Lynn Byrne

Lynn Byrne

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Why Black Thumbs Should Read Bunny Williams On Garden Style

For me, as a general rule, picking up a gardening book to read works better and faster than the sandman ever could for sending me off to dreamland. But I love beautiful gardens and lucky for me, I have a husband who loves to create them.

There is one problem however. While the dear man has an encyclopedic knowledge of plants, he lacks the design gene. I will never forget the day he threw red mulch all over our front yard because that color was on sale at Home Depot. Enough said.

So thus far we have hired out the garden design. But, with Bunny Williams' revised volume On Garden Style in my library, that could change.

Stone and gravel steps, framed by columnar arborvitaes, create an enticing entrance to Bunny Williams’ own garden in Connecticut. (Page 135)

Why you ask?

Bunny equates planning your garden to planning an interior space. Now that’s something my black thumb and I can grasp. Finally someone has given me the tools to think about garden design without my falling asleep at the wheel.

Bunny’s revised volume (it was first published in 1998, but this version includes more and better pictures) advises the reader to throw away the graph paper and forget small drawings with little circles.

Instead she says to start by thinking how you would organize your plot of land as a series of rooms, with the “walls” and “floors” to create structure and “doorways” and “windows” to frame views. Once those matters are settled it is finally time to focus on the details of plant material, furniture and garden ornaments.

Of course, your doorway needn’t be as literal as this enticing entrance to a Belgian garden. Shrubs and trees also can do the trick. (page 23)

So, says Bunny, just as you would correct the “bones” of an interior space before you furnished it, you should be certain the “bones” of your garden are structured properly too.

On Garden Style gives you a format on just how to accomplish that task. Bunny discusses important considerations such as whether you will have a formal and informal garden, how you should take cues from the architecture of your home, the need to address practical aspects like parking and outdoor grilling (hide them as best you can) and, of course, the natural givens of soil, light and climate.

The cottage architecture of this Jamaican home is paired with casual, soft plantings that compliment it. (page 27)

Once you have the basics down pat, Bunny goes into great detail about how you can implement your garden dreams. Stake out your garden rooms, with well, a series of stakes, or delineate them Hansel and Gretel style by taking a sack of flour outside and sprinkling a thin line where “walls” should be.

Decide what your walls will be made of—hedges, trees or shrubs, or a hardscape wall of stone or fencing. Consider also your garden floor, the geometry of which will capture the eye. Will it be a natural ground cover or a stone pathway for instance? Bunny gives examples for all of these ideas and more, and illustrates them with sketches or those glorious pictures I mentioned.

Walls, floors and passageways are so important that they take up half the book. In the second half, Bunny relates how to “furnish” your garden rooms to delight the eye. She discusses container gardening, water features, garden ornaments and their placement, and how to choose garden furniture that will survive more than one season.

In Tony Duquette’s garden, Sortilegium in Malibu Hills, he employed supersized garden ornaments, most of which he designed and built himself. (Page 47)

Only in the book’s final chapters does Bunny actually talk about plants, but once again the advice is invaluable. When you select your plants, first think about the anchors of the garden. Scale can’t be overemphasized; it’s the big things like trees and large shrubs that matter most. Additionally, consider not just a plant’s flower because that will fade relatively quickly, but its foliage which you will look at most of the time. And just as you would an interior room, think about the elevations in your garden rooms. Mix scales, high and low, large and small, to create layers and visual interest.

In this garden, designed by Piet Oudolf, layered visual interest is created by the different types of plant material. (page 35)

Before I knew it, I had finished the book. Yes really reading it. A small miracle.

But if you choose only to look at the wonderful new pictures that Bunny has added to this revised edition of On Garden Style, it’s worth the purchase price. Even if you don’t like to get your hands dirty.