Gardening: How to lead the eye and the visitor through the garden


Garden clubs often enliven the summer by asking members to open their gardens to members and friends for an afternoon. For some, this is a terrifying day – they fear people will criticize their design, notice the weeds, make fun of the garden whimsy. For others, open gardens are fun. People walk through, talking plants and sharing ideas about how to create special garden spaces with plants that are right for the terrain. Clearly the second group of gardeners have more fun.

There is a group of gardeners in Lyme, NH that encourages garden visits: they call their events, "Pardon My Garden". They acknowledge that few of us ever have a "perfect" garden, no matter how hard we work or how many weeders we employ. My garden isn't perfect? So what. Gimme some ideas. I love the concept.

But let's say you wish to open your garden to a group, or just to have a garden party for a dozen close friends. How do you get people to move around and find the special places and plants you have, especially if you have a large space? I think that hardscape is the answer: paths, archways, arbors, pottery, sculpture, stonework and water all will attract the eye and draw a visitor forward. Let's look at these.

The most ambitious is to create paths. Public gardens use them to keep the foot traffic from killing the grass, and to direct people through the gardens. Often the walkways are covered with gravel and edged with steel or aluminum strips buried vertically in the soil. These pieces of edging often come in 20 foot sections and are serious work to install. I've done it, but it's not easy.

In home gardens, paths between beds and from one part of the garden to another generally are grass. Sometimes people put down ground bark or wood chips to define paths, though I prefer grass. And flat stones work well, too, for short paths.

The only trouble with stone paths is that it's tough to mow around stones if they are raised up at all. So if you install flat stones, be sure to dig out enough soil so that your stones will be even with the ground and you can mow the spaces between and around the stones. Sure, you can use a string trimmer to do the job, but that is slower - and hard work.

Wooden archways and arbors invite visitors to pass through them - to see what's on the other side. I have made them out of bentwood and out of cedar posts. I have grown clematis, scarlet runner beans and wisteria on them. All are lovely. One word of advice if you are custom-making an arbor: design it so that your lawnmower goes through easily. Or make one that will allow an adult and a Labrador retriever to go through together – even if you don't have a dog. Four to five feet is good.

I recently weeded out a dry shady garden that has a nice piece of exposed ledge. I realized that I rarely noticed the ledge. I want visitors to pause and look at the unusual palette of plants I use in front of the ledge, too (now that the weeds are gone). What did I do? I moved a tall blue ceramic planter that I had on my shady deck down to the ledge. I have a vine with green and white leaves spilling out of the vase. It really brings the eye to that space.

If you have gardens on different levels, stone steps are great. Line them with plants that have interesting foliage that looks good all summer. People just want to walk up steps to see what is at the top (like the bear going over the mountain in that kids' song). I put in steps a few years ago and they are a constant source of pleasure for me.

Fountains, pools, ponds, streams are good visual attractions, too. I am blessed with a natural stream, and find I am drawn to it daily. I keep the edges mowed so that weeds don't obstruct the view.

Places to sit call out to visitors. I made a bench with a piece of white marble some years ago. Even though it is not a particularly comfortable place to sit (it's hard, stone is cold, and it has no back) - it draws me across the lawn. It is enhanced by an umbrella plant (Darmera peltata) I planted in 2009 to honor my late sister. It is a dramatic plant: it has leaves 16 to 20 inches in diameter standing up nearly 4 feet tall.

My Adirondack chairs also beckon to me, and to visitors. I got wooden ones and painted them magenta. Even from a long distance, they stand out in contrast to the greens everywhere else. I gravitate towards them.

And ultimately, for gardeners, plants are the ultimate call. Have a magnolia in bloom? We all will walk to it. Roses? We want to sniff them – even if they are largely scentless, as most new roses are today. And even if your garden will never be on a garden tour, creating a draw will please you and your family.

Henry Homeyer is a UNH Master Gardener and the author of 4 gardening books. His website is Read his twice-weekly blog at


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