Phil’s Design Tips
Phil Thornburg of Tigard, Oregon, transformed a plain, 1/3-acre yard into a gardener’s dream oasis. He took his time, stuck to a budget and gradually landscaped the property over a 10-year period. Here are his top planning tips for garden design.
• Measure. Then sketch out a plan. You don’t need to be a seasoned landscape designer to create a plan on paper. “Draw it out to scale as best you can, even if you’re just doing a balcony,” says Thornburg. Determine where pots will go, where furniture will be placed and what areas you’ll need for hardscaping like walkways, depending on how you want to use your space.
• Deviate from your plan. Use your plan as a starting point, as a way to organize your thoughts and prioritize. Then revise and change things as you make new discoveries.
• Plant big plants first. Trees, shrubs and larger perennials should go in before anything else, followed by smaller plants and ground covers. Big plants are the bones of the garden that can be used not just as beautiful focal points, but for other necessities, such as shade and privacy.
• Think about size. Read plant tags closely to see how big your plants will be in 10 years, and plan and plant accordingly. This may mean planting sparsely in the early years, but it will keep you from having to move as many plants as they mature. This will give you more time for playing in the garden.
• Grow your own. If you take your time, you can save money by growing plants from seed or smaller nursery stock. Let plants come into their own on your property, not at the nursery. Thornburg set up a staging area near his house for just this purpose, which allowed him to water and feed new plants in one central area, instead of all over the undeveloped yard. This also helped him manage his inevitable nursery splurges.
• Prepare for imperfection: Even when you do everything just right, trees, shrubs and perennials have ways of surprising you, especially newer varieties. Sometimes a perennial grows much bigger than you ever imagine it could. “It just happens,” says Thornburg. That’s when you whack them back or move them out.
• Be patient. Accept temporary bare spots, awkward transitions and even ugly plants. In the end, you’ll get it right.
Phil Thornburg’s once-plain front entrance is now awash in rich greens and deep reds, including a ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese maple that matches the home’s burgundy house numbers and front door.
Dwarf conifers, mounding perennials and low-growing shrubs fill the Thornburgs’ front yard with a wealth of colors and textures.
Curving pathways and carefully placed art help move visitors visually through the yard. A white-blooming azalea (‘Treasure’) was rescued from a landscaping client’s yard.
Here are some of Phil Thornburg’s favorite choices for planting early in the implementation of a long-term landscaping plan. They look their best after they become established and mature.
Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata), Zone 4 to 8
Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa), Zone 5 to 8
Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’), Zone 5 to 8
Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonica), Zone 5 to 8
Seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconoides), Zone 5 to 9
‘Unique’ rhododendron, Zone 6 to 9
Winter daphne (Daphne odora), Zone 7 to 9
‘Glamour’ azalea, Zone 7 to 9
Eucryphia x intermedia ‘Rostrevor’, Zone 7 to 10
Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei), Zone 7 to 10
Harlequin glorybower (Clerodendrum trichotomum), Zone 7 to 10
Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia ‘Tuskegee’), Zone 7 to 10
Osmanthus x fortunei ‘San Jose’, Zone 7 to 10
Burkwood osmanthus (Osmanthus x burkwoodii), Zone 7 to 10
When the Thornburgs had their fence rebuilt, they chose different heights for each side of this path to provide visual interest, privacy and a simple backdrop for their many plants. Stones create slightly raised garden beds and also serve as attractive edging.
Perennials explode in a side garden, where a curvaceous pathway, interrupted by Princess Series alstroemerias, invites exploration of the front yard.
Hot pink and tangerine hues add punch and serve to provide a disguise where needed: a ceramic ball covers a water feature’s flow controls and an upside down pot hides the electricity outlet for the pond. An urn holds plastic balls that the Thornburg grandchildren throw into the pond instead of stones.