Master Gardeners of Napa County: Thoughts on Garden Design | Master Gardener

Denise Seghesio Levine, UC Napa County Master Gardener

First of all, a warning. While there are many wonderful landscapers and gardeners who are master gardeners, I am not one of them. Garden design is still pretty experimental for me, even after all these years.

After taking seminars and classes and reading books and articles on garden design, it all seems to come down to questions. Where are you? How much space do you have? How much time do you have? How much water do you have and where is the sun shining? Are you in town or does your garden blend in with the surrounding landscape? Do you need fencing and do you have deer?

Do you fancy an explosion of colorful, disheveled flowers and a whimsical cottage-chic retreat, or the brutal repetition of agave plants and a gravel bottom for a soothing, meditative space that requires little effort? maintenance ? Do you have a blank canvas of subdivision land around a new home, a still unmade corner in an otherwise well established garden, or even just a deck, patio or balcony to bring in the outdoors? A well-designed garden can be a haven, create an attractive setting and curb appeal for your home, and provide privacy, so it’s worth taking the time to think about it.

I have a longtime friend – a botanist and a herbal gardener – whose family roots go back to an old Scottish castle. Several years ago he had the honor of being commissioned to restore and recreate the historic gardens that surrounded the family chateau. The gardens had been abandoned decades if not centuries ago.

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His garden restoration design was guided by necessary historical references. The boundaries were set, the plant lists were recorded, the scale was predetermined by the scale of the austere and angular castle and the steep terrain that climbed up to it.

We usually don’t have such drastic limitations and can branch out into our garden wishlist with more abandon. Yet if you have a new backyard space to create or a tired spot to liven up or recreate, many of the same principles apply.

Garden designers take into account contrast, proportion, balance, repetition and rhythm. Colors, fences, structures, shapes and textures are fun and necessary considerations when we imagine garden spaces. And depending on personal preferences, other criteria may be included.

I recently read an article on the original garden design at Disney’s Epcot Center in Florida. Since Epcot Center is built on acres of swamp, Disney’s main concern was mosquito control. For this, none of the plants used have leaves that collect water. Mosquitoes breed in standing water and even puddles of leaves are not allowed at Disneyland. All plants have waxy, slanted leaves and throw water into the mulch below.

But back to Napa. How can you bring your different garden spaces together so that at the end of your design journey there is a feeling of cohesion and harmony?

This is often where the choices of paths and landscaping come into play. Paths and outdoor living areas can be purely utilitarian or add to the whimsy or ambience of your garden. Granted, a straight concrete or aggregate patio or path lined with austere agaves has a different feel than redwood circles or soft wood chips with leaning ferns and forget-me-nots softening the edges.

Look at your garden from all points of view. Will the area be a private space surrounded by plants or open to a larger landscape? Maybe the space you are designing is your view from a kitchen, living room, or bedroom window. Slide out a chair, grab a cup of coffee or an evening drink, and spend time imagining. This is the part I’m good at.

One mistake many new gardeners make when trying to create a colorful and diverse garden is to plant just one of each. Nature rarely does that. Planting in groups of three, five, or seven is a rule of thumb, though flexible, for a natural look.

Stroll through your favorite nursery for ideas and advice on plants. When hiking, notice what grows together in nature. As you walk through your neighborhood, notice the garden styles and plants that you like. When considering a plant, learn its preferred sun exposure, soil requirements, watering requirements, and growth rate. So many questions.

In our new Napa County reality, it’s also a good idea to incorporate FireWise design principles. No shrubs or trees near your foundation. Keep the trees in the landscape shaken. Avoid planting pampas grasses, coniferous shrubs, or other highly flammable plantings. Look online and at the University of California Cooperative Extension office for a list of FireWise factories. There are many magazines, books, and online sources for you to dive into garden design on your own.

Workshop: “Sustainable Vegetable Growing” (four part series) on Sundays February 23, March 1, March 8 and March 15, 2 pm to 4 pm, at the University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. For details and online registration, go to Online Registration (credit card only) or call 707-253-4221.

Workshop: “Step by Step Garden Design” on Saturday, Feb. 29, 9:30 am to 11:30 am, at the UC Co-op Extension, 1710 Soscol Ave., Napa. For more details and online registration, go to online registration (credit card only). Registration by mail or onsite is by cash or check only, or call 707-253-4221.

UC Napa County Master Gardeners are volunteers who provide UC research-based information on home gardening and answer your questions. To find out more about upcoming programs or to ask a question about the garden, visit the Master Gardener’s website ( or call (707) 253-4221 between 9 a.m. and noon Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays.

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