Rhythm and Blues 

Reinventing gardening through musical metaphors

The basic elements of landscape design are similar to other types of design or composition. We can compose a landscape design by imagining the notes on sheet music. There are high notes, low notes, long tones, short staccato riffs, a verse which creates a theme and a chorus which is repeated to tie it all together. The length and complexity of a Beethoven symphony may be more symbolic of a park or aboretum, but the backyard doesn't have to look or sound like a country western lament or punk piece with three simple chords. Remember grade school when we tapped out the rhythm of a simple number we had to learn for the spring program? Even that basic skill is useful as we contemplate an undeveloped garden and wonder how to bring liveliness and color to the arrangement.

A short and joyful group of petunias or marigolds, predictable as they are, may be a simple way to brighten a dark spot or cool a hot one. A long row of arborvitaes may seem like a dull excuse for a garden, but not if it's seen as a baseline backdrop for the intricate hot-licks picking that goes on up front. One wide or lateral plant after another may hum monotonously, but a sharp or vertical interlude might offer cheap thrills.

At the nursery, most of the five gallon plants are about the same size. The trick is to read the tag, speak to a pro, or know the plant's potential. Should this plant have the good fortune to live long enough to become all it can be, it could sing the high note in a soaring chorus. Or its bark or structure may become the anchoring element in an otherwise insubstantial winter score. It could be an anonymous bystander through the spring and summer, but assume the dominant tone when its leaves catch fire in the fall.

As the gardener perceives the tune of the landscape, some bars seem to acquire more weight or importance. If this is a pleasing theme, then it bears repeating. An ornamental bed of dark rich tones displays its value via the contrast of a bright spot. That may be white or chartreuse, perhaps a blossom or a blade of variegated foliage. And just as the ear quickly learns to discern the place where an exuberant riff begins the chorus, the eye searches for the color that signals an especially pleasing arrangement. If a lemon yellow coreopsis breaks out of the sanguine hews of "Diablo" ninebark, and this contrast is a delight to the senses, the eye will seek that yellow shade for another happy jolt. Gardens engender all sorts of addictions and joneses!

If your design seems flat or unimaginative, try to think of its rhythm. A wide swath may end a phrase. A columnar tree or shrub might signal the point where a crescendo moves to a light, ethereal solo. What is a "light, ethereal solo?" In spring, that might be white tulips. Close by, so that summer can dish a similar spot, Shasta daisies. Like that look enough to want it again in fall? White asters or mums can finish the growing season.

Rhythm in the landscape is a personal and subjective matter. There are minimalist compositions that have all the beauty and resilience of more intricate Mozarts or Nickel Creek jams. The blues are a different story. Everyone knows the blues when they hear 'em, and everyone knows the blues when they see 'em.

Just as we look at purple coneflower and say, "Any fool can see that's pink!" we know that growers are testing our gullibility with the numerous plants they label "blue." If we are still as clever as our moms thought we were in kindergarten, we suspect that most of the "blue" blossoms we see are purple. Sunny Border Blue veronica and Butterfly Blue scabiosa and even Johnson's Blue geraniums are to-die-for lovely, but blue they are not. There are, however, some true blues for your rhythm section.

Two plants commonly known as forget-me-nots are heartache blue: brunnera and myosotis, both of which bloom early and prefer afternoon shade. Some of the delphiniums are an astonishing blue color, though you must select them when they're in bloom at the nursery to be certain, especially with the non-color-specific types under the label Magic Fountain Mix. Anchusa or borage, an edible herb, are adorned later in the season with truly blue flowers. The hydrangeas we admire on the coast are the same hydrangeas we find here, but soil pH is much lower and creates the blue petals for which we lust. Soil amendments which promise this effect are available, but have uneven effects. Like rhythm. And the rhythm method.

Linda Jarsky is an advanced master gardener, certified arborist and landscape designer, and the marketing director for DG Nursery and Turf.

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