Guess what? Dogs aren't actually colorblind; they just have a lot less chromatic sensitivity than humans. That's why I don't let Biff the Wonder Spaniel pick my outfits. On the other hand, he might have a leg up on me (dog pun) when it comes to designing gardens.

When I start a new design, I picture the plants the same way Biff probably sees them. I imagine they will never bloom—that I'll have to rely on something other than floral color for interest. I select and combine plants using all their other visual qualities—the silhouette of the plant, its foliage shape, leaf size, density and surface texture, for example. The flowers ice the cake.

So I got to thinking. What if Biff took after his old man and created a garden blog for dogs? How would he describe the two most fundamental design principles that dogs and their bipedal slaves should master?

The "big two" are harmony and contrast. We use harmony when we combine plants that share one or more characteristic, and contrast when there are obvious differences. Select too many harmonious elements and your garden might start you snoring, whereas too many contrasting elements could send you reaching for the Dramamine.

Don Your Doggie Spectacles

I've changed the following pictures to grayscale to emphasize their forms and textures. As you look at the images, notice the shape and thickness of the leaves, the relative lightness or darkness of each plant, and the overall form, sometimes called its architecture—mounding, arching, weeping, spiky, upright, etc.

This pairing of Aeonium (back) and Cotyledon (front) is a good place to start. The two plants share similarly shaped leaves that radiate in a rosette form, a simple way to create harmony. On the other side of the scale, the relative darkness and lightness of the leaves, combined with the subtle difference in thickness and angle of the foliage, provide enough contrast to make things interesting.

There's something restful and soft about placing fine-textured, light-colored plants in front of dense, dark backdrops. The simple contrast of the delicate twigs of palo verde (Parkinsonia aculeata) and the dense backdrop of shamel ash (Fraxinus uhdei — a monster in SoCal, so don't try this at home) can be produced at a smaller scale by planting ornamental grasses in front of dense shrubs. The density of the canopies and their soft, cloudlike forms supply a touch of harmony.

 

Vocabulary brainstorm! Here’s my list of adjectives that describe the lavender (Lavandula X intermedia 'Provence') in front: “mounding”, “light-colored”, "dense", "springy", "stiff", "vertical", "small-leaved". The pink breath of heaven (Coleonema pulchrum) in the background shares a mounding form and is also dense, but the leaves are much darker and of a finer texture.

So far, these combos have all been more similar than different. Let’s flip that around.

The leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureo-maculata’) looks like an enormous beach umbrella hovering over the tiny ground cover of moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia). Contrast abounds! Giant vs. teeny-weeny, speckled vs. solid, light vs. dark, yet each has a rounded edge that marries them.

Now if this don’t knock your socks off… Try your own vocabulary brainstorm. Grab a pad and pencil. I’ll wait...

Did you write "spiky", "fine", "explosive", "dark", "radial", "smooth", maybe even "optical fiber" for the Mexican grass tree (Dasylirion longissimum) in the back? Perhaps "chunky", "vertical", "rough", "ghostly", or "geometric" for the Euphorbia resinifera?

I think you’ve got it!

This last pic is the stuff that floats my boat. Notice how the leaves of the Agave 'Blue Glow' are held at the same angle as the blue chalk fingers (Senecio mandraliscae). Each plant has a strong vertical line, though the agave reaches out more broadly. A light background sets off the softly embossed, fleshy agave, highlighting the crisp edges of the plump leaves. They just seem to make sense together.

Do It Yourself

If you have digital pictures of gardens you like, you can try this at home with just a little technical knowledge. All digital photography software has a setting that change images from color to grayscale. Try this exercise with a few of your favorite photos and see if you can find the “deep design” that comes from a working knowledge of these principles.

In the meantime, I’ll be helping Biff get his blog started. I’m thinking we might need to install a voice dictation program on his laptop. Seems our three-year experiment with Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing software has been a bust.

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