A Garden’s Bones

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
A Garden’s Bones

One of the things that separate a good garden from a great one, is a garden’s structure.

Many people are a little confused by this concept and have difficulty not only determining whether or not their garden has structure but how to create it, as well.

During the spring and summer, during a garden’s full glory, it may be a little more difficult to determine its framework. This time of year, the focus is on the ‘showgirls’ of the garden-colorful flowers that are all vying for your attention. In the winter months, when the garden is quiet, finding its structure is much easier to do. During this time, look at your garden and ask yourself: Is everything brown (or white, for that matter)? Is everything flat? Do you want to pull the blinds until spring? If your answer is ‘yes’, then your garden is lacking a strong framework.


To create a garden’s framework, first consider thoughtfully placed hardscaping. Hardscaping is a catchall term consisting of permanent structures such as paths, boulders, benches, artwork, arbors, etc. These structures are also referred to as a garden’s ‘bones’, and help to provide a framework for the garden’s many planting beds. If a garden consists of only plants it can quickly become jumbled and overwhelming to the eye. But a garden consisting of planting beds mixed with the above mentioned ‘bones’ becomes an intriguing and soothing place to visit. Intermingled with lush and layered planting beds are winding pathways, creative artwork, and the occasional bench with rose-covered arbor. Now that’s a garden!


However, it’s not just hardscaping that falls into the ‘bones’ category – plants can, as well. Evergreen trees and shrubs add distinctive year-round form and interest to the garden. Consider the ‘Sky Pencil’ holly, with its exclamation point shape adding a jolt of excitement to a garden bed, or the softly mounding shape of the ‘Hudsonia’ Balsam Fir.

These evergreens noticeably stand out in the winter, when their deciduous neighbors are ‘asleep’. When creatively placed within a garden bed, these plants carry the planting scheme throughout the year preventing the dreaded ‘blank slate’ once winter comes.


Another example is this garden bed shown in January, July and November. The main bones of this bed are the Flax (phormium ‘Bronze Baby’), Euonymus ‘Emerald Gaity’, and Manzanita (arctostaphylos ‘Howard McMinn’). In this summer photo, the bones tend to recede into the background, allowing the yellow Kangaroo Paws (anigozanthos ‘Harmony’) and the purple flowers of the Hebe ‘Irene’ to take center stage.


In the fall, amidst the colorful fall foliage of the Spirea ‘Bridal Wreath’ and Creeping Plumbago, these same bones start to make more of an appearance.


In the winter, though, these bones take center stage, providing structure and year-round interest while their neighbors ‘disappear’ for a while.

The real art to creating a successful garden is the ability to have something beautiful to look at every day of the year. The trick is to include bones, in the form of hardscaping as well as plants. Do this, and you will have a true year-round garden!