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Design skills put to use in the garden

Creating a coherent, stylish outdoor space requires a detailed plan

You have butterflies here, native flowers there, water conserving plants in the front yard, a compost pile in the back. But do all your eco-gardening projects work together?

For those longing for more coherence and, well, style, The Naturescaping Workbook (Timber Press) offers an intriguing alternative to the usual scattershot approach: one comprehensive plan that takes aesthetics, water, soil, wildlife and chemical runoff into account.

"When all the plans and changes are made at once, you're not just filling in the blanks; you're creating spaces," says author Beth O'Donnell Young. "There's a chapter on design skills: proportion and scale and balance. And to design with those ideas in your head will make a much better outdoor environment where you really want to hang out."

We talked to her about her approach. Here is an edited transcript.

Q: I loved that you take views into account when designing a landscape: the mountain or field that can be seen from your garden.

A: It's the Japanese feeling of "borrowed landscape." If you don't take into consideration the properties beyond your own, you're losing out on a lot of beauty. Also, reversely, to forget that there's an ugly wall that's reflecting too much sunlight - to not take into consideration something like that ... is a serious mistake.

Q: Naturescaping as you describe it is a big project.

How do I start?

A: Just like anything good, it's done organically: slowly and at your own pace and at your own capability.

So the first step is just going out and observing nearby nature. These are just walks to take. Just see what's going on out there.

Q: Is putting together a detailed design plan a realistic goal?

A: These are things that people can do. I created and taught the class that the book is based on, and my students are able to do this.

They're not artists and designers, but they can do this. By Chapter 6, they want to do this. They're ready to take what they've learned to a big sheet of paper. Measuring their site - that's not difficult.

Putting it into a plan - that's not difficult. It's just one step after another, and eventually you go, "Wow! I actually designed this."

Q: Do you have a favourite recent project?

A: The one in the [book's] introduction was my favourite because it's my good friend. When she moved into a new house, she got the backyard down to the soil, and she took it from there, and it is gorgeous. The plants play off each other seasonally and texturally, and the different colours - she just kind of limited it to purples and pinks and whites.

The plants she chose were based on low-water needs because it's in Corvalis, Oregon, where there is a three-month drought every summer.


Some plants that feed butterflies, moths, caterpillars and beneficial insects, from The Naturescaping Workbook:

- Milkweed, butterfly weed


- Coneflowers (Echinacea)

- Bee balm (Monarda)

- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)

- Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium)

- Sage (Salvia)

- Violet (Viola)