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Hidden Charms in Landscape

by Nellie Neal

Gardeners often face a challenge when they move into an established landscape. One finds a huge thicket right in the middle of the lawn. Another sees a collapsing wall, another a beautiful shrub that blooms where no one can see it. In these gardens, an apparent barrier to enjoyment can be transformed into a hidden treasure. 

While the first instinct may be to clear away such seeming impediments, surprise yourself by using them to enhance the landscape. Locate a bench behind that thicket, and wind a path to it. Sit down, look out behind the thicket, and install a flowerbed to be seen only from the new vantage point. You’ve created a garden destination, a place of hidden refuge both you and your garden visitors will seek out.

Repairing broken garden walls can be expensive, and even if you just tear it out, there’s all that rubble to deal with. But you can lead eyes and feet to find out what’s hidden there. Add an urn to the broken area with a vine spilling everywhere, and plant a clumping groundcover in front of it for camouflage. Now only pieces of wall will be visible, becoming a border with planted surprises instead of an eyesore. If there’s room for it, add a row of flowering trees behind that wall to lift the eye. When the wall ends abruptly, or if you find an ample pile of broken pieces out there, stack up a grotto to shelter a small piece of art just out of view.  

Good advice to anyone taking over an existing garden: take your time. It’s likely you don’t know everything that’s planted, so wait to see what will emerge. Each season may well bring surprises like bulbs or a creeping perennial lost in the mulch. Often it’s a dreary bed behind the garage where a lone shrub blooms boldly. Maybe the previous gardener dug up everything else in the bed, built a structure that shaded everything else, or perhaps time has taken its toll on the other plants.

Think seriously before moving that beauty to a more prominent spot. The longer it’s been there, the harder it will be to move it successfully. Plan instead to feature its bold color by adding plants that will bloom in similar colors in opposite seasons.

Signposts, pieces of art, and garden plaques can work as surprises, too, and add their own sense of whimsy. Where that path seems to lead nowhere, point a sign that says, ‘Road to Rio’ or ‘Turn Back Now’. A group of deciduous shrubs may look quite bland in winter, but a gnome or a gargoyle nestled beneath them will be revealed only when the leaves fall. Add a sweet sentiment, or a naughty one, with a garden plaque hidden in a deciduous tree or in that grotto. You’ll smile every time you see it.

But if you’ve just begun a garden on a new homesite, plan for surprises. As you design that new landscape, create a corner to turn, or a path that goes somewhere unexpected. Add a bench, a sculpture, or a stunning plant, and your garden will soon have hidden charms.

When working with a landscape architect or garden designer, let the professional know of your desire to include surprises in the plan. In a standard sized backyard, a large mounded garden bed will provide plenty of planting space and a nook behind it. Let your imagination run wild to make the most of that spot. Anything from a table and chairs to a gazebo can welcome you; add a bit of fence or a circle of shrubs, and you’ll want to live in the new garden room.  Even a narrow garden, or the shady passages between houses, can hold surprises for those who stroll through. Hang banners or plaques to obscure the view straight through the space; change them with the seasons if there’s not enough sun for flowering plants to add color. Plant shrubs across the gap with a gate to one side for three impacts in one: the plants will be handsome and the gate offers beautiful access that leads you to the scene. The garden rooms on each side of the hedge offer new planting opportunities and that’s perhaps the best surprise for any gardener. 

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