Garden Spaces: Shaping Up a "Scattered" Garden

| December/January 2009

  • Check out the Image Gallery for the Design Challenge Planting Key.
    Illustration by Gayle Ford
  • Check out the Image Gallery for the Design Challenge Planting Key.
    Illustration by Gayle Ford

Dear “Garden Spaces,”

My 25-by-10-foot garden runs along a driveway and is located on a steep slope that receives sun most of the day. I have heirloom roses at the ends of the bed and deodar cedars and butterfly bushes at the top of the slope. I recently planted two Italian cypress trees on one side to form an arched entryway. Various flowering herbs are planted throughout the rest of the bed.

My garden looks rather unkempt and scattered. I’d like a low hedge across the front to give it a semi-formal look, and I need a path through the entire bed. I want color, food for bees and hummingbirds, and herbs to use in aromatherapy products. Can you help me pull this together?

—Rachel C., Atlanta

It sounds like you’re well on your way to a lovely garden space, Rachel.

I think the pathway is the place to start. A pathway is a semi-permanent feature that not only allows accessibility, but also frames areas within the bed. The path can be made from any material you like: Stone, brick or wooden decking would be wonderful, but even a simple dark hardwood mulch would work fine and look attractive. If you choose mulch for your pathway, dig out about 3 to 4 inches of soil beneath the surface of your intended path. Then fill in with enough mulch to make the path level with the rest of the garden. Occasionally, you’ll need to replenish the mulch as it breaks down.

The pathway will lure you (and visitors) into the garden, especially as your Italian cypresses grow and you train them into an enticing arch to frame the entrance. The path is a squat T-shape that runs to within about 4 feet of the side edges. I’ve added a bench at one end and a small birdbath at the other, because a destination will make any path more inviting. A birdbath also will help attract the birds you want.

At the crossbar of the T of the path, I suggest you cut into the slope to make the path flat and allow you to walk on level ground. Eventually, the soil will settle into place—especially after the area is planted and mulched—and not spill down the slope. The path will become inconspicuous as the plants fill in the area.

After the path is in place, plant a hedge of boxwood, which can be trimmed low. Like the cypress archway, boxwood will stay green throughout the seasons. The uniformity of a trimmed hedge and cypress archway, along with the tidy path, will give this space the semi-formal feel you seek. The herbs and flowers can then billow lushly and gracefully out of this framework.

Tips for a Scattered Space

Plants for a Fragrant, Bird- and Bee-Friendly Garden

Kathleen Halloran is a freelance writer and editor living in Austin, Texas.

Challenge Us: If you have a challenging garden site and would like a design solution, or simply want to create a new look for a border or bed, write to us. From time to time, we select a reader’s challenge and provide a simple “Garden Spaces” design solution. Send your requests to, with “Design Challenge” in the subject line.

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