Garden Column- “Spiky and Frilly”

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, June 20, 2018

By Felder Rushing

It’s getting too humid to garden, but not to walk around and see what you’ve got — or not. One thing to look for is a mixed variety of garden shapes, which makes same old, same old look chic — even professional.

There’s a lot to learn about design from visiting great gardens and flower shows, including being inspired to gravitate away from uniformity and towards mixing stuff up, like a plate of food at a buffet. I mean, who lines up peas on a plate?

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Doesn’t matter if you are filling a flower vase, putting in trees or shrubs, or working up a nice flower bed or container, or even how you set out vegetables, herbs, and cut flowers, combining shapes makes a difference in visual appeal

I know some folks aren’t interested in any of this, going instead for simplicity, neatness, order, or purely functional with lower maintenance. But mixing stuff up doesn’t have to be higgledy-piggledy; it can create a simple but more interesting all-year tapestry.

Plants and garden accessories are three-dimensional; they can be tall or short, wide or narrow; they can be round, or pointed, or flat, or feathery. What really sets a good garden apart from others is interesting combinations of these different forms and sizes.

Here is a simple hack I learned decades ago under the tutelage of famed MSU floral design professor Ralph Null, and used worldwide by top designers. He taught terms like line, mass, and filler, which have inner-sanctum definitions but can be interpreted more simply as spiky, roundish, and frilly. Combined, they attract and lead the eye, then soften the view.

To get the idea, open one hand and curl your fingers upward a little like you’re holding a ball; put the other fist in it, and then stick your thumb up in the air. You’ll get the idea.

Then think about heavy-looking roses or cluster of zinnias in a vase, toned down with fern fronds and some taller twigs or grasses to draw the eye down to the main flowers. Or a cluster of feathery nandina under a lacy crape myrtle with its architectural limbs, plus a year-round skirt of spiky Iris foliage and a bench or urn. Corn, peppers, and squash planted side by side with a garden gnome. Or a pot with different flower shapes.

There are countless combinations. Heck — and this is a biggie — you can use something other than a plant; garden accessories, furniture, sculpture, and other hard features have shapes as well. Add a tall wooden teepee trellis or splayed bundle of sticks, or a rock, birdbath, big urn, gazing globe, heavy bench or Saint Fiacre statue, concrete chicken, whatever. Main thing is, combine these shapes with plants or accessories.

And this is without even getting into various foliage colors and hues, and the seasons, colors, and fragrances of flowers. Or the textures of leaves be they smooth or furry, or shiny and dark green and wide like Magnolia leaves next to bright green and wavy arborvitae foliage.

Seems rather formulaic, but it works so well I see it everywhere I go — all over the country and at every flower show I attend. It’s all a big horticultural buffet; just like mixing up a plateful of food, you can mix different kinds of plants and accessories in the garden.

Include something spiky, something roundish, and something frilly, and repeat each shape as needed. Oh, and if it’s in a container, have something floppy or cascading to soften the edges.

Your plate, your garden. Mix stuff up, make both look so you’ll want to take a picture.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to