead of nursing along these ugly plants, Hope is removing them and trying something new.  Plants are living things so every one that you or a designer chooses will not necessarily work or even live.  Give your plants a few years to perform and if they don’t, move on.


DSCN66396. Use Hardscape:  Walls, walks, patios, decks, fountains, ponds, etc., add tremendous interest to a garden design.  They also significantly increase the cost so they should be added with a lot of forethought.  Here Hope removed her dated deck and replaced it with a two-level stone patio complete with “fountain stairs”.


DSCN66447.  Add garden ornaments and containers:  You don’t have to go wild with sculptures, birdhouses, sundials, and urns everywhere, but a few well-placed garden ornaments really add interest.  At Hope’s, this lovely pot anchors this part of the garden.


DSCN6638Ornaments don’t have to be big or expensive—I love this little mushroom sitting under the oakleaf hydrangea.


DSCN6635Containers of plants are visually interesting, here dwarf conifers on Hope’s patio wall.


DSCN6634A dish of mini hostas and sedums.


DSCN66468.  Maintain Your Garden Well Especially the Edges:  A beautiful garden needs work to stay that way.  Trees and shrubs require regular pruning, beds should be cut back and mulched in the fall or spring, borders need edging at least once a year, and weeding is ongoing.  A beautiful design with  lovely plant material is wasted if the garden is overgrown with messy edges and full of weeds.


I admit that I am not always diligent about following my own rules, but when I finally do the results are always superior to what went before.


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Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a local retail nursery in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, U.S., zone 6b/7a. The only plants that we mail order are snowdrops and miniature hostas and only within the US.

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24 Responses to “The Elements of a Beautiful Garden”

  1. It’s a really pretty garden, and some great planting choices give a lot textural and foliage interest year-round. It’s nice to see that this has been created piece-by-piece: it looks like a much loved garden

  2. Years ago, I loved to watch a short-lived HGTV gardening show with a UK garden designer who went to a different city each episode and designed and installed a garden to deal with some problem area. He always began his design process by visiting a local park or garden to look at what was growing there. A great practice. Here in Maine, I use both the garden at Pineland Farms (which you and I visited together) and the McLaughlin Garden in South Paris as places to get ideas for my own garden.

  3. Now if I could get my husband to do #8…what a stunning garden showing how beautiful, colorful and lush a shade garden can be.

  4. Beautiful plantings and helpful tips Carolyn.

  5. What an inspiration, and a reminder of what we know already but never do. Plant in groups and let them cover the mulch! I see Joan’s artful hand in this garden. And Carolyn’s gorgeous plants. This is why I recommend her to all my homebuyers.

    • Linda, You are so nice to say that. When I closed last fall, it was to do all the garden maintenance that I never get to because I am so busy with the nursery. A major victory was achieved by removing all the plants, especially trees and shrubs, that were struggling and never going to look good. I was always giving them just one more year. Carolyn

  6. I read the following great tip somewhere. Remove all the ornaments, art, etc from the garden and then place them where your garden demands a focal point, or an interesting contrast. We get used to our gardens as they are and doing this helps you see it anew. I did this in late spring this year and it turned out beautifully. It took some time and effort as I have an acre and a half. But it was well worth it! Some things didn’t go back into the garden. They are hanging out in the shed for awhile. Maybe will go to our master gardeners ‘garage sale’……or maybe back in the garden……

    • Gayle, That is a fabulous idea. Garden ornaments tend to get plopped into the garden wherever, especially when they are not purchased by us for a place, but are a gift. Taking everything out and repositioning it or eliminating it is a great idea. Too bad we can’t do that easily with plants. Carolyn

  7. Jane McDay Says:

    Thank you for this wonderful primer on design. Very timely for me, and I will use these ideas right away! Jane McDay

    Sent from my iPhone


  8. One thing very important you hit on was to visit public gardens, both for seeing mature plant size, and to see how it is used and with what. Most don’t anticipate a plant’s behavior and ultimate size.

    • Donna, Plants look so cute and harmless in their pots at the nursery, but gardeners need to see them when they are mature so they can plan accordingly. A few years ago I planted three lovely looking ‘Prairie Twilight Blues’ baptisia in the perfect spot in my garden. Well it was perfect alright and they got massive. I had to take them all out this year, even one was too big for the spot. Carolyn

  9. What a parklike garden, so well set up for relaxing and enjoying the summer!
    I wish I could say I follow those tips, but with the exception of a clean edge I think I’m guilty of violating most of them… and my garden shows it! I have been massing a few things in the front garden lately though and it’s been a big improvement and I’m sure my neighbors appreciate not being subject to my ‘collector’s syndrome’.

  10. Hope’s garden is lovely. I could identify most of the plants, but would have loved to have all the plant names so I could add them to my plant wish list.

    • Ellen, That wasn’t the purpose of the post. Each post takes between five and ten hours to photograph and write so adding all the plant names would have meant a lot more time spent away from my nursery business on something that I don’t get paid for. I hope you were happy with the information you did receive. If there is a specific plant name you would like, ask for it in a reply to this comment. Carolyn

  11. debsgarden Says:

    This is a really pretty, well-thought-out garden. I especially appreciate your advice about using lots of the same plant. This is something that occurred to me rather gradually, but what a difference it makes. I have often wished for facilities for mass propagation!

    • Deb, It is tempting as plant lovers to buy every exciting new plant that comes along. However, this does not lead to a great garden from a design standpoint. That’s why I love snowdrops and miniature hostas—you can collect a lot but they don’t take up much room. Carolyn

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