I know there are romantic and naturalistic gardens, in which the idea is to make all the lines wobble about, and the amount of time people spend on squiggles and turning cornershas always impressed me.
Especially I admire, as I would a two-headed antelope, gardens in which the aim is to make it look larger than it is by having a wide grass path seem to turn a corner. If you follow it, you see it abruptly stops at a fence four feet after the turn.
But we are all in favor, surely, of encouraging freedom of expression in a garden, and many people are squiggly by nature so there is nothing wrong in a garden's reflection of it.
The only gardens I understand, however, are rectangular. One of the great gardens of the world shows, if you diagram its plan, a rectangle with an octagon at one end and a straight line running from it to the end of the rectangle.
The typical magnificent garden of Persia or India or Spain is a rectangle divided by four lines that meet in right angles in the middle. So I have never seen the need for rummaging about for "designs," least of all in the typical cat-run of a large city.
There is no problem at all if you are a Mughal emperor or if you are designing a garden for a new fortress at Granada, and I see no problem whatever, either, if you are dealing with a former pig farm that just happens to have walls of old Tudor brick and possibly a canal edged with cut stone.
As I have pointed out, most gardens that people admire extravagantly depend heavily (and sometimes exclusively) on superb masonry, pools, summer houses and cypresses or yews of incalculable size and age.
Those gardens are splendid, but tricky to reproduce on Upshur Street, so to speak, where you have a flat land maybe 40 feet wide and 80 feet long, and instead of walls of rosy-salmon brick coped with lichened limestone, you behold a four-foot chain-link fence that affords excellent views of the wooden garages of the neighbors. How do you begin with this?
First you conceal the fence, preferably by one of solid wood as high as the building code allows, and then screening it here and there with red cedars, photinias, roses and yews.
You then deal with the garage. Chances are it holds a car, a lawn mower and two broken chairs that some day you will do something about. Since the garage sits there and can no more be ignored than a mouse in a salad, the best thing is to glorify it. My own preference is for painting it black and building an arbor over the central window. Which can be cut into a door, if it suits.
The arbor should be painted black, too, and a small horse trough or other vessel for water can be set under the arbor, or a bench, or some other object worthy of emphasis.
The posts of the arbor are best planted with pillar roses and clematis, or clematis alone, or Carolina jasmine or a grapevine. The grape is handsomest, and you may find room beside the arbor for a fig tree.
Now go back to the other end of the garden. Chances are this part will be overlooked by bedroom windows of neighbors on both sides. Erect a summer house of simple posts and plant a grape and maybe a honeysuckle. On the hottest days we have in July, this will be pleasant and cool. But the main thing about it is that you see your garden from a green bower, and can forget the looks of the back of your neighbors' houses.
Between the garage arbor at one end and your new summer house of posts and vines at the other, you may fill in as you please. There are worse things than a straight walk, five to 10 feet wide, depending on your feeling, but certainly no narrower than four feet. If it has to be narrower, for some reason, then let it be a dirt path, and run it up one side, not where you have to look at it as the central feature of the garden.
For this central main part of the garden build a pool for fishes and waterlilies. Construct it close enough to your summer house that you see it intimately, not on the horizon where you have to make a pilgrimage to see it. The pool should be the central ornament of any garden.
Divide up the land not occupied by the pool(s) and arbor(s) and plant as many of the following as you have space or taste for: daffodils, irises, peonies, lilies and day lilies. There may yet be space, at the side of the garage, say, for sweet peas, dahlias, chrysanthemums, tomatoes, beans and similar small fry.
Your flowers will keep the garden bright from mid-March to mid-July. After this you rely on the tropical water lilies and occasional roses.
Elsewhere, possibly at the sides or front of the house, you may stuff in azaleas, camellias, snowdrops, crocuses and other things that bloom early, counting on the bloom to finish about May 10 and relying on green (hollies, etc.) thereafter. Do not overlook ferns, if you like them, and shady folk in general.
As time passes, you may add a large box bush beside a small circular pool in the main garden, or you may give up the peonies or whatnot and concentrate more on the roses, say. But if you go to pieces for roses, remember they are almost singularly ugly plants apart from their flowers, and it may be well to have them back of things that look better. In this central area, for example, the roses can be planted back of a raised pool, and if they still look too naked and disreputable, you can plant an occasional box bush or andromeda or other low evergreen closer to your summer house, so you see the roses rising above good-looking things and not just on their own.
There will be space for plenty of pansies or violas that can be pulled out in July, and maybe a few spuria irises or Siberian irises. If you find you are tending towards too much dark yew and box and juniper, you can lighten things with rue or Russian sage (Perovskia, a tough beautiful creature that stays put for years) or lavender cotton or wormwoods. I would not mind a few nasturtiums, maybe to follow the pansies. You will have no trouble thinking of dozens of things to fill in here and there, and in theory at least you will have plenty of time and labor to keep everything shipshape. Ha.
Straight lines, lavish growth, plenty of flowers of the most beautiful kinds (the ones I have mentioned) and you will be happy. You will compliment yourself on the summer house and the arbor and the pool, always in your sight, with the flowers coming and going.
Forget about endless tools and gadgets and miraculous sprays and fertilizers that are supposed to work wonders. A trowel, a fork, a spade are essential, and so are rotted leaves, or else bales of peat moss and rotted manure. The trouble comes, of course, not with the design or the concept or the plants, all flawless, but with the labor.
Paved walks, firmly edged, give an illusion of high culture, and so does neat trimming of lawns (if you have any) where they meet a flower bed. But in the end it helps to have free labor. If kids are started right, and frequently threatened while young, you may get something out of them until they are 16, but keep them away from clematis, which have stems like thread, and from irises, which have stalks brittle as glass.