Archive for Thursday, March 13, 1997


March 13, 1997


Turning the garden into a work of art means rearranging what may already be there.

While most of us sought shelter from the cold, dark winter evenings of January and February safely at home, a group of people trudged to the Lawrence Senior Center to treat themselves to gardening lectures. Every Thursday evening for the past two months they have gathered to hear programs on the Art of Gardening by Virginia Shirer of Gardensmith Horticultural Services.

Class topics included site analysis and design basics, choosing plants, soil, color in the garden, theme and container gardens and problem solvers. The classes are sponsored by the Lawrence Arts Center and Douglas County Senior Services. Recently, I invited myself to hear Shirer talk on garden ornaments.

We sat in comfortable chairs in a small room. A slide projector was propped on a table and surrounded by a couple of slide trays. The large screen at the front of the room was soon to display slide after slide of ideas of ornaments for the garden.

Garden ornaments include such items as windmills, sundials, garden globes, statuary, and even those infamous pink flamingos. Yet, paths, fences and gates, steps, trellises and pergolas, walls, rocks, pools and fountains are also considered garden ornaments.

"Ornaments are esthetic and functional," Shirer explained. "Use them as part of the garden composition." She gave hints on the best use of several ornaments to make the most of their features in the garden.

"There's hardly a thing that says Americana more than the white picket fence," Shirer said. Contrary to popular belief, "fences do not make the garden look smaller, they create a comfortable atmosphere," she noted.

"Though there are many different uses for fences, they generally boil down to (being) a barrier, ornament, or both," Shirer said. "The type selected depends on the reason for building it."

Fences may be constructed from different material, each giving a different look to the garden. A bamboo fence fits in well with a Japanese theme garden, while a split rail fence gives a totally different feel.

Shirer cautioned about building fences in areas that have natural "wind tunnels." The constant force of the wind may cause the fence to collapse. Another hint is the placement of wood posts in gravel rather than cement to delay decay of the wood. "Painting wooden fence parts before assembling will give better protection and increase the life of the fence," she added.

Creating comfort

A sure fire way to entice visitors to the garden is with a path. Paths extend an invitation to guests to stroll and meander throughout the garden. Paths may guide people past points of interest or to a peaceful resting spot.

"Paths give the garden a comfortable feel," Shirer said. They can be constructed from concrete, bricks, stepping stones, grass, or even marble. The line of the curved path can be established with a garden hose. Straight paths are easily marked with a cord between two stakes.

Although the width of the path depends on its use, the minimum needed for two people to walk side-by-side is 3 1/2 feet. The maximum slope for a path is 5 to 10 percent, that is a 5- or 10-foot drop for every 100 feet. "A slight crown in the walkway will help drain water from the surface," Shirer added.

If the path takes visitors from one level to another, steps may be needed. "Construct them so you can run up and down them," Shirer advised. Garden steps should be less steep than those inside a house. Shirer recommends constructing steps with a 5-inch riser and 14-inch tread.

She offered these important safety tips in the construction of steps in the garden. A railing should be installed to offer assistance. Add a landing between every six steps. Construct steps with a 1/4-inch forward pitch to drain water. Finally, keep in mind that landscape timbers and railroad ties may become very slippery if used as steps.

Rolling stones

Rocks and stones make great garden ornaments and are relatively abundant. "Whether using stone for accents or edgings," Shirer said, "studying natural rock formations can be helpful for creating effective arrangements." Since rock ornaments are to be seen, avoid covering them with planting material.

Borrowing from Japanese concepts in arranging stones, Shirer offered these two hints that can be used in any garden style. "Place stones so they seem to be rising out of the ground rather than having been placed on top of it." she said. The best way to accomplish this effect is to sink one third of the stone into the ground.

The second concept takes a lot of practice, she admitted. "Place stones so they are `looking' at you." Shirer also made the distinction between a "rock garden" which refers to the natural placement of rocks and a "rockery" -- a garden in which the gardener has placed rocks.

Inspiring others

Shirer comes by her knowledge and skill about gardening from education and experience. She received a degree in landscape horticulture from Kansas State University. She served as the director of horticulture at Sonnenberg Garden in New York. Sonnenberg Garden is a historic preservation project that encompasses 40 acres of turn-of-the-century garden. With the help of a crew of eight to 12 people and many volunteers, Shirer tended the expansive gardens.

A variety of theme gardens exist on the grounds as does a 15,000-square-foot conservatory and a 40-room mansion. Each year Shirer raised 1,000 flats of annuals for display. "The Italian garden had over 13,000 plants and the rose garden 2,600," she said.

Shirer returned to Lawrence in 1995 and began Gardensmith Horticultural Services. The garden service offers design, installation and maintenance of gardens. "I try to give people some new ideas and something to think about," She explained. "If you get people inspired and fired up -- that sticks with them more than facts and figures."

Throughout the evening Shirer had many more ideas for garden ornaments. Walls are useful for protection from the wind, and also as an ornamental feature. "Walls with planting pockets are tremendous fun," she told us. "They are an effective background for perennials and are great places to attach vines."

Trellises are "a good way to show off blooms," she said. They are "one of the best ways to grow climbing roses." Benches, pools, statuary, fountains, and gates each have an ornamental place in the garden. "Statuary usually functions in the landscape as an accent," Shirer said. "Select and place them to harmonize with the landscape as part of the composition," of the garden.

-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital and a Douglas County master gardener.

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