Garden designer Gordon Hayward preaches accessibility and sustainability

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Gordon Hayward believes that gardening is first and foremost about making places for people. He will present his accessible approach to garden design in a program Aug. 27 at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland.

The course, co-sponsored by Phipps and Penn State Extension-Allegheny County, will be presented in three parts, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The topics will be, in order: linking house and garden, use of stone in the garden, and how fine painting can inspire garden design.

Garden Design Classes
  • Where: Phipps Conservatory and Botantical Gardens, Oakland.
  • When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 27.
  • Admission: The fee for the all-day course is $95 (early registration fee $85), which includes lunch. To make reservations, call 412-441-4442, ext. 3925. Information:

Mr. Hayward is a nationally recognized garden designer, writer and lecturer who has spent the past 26 years creating a unique 1.5-acre garden around the 220-year-old Vermont farmhouse that he shares with his wife Mary. They also garden around their cottage in Blockley, Gloucestershire, in the North Cotswolds of England, Mary's homeland. They have led 16 tours for garden clubs to southern England.

He wrote for Horticulture magazine for 25 years, was a contributing editor at Fine Gardening magazine for six years and is now a contributing editor at the newly revamped Organic Gardening magazine. He is also the author of 11 books on garden design, two of which have won national awards.

Mr. Hayward's approach to designing gardens is to place houses within gardens that are accessible and sustainable.

"When we live in a house in a garden, the spirit of the garden infuses the house with a kind of peace. To live in a house in a garden helps us regenerate, to feel settled in our house. When we stand at the windows and doorways of our house, we look into a garden that relates," he says.

Mr. Hayward says effectively integrating home and garden varies depending upon the site. If homeowners can see traffic from their front windows, "might that suggest planting some small trees like crabapples along the sidewalk to gently separate the traffic from the house?" he said. "Might they increase privacy from the windows on both sides of the house where they feel pretty close to the neighbors, and how might they quietly claim a separation between the two properties? In the back, have they made a place for people?"

Because backyards are often gardeners' focus, Mr. Hayward stresses the importance of drawing people into that space, to invite them off the porch or patio with a variety of plants and hardscape.

"Shade versus sun, enclosure versus open, a simple structure to draw people out into the landscape, a gazebo or little simple pergola or an arbor or even a bench on line with the back door but way out at the far end of the property to draw people out into the space," he says.

"One of the biggest problems with many gardens is the lack of engagement and getting in among our plants. When most people walk in their garden, they are walking on lawn past their beds. The result is a separation, a kind of distance between gardeners and their plants."

People can be engaged by creating a small sitting area among the plants, as he and his wife did in their perennial border. "We took plants out, put stone down, and put in a bench and two chairs and now we literally sit in the border."

Another way to engage people is through fragrance. "Plant fragrant plants, particularly in the entry garden where people arrive at the house," he advises. "A fabulous lavender plant in a pot, or a trailing rosemary engage people through fragrance."

He stresses starting gardeners at a young age. "There is something deeply fundamental we are not giving our children and that is an affinity for nature. Kids come home, young adults, too, and are so keyed into the technological world and the wizardry of the Internet. Young people are becoming increasingly divorced from the natural world. We need to start 1-year-olds in the sandbox all the way up to teenagers having their own perennial gardens."

He cites a client in California who has given each of her children a raised bed to grow whatever they choose. "One of the girls is growing flowers for bouquets, another girl is growing vegetables and the son is growing herbs. She is growing gardeners."

Gardening need not require much space, either. "Even if you live in a condominium and all you have is a balcony to garden on, to have an entire garden in pots can be so rewarding. You can get pots and you can have two or three different plantings in those pots. It takes so little space to engage ourselves, our children and our guests in just a few pots."

Mr. Hayward also stresses the need for easy maintenance and sustainability in the garden. "You're not going to win any friends if you stop mowing the front lawn and try to turn it into a meadow."

For this reason, he advises creating manageable gardens in the front. The back of the home is less visible and therefore somewhere to experiment and be creative. He notes that most people want perennial gardens, which often require the most maintenance.

"What is so discouraging for many homeowners is to create a garden that they can't properly maintain."

A trend he notes for easing maintenance is inter-planting a variety of plants that are not maintained to perfection. This refreshing approach lends a kind of looseness and ease in the garden. He recently added a section to his garden that is based on this principle.

"It is now a section where there are annuals, perennials, shrubs and small trees. It's really quite magical in that it has layer upon layer upon layer of flowers blooming all at once. It feels a little tumbled, a little wild, a little let go."

Water is also a major consideration. "With this drought we are all in now this could signal the future. We have to reduce our reliance on irrigation systems and to plant with our soils and our available rainwater in mind. That's not to say to start designing gardens that are totally drought-tolerant but to be aware of that as a principle."

He advises planting "so we don't need a lot of water, so we don't need chemicals, and we don't need an inordinate amount of time to keep a garden properly maintained."

Mr. Hayward has advice for homeowners who live in a new house devoid of established landscaping:

"First of all, be brave. There is a certain social pressure, unspoken pressure, not to express yourself in landscaping, but to follow whatever the builder recommends or to do what everybody else is doing. See yourself as a pioneer and plant some trees and plant some shrubs that are going to give greater privacy, maybe even give fruit, certainly flowers and fragrance, and winter interest. I think the homeowner will be surprised at what an effect it's going to have on a community, on a subdivision, particularly."

This positive effect is most felt by the gardener.

"When you are engaged in the growth of plants, you certainly learn patience, but you also are engaged with the natural world. Gardening being a form of self-expression gives you an opportunity to explore who you are, what your style is. It's a way to express yourself while simultaneously engaging the natural world, both of which are deeply satisfying."


Martha Swiss is a Penn State master gardener.


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