Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Matter Of Proportion

After a slew of relatively warm days, winter has returned to the northeast with somewhat of a vengeance, burying my newly sprouted crocuses and daffodils beneath six inches of snow. The snowfall has also delayed work on a pair of beds I plan to install here in my display gardens. The beds will flank both sides of a grass path, which leads from a wooden arch to a large urn standing in a field that abuts the wildlife sanctuary. I haven’t yet decided what to plant in these beds, though peonies are on the top of my list. This spring I will probably fill them with annuals grown from seed, which I’ll plant directly in the ground. Masses of Zinnias, Sunflowers, and Cosmos will provide plenty of cut flowers for the house this summer, while affording me the benefit of another season to make a more permanent choice.

The other day, as I was standing in the field deciding on the exact width and length of my new beds, I recalled a conversation I often have with new clients. The topic concerned the layout of foundation beds, the planting area that customarily frames the fa├žade of the house. In truth, more often then not, I find that most foundation beds are both oddly shaped and inappropriately proportioned. Invariably these beds are too narrow. Moreover, their confines are crowded with ungainly shrubs that have been ruthlessly pruned in an attempt to keep their branches within bounds. Trees and shrubs, that were originally planted to create a flattering frame, block windows and conceal architectural details, making the house appear smaller and less welcoming.

Of course there are no set rules. The width of foundation beds ultimately depends on the size of the house and the yard. For most residential properties, however, I find that a ratio of one-third bed to two-thirds lawn is generally a good starting point. To further ensure that that the foundation beds are large enough, it is helpful to allow room for two or more tiers of plantings. The back tier might include evergreens to provide year-round interest. The middle tier could contain groupings of lower, flowering shrubs to add bursts of seasonal color. If there is still space, a front tier might be planted with low-growing ground covers to border the lawn.

Allotting on average four to six feet for each of these tiers requires a bed that measures at least 12 feet deep. Even this depth, however, might prove to be to narrow. Often a width of eighteen to twenty feet is more suitable if the house and property are large. And if flowering trees or evergreens are used to accent the corners of the house, they should be spaced to ensure that, as they mature, their branches won’t encroach on the house. Installing foundation plantings should make your home seem larger and more gracious. Trees or shrubs that hide portions of the facade will have the opposite effect.

Equally important when laying out your beds is determining their shape. In my experience many homes are framed by beds that curve about the property with no apparent rhyme or reason. In fact, cutting a bed actually creates two shapes, the silhouette of the bed and the resulting outline of the lawn. In many cases I find that, while the footprint of the beds might seem reasonable, the resulting lawn area is rather peculiar, as if someone had arbitrarily dropped a puzzle piece on the ground and filled it with grass. If after laying out the beds, the resulting lawn is not a pleasant shape, the overall affect won’t be pleasing.

In general, a few gracefully proportioned arcs are more visually satisfying than a number of random crenulations. As a rule of thumb, the curves of the beds should be easy to follow with a conventional lawn mower. If they aren’t, the curves are probably too numerous or tight. Once the layout of the beds is finalized, it’s time to focus on plant selection, but more on that topic another time….