"I think in terms of composition," says Cindy Stockett, as she looks out the window at her garden in Vashon Island, Washington.
"The key is to take a few elements and repeat them." One glance at her plantings ― carefully orchestrated for color and texture ― reveals her artistry.
Clumps of New Zealand flax, ornamental grasses, and drifts of lilies are repeated throughout the garden, visually connecting the various beds and borders.
Colors are repeated too; in one section of a border, for example, reddish purple foliage shows up in smoke trees, Japanese barberry, maples, and Japanese blood grass.
Putting together a living work of art sounds simple, and Stockett's garden actually makes it look simple ― but in the same way that Olympic figure skaters make triple axels look effortless. How does she do it?
Stockett says her design successes are partly intuitive, partly serendipitous, and mostly lots of hard work.
"As I maintain the garden, I get ideas about what to change," she explains. "When I make a bad plant combination, I move the plant that doesn't fit. And I move plants a lot. I'd love to have plants on wheels, but for now I bring a plant home from the nursery, set it out in the garden, and watch it for a few days. If it doesn't work with the plants around it, it's easy to move."
Sources of inspiration
Knowing plants helps Stockett figure out which ones grow well together. She learns by studying garden magazines, participating in horticultural organizations, and reading books.
And one more thing: "When I'm driving, I'm always looking at the plants I pass. When I see something great, I pull over and write it down."
Planning the garden
"There is no master plan for my garden," Stockett says, "but I know where I'm going: toward a year-round garden."
That means that every bed, and almost every plant, has to look good in more than one season.
A committed flower lover, Stockett usually puts evergreens in the back of the garden so that flowers stand out in the foreground.
As she speaks, Stockett seems to focus on one particular garden bed. "Gardening is an obsession with me," she says. "I'm either thinking about it or doing it full time."
A garden designer's secrets
1. Be a savvy shopper
Always carry a notepad. When you see a plant you like, write down its name.
When you go nursery shopping, work from a list of plants you need for specific locations.
It's fine to give in to plant lust once in a while, but for the most part, go with a plan. Before you order by mail, check out www.gardenwatchdog.com, a website that lists and rates mail-order plant sources.
2. Choose plants with multiseason interest
Some that Stockett likes:
Barberries with bright winter berries and red stems in the cool season and purple-red foliage in summer.
'Hakuro Nishiki' willow ( Salix integra 'Hakuro Nishiki'), whose leaves open variegated pink in spring, shift to cream and green in summer, then drop in fall, allowing twigs and branches ― which look like red fireworks ― to carry the show in winter.
Paperbark maple (Acer griseum), which has a green canopy in summer that turns reddish in fall, and reddish brown papery bark that steals the show in winter and spring.
3. Move plants if necessary
To get the look you want, keep plants in their nursery cans, set them in the space you have in mind, and leave them there for a few days.
Do they work with the plant colors and textures around them, and with the changing light of day? If not, move them.
And if an established plant no longer works in one location, dig it out and move it to a better one; ideally, do this in fall when weather is cooling off but before rains come.