Ornamental Garden Design Post-Webinar Q&A

Landscape Designer and Professor Charlene Spindler Gray Answers Real Questions About Ornamental Garden Design
ornamental garden

In a recent webinar from UNH Extension and UMaine Cooperative Extension, experienced landscape designer and horticulture professor Charlene Spindler Gray delved into ornamental garden design.

We didn't get to all the questions viewers had for us, so we are sharing them here as a written Q&A. Enjoy!

Can you talk a little bit more about plant communities?

Plant communities refers to different plant species often found growing together in nature. The plants found growing together prefer similar growing conditions and might even depend on each other to some degree. Depending on your geographic location and your site conditions, you might be able to try to mimic local native plant communities in your landscape. An example of a plant community I see growing in my immediate area (within ½ mile of my house) is: Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina), Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera), Haircap Moss, Highbush and Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium sp.), River Birch (Betula nigra), White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis), Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) and Red Spruce (Picea rubens). A google search should turn up quite a few books out there about Maine and New Hampshire native plant communities. One I like is called Natural Landscapes of Maine by Susan Gawler and Andrew Cutko.

Any resources recommended that help with design?

I’d recommend these two books: Elements of Garden Design by Joe Eck, and Residential Landscape Architecture by Norman K. Booth and James Hiss (any edition will do, the newer additions have more info on using digital technology).

What are some of the best perennials to draw wildlife? Birds, butterflies, bees?  They all seem to be sun lovers?  I have a lot of shade.

Hosta flowers attract bees, you could also try Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), Coral Bells (Heuchera), Beebalm (Mondara) and Columbine (Aquilegia). 

Am on a 1500 foot clay (12 ft deep) plot near the ocean.  Not much drainage, and water flowing in from the neighboring forest from a small stream.  Am planning to install a pond, but what should go along the long narrow strip on either side of the stream?

Goals for the stream: 1) slow down the flow of water to keep sediment in place instead of going into the pond, and 2) hold whatever soil/clay is there with plant roots and stone. To slow the pace of water runoff, try to have the stream meander instead of running in a straight line. Placing some larger rocks (maybe 12 inches) along the edges of the stream help slow the water and smaller rocks/stones along the bottom help hold the soil base of the stream and slow the water. Choose plants that have dense, spreading roots. Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) would be a good option or maybe Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis), which is vigorous and will create dense cover.

How to keep dandelions in control within the lawn grass?

Mow before the flowers go to seed. Might sound crazy, but after a good rain when the ground is soft I’ll grab a flathead screwdriver or hori hori knife and pop the entire taproot out. Getting that taproot is so satisfying.

Book suggestions for the New England gardener?

Spirit of Place by Bill Noble

Can you suggest where (website?) someone could find a landscape designer to help someone lay out ideas?

You could try APLD (Association of  Professional Landscape Designers). If you're in New Hampshire, check out the NH Landscape Association's professional directory. Likewise, if you're in Maine, check out the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association. Not all landscape designers will list themselves on these sites, many rely on word of mouth. Some local garden centers offer design services, too.

Any resources you can provide as to transitioning into a landscape design career? Courses or seminars to start would be helpful.

UMaine offers classes for people not enrolled in a degree program through the Division of Lifelong Learning, where people can take any course as long as the prerequisites are met. Maine’s KVCC now has a Professional Development program called Sustainable Landscaping & Garden Management, this might be a good way to get some professional gardening knowledge that is great to have as a landscape designer and also get you into professional gardener social circles. Also check out offerings from the UNH Professional Development and Training program.

Would you plant Canadian Hemlock for a hedge, or do you feel it is too susceptible to the spreading disease vector hitting hemlocks?

Hemlock Woolly Adelgid would definitely be a concern for me, in terms of both spreading it further and the financial cost of potentially lost trees. Depending on how many trees you’d need for your hedge, if you like the look of hemlocks but feel planting a whole swath of them is too risky, maybe plant a hedge with “some” hemlock but plant the majority of the hedge with other less risky species. Anytime you plant a variety of species (not only in a hedge) you lessen the risk of total loss due to one reason or another.

Favorite native trailing vine for urban residential fence?

Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris) if there’s some shade (native to US, not northeast) or Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) for full sun.

Any suggestions for what to plant alongside the road to quiet the noise from traffic, that could withstand road sand, salt, and snow.  Would like something nice to look at, too.

A few trees that might work for you could be Quaking Aspen (Populous tremuloides), Gray Birch (Betula populifolia) or Gingko (Ginkgo biloba). Quaking Aspen and Gray Birch are early successional tree species, meaning they are some of the first trees to come into newly deforested areas, so they can withstand tougher conditions than later successional forest tree species that like better soil. Quaking Aspen leaves also flutter easily in the wind, so they could help break traffic noise. Gingko trees are often planted as street trees in dense urban areas because they can withstand such tough conditions. Their foliage is more dense and leathery than Quaking Aspen, and it flutters in the breeze, so this combination could also be a good noise break.

Any recommendations on pest controls for beautiful gardens from bunnies and deer?

UNH Extension has some great tips for deterring deer. Michigan State also has a nice article that addresses deer and rabbits. Rabbits are challening. Contact the APHIS program in your state for assistance with controlling wildlife. Lastly, wildlifehelp.org has some ideas too.

Where can I get list of deer resistant plants?

Maine has a great resource that lists deer resistant plants.

If planting on banks, should the soil be dug out and leveled?

If you dig it out then it is called terracing. If it is near water you can destablize the bank. If it is a single plant, you can create a pocket for it. Plant sod is available for slopes.

How important is it for us to use “native” plants?

It is part of the equation but mixing with non-natives is okay as well. Learn more. Defining your goals will help guide your plant selection choices.

Do you recommend making a path in the garden? What kind of mulch do you recommend for weed control?

Paths are great to get you IN the garden. This is important if you have to go through the garden to get somewhere. Aged dark bark mulch shows off the plants well in a thick layer (2”-3”). No mulch volcanos please. Learn more.

Any tips for tree placement to avoid a line? Ie: how to achieve an attractive scattered type look.

Planting trees randomly is not easy. Start by thinking about how they relate to each and not too far apart. Clustering in odd number groups. Then scatter them. Take your time and do it while they are in pots so you can move them around.

Privacy is something I want to cultivate - in my lifetime :). Suggestions?

Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), mixing and layering is a good way as well. Climbing hydrangeas are slow to start but create a nice barrier as well. Get some more ideas for privacy shrubs with wildlife value, and evergreens for privacy.

What flowering perennials can I plant at a site that receives only 4-5 hours of sunlight?

Shade or semi-shade flowering perennials: Beebalm (Monarda), Creeping Phlox (Phlox stolonifera), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Leopard Plant (Ligularia), Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) and Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia). These are just some examples.

Do you have favorite blog or podcast re: gardens?

UNH has a great garden blog, and also has a podcast called Granite State Gardening.

Also looking for a recommendation on design software.

Vector Works and Google SketchUp


Charlene Spindler Gray is a guest author for UNH Extension and is an experienced landscape designer. Charlene now enjoys teaching undergraduate students to design artful and ecological landscapes in the Environmental Horticulture BS degree program at UMaine. Posts by guest authors are reviewed by Extension staff specialists who confirm content is in line with current research and best practices.