Get great garden design tips from renowned Canadian designer Brian Minter.
Vegetables and herbs have a place in the flower garden. Brian Minter uses herbs to edge his beds and borders, and he's especially partial to variegated mint because it arrives early and stays late. "In the garden, integration is the key," he says. The mint's aroma wafts on the breeze when visitors brush against it, and the chefs in the garden's restaurants snip sprigs to flavor the day's fare.
Pay attention to foliage texture, as well as color. Here, for example, purple heuchera makes a lovely contrast against 'Burgundy Glow' ajuga and gray-blue stones.
Two spruces stand ready to usher visitors into a hillside garden of slow-growing conifers and alpine plants. The evergreens are just big enough -- about 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide -- to play hide-and-seek with the meandering path that leads to a vine-covered garden folly. "Defining an entrance makes a big statement," Brian says: "Welcome."
"Gardens aren't just about planting, pruning, and weeding," Brian says. "They're magical places, and there should be reminders along the way: pretty vignettes and little escapes." Whether they're used or not, a decorative table and chair invite contemplation. The invitation stands: Come, sit awhile, and smell the flowers, listen to the bird song, and watch the grass grow.
Big, bold Gunnera is at home by a wooded stream and waterfall, adding drama and dimension to this garden vignette. Brian uses the oversize perennial -- it grows to 8 feet tall and 12 feet wide -- to alter the scale of things, sort of like adding a skyscraper to a cityscape. Astilbes and skunk cabbage enhance the scene with their foliage.
Brian carved out an alpine pond in a hillside where frogs and toads join the chorus of birds splashing in the shallow water. "The trick is to work with the setting so the pond and plantings look natural," he says. Brian does so with lady's mantle and cotoneaster in the foreground and alpine firs and weeping Nootka false cypress in the background.
In early spring, long before the garden bursts into color, Brian pots up containers that bridge the seasons with bright foliage and subtle textures. He starts with a weeping hemlock, then adds a euphorbia or two. Next comes a sampling of Heuchera 'Marmalade' followed by a streak of Sedum 'Angelina'. "With foliage like this, who needs flowers?" he says. He does tuck in a few violas -- but mostly for his chefs to toss into springtime salads.
Give your landscape a lift by adding high points -- in this case, three 12-foot-tall classically inspired concrete columns that stand like exclamation points. "The idea is to lift the eye up off the ground," Brian says. "The pillars create a sense of antiquity and add an element of surprise and mystery." The scene is striking in summer when the surrounding garden shimmers in white with astilbe, actaea, phlox, and silvery maidengrass.
The secret to cultivating intrigue in the garden? "Always have a curve," Brian says. "You want to keep them guessing -- What's up ahead? What will I discover? You don't need a lot of space to achieve that." Stroll to the other end of this vine-festooned arbor and you'll come upon a 110-foot-long, 15-foot-high wall of water that pours over Roman pillars to create a misty veil for viewing the garden beyond.
Brian creates the illusion of a large expanse by tapering the space so it's narrower at the far end of this formal garden. "The garden is 8 feet narrower at the far end than it is in the foreground, where it measures 20 feet across from boxwood to boxwood," Brian says. The result: a space that appears one-and-a-half times its actual length.
Regardless of whether it repels mosquitoes, Brian likes this variegated scented geranium (Pelargonium citrosum) -- aka the mosquito plant. Thanks to its frosty-white-tip foliage, it shines like a beacon in the border. "The ordinary green form would disappear," Brian says. "Use variegated plants to mix things up." Plus, the plant's lemony scent offers passersby a sensory moment.
Your garden will profit from the addition of plants with dark purple foliage that appears blackish. "Black foliage creates magical combinations in the garden," he says. "Just look at these dark-leaved begonias and 'Bishop of Llandaff' dahlias."
Create a sensation by putting a single magnificent plant in a spectacular pot. Brian does it here with Sedum 'Angelina' in a 3-foot-tall rust-crusted urn. "There's elegance in simplicity," he says. "People tend to get too busy and complicated in their container plantings." Brian likes this golden sun-loving succulent for its heat and drought tolerance. And the rusty urns show off the needle-shape foliage as it turns from chartreuse in spring to golden yellow in summer and to a rich orangey-amber in autumn.
Sometimes the simplest solution is the best. Thirty years ago, Brian decided to plant nasturtiums on a sunny hillside. It worked so well, he's been doing it ever since. "Nasturtiums remind people of their grandmother's garden. They're charming and have an old-fashioned fragrance," he says. "And they don't mind crummy soil."
Go green and install a living fence instead of a wood version. "Add value to plants by giving them a purpose," Brian says. "A fence can be inspiringly beautiful if you use plants -- especially if the plants have year-round beauty." Here, a 30-foot-long firethorn hedge hugs a pathway that skirts a steep slope, providing a safety buffer for two-legged visitors and a berry buffet for winged guests.
Let in the light with shade plants that shine like high-wattage stars. Brian brightens a hillside planting of native bracken ferns with a swath of 'Patriot' hostas. Their big wavy leaves with wide white margins are like lights in the woods. Massed, 'Patriot' delivers high impact.
Crepe-papery poppies and lacy native ferns make fast friends in the dappled sunlight of a woodland meadow. In Brian's garden, the poppies are self-seeding perennials, but you can achieve the same loose, natural effect with annuals. The lesson, Brian says, is simple: "Let Nature do the arranging."
This is no rolling stone and it has the moss to prove it. "It's art," Brian says of the moss-kissed rock nestled among ferns, golden creeping Jenny, and Euphorbia 'Diamond Frost'. "When I look at this stone, I imagine I see a goat's face or a horse's face," he says. "Nature created it for me to admire."
"Do the unexpected," Brian says. Here, he gives the shrubby evergreen creeper Euonymus 'Emerald Gaiety' the support it needs: The creamy-edge emerald foliage that blushes pink in winter caresses a decades-old wisteria root that hugs a cement pillar.
Use graceful arching grasses to soften and conceal hard or unsightly edges of beds and borders. Just about any cascading plant can do the trick and look lovely at the same time.