An Easy Landscape Design

Phil Peters
Adam's County Master Gardener Program

How many of you have gardens that are long, flat rectangular beds? This seems to be the typical given garden shape. It is natural, it fits most yards, is easy to plant and maintain. And it is probably the first garden shape we encounter and work with. Indeed, we can get a lot of flowers or vegetables into it in either clumps or neat long rows. But it can appear commonplace. Here is a way to give that rectangle, since it fits so nicely into virtually any yard, big or small, a bit of pizzazz to make it stand out from the crowd.

Last fall I was standing on my deck looking down on my 6 ft. by 25 ft. long rectangular flower bed in the back yard. It was the first bed my wife and I put in when we moved to this property several years ago. It seemed like a natural idea at the time. It was between the house and at the edge of a small stream that runs through the property and is parallel to them both. Somehow, with its fading end-of-the-season plants, it appeared to be more of a barrier than a focal point. Even cleaned up and mulched for the winter it wasn’t very attractive. My eye just fell on this dark rectangle in the middle of the yard. In fact, the dark blob stood in the way and detracted from the pleasant sight of the stream and wetland beyond.

An idea I had seen in a garden projects book came to mind. The projects book had presented plans for a simple raised herb or strawberry garden that could be constructed with some cedar boards and screws and could be built for very little cost. So I found the plans and decided to build the pieces.

The plans used the same idea of raised strawberry gardens tiers. However it used three different sized squares made of 1" by 6" cedar boards. The design was simple and the price was right – cheap. And the project would give me a chance to play with more tools, saws, and sanders, and drills: I got a warm, tingly feeling all over. I would get a chance to exercise my rudimentary carpentry skills. So off to the lumberyard I went.

It wasn’t long before I had put together the squares according to the drawings and measurements in the project book. The idea was to assemble the first large square, 48" on a side to act as the base of the pyramid. A second square, 32" on a side, would then be set on top of the soil in the first, at a 90º angle to the first. The top square was 21" on a side and was turned another 90º to the one beneath it. The plans worked perfectly!

But, needless to say, once a person’s appetite for playing with wood and tools is whetted, it is not easy to satisfy. I built two more sets of levels one and two. Sawdust and wood shavings were flying. I was having fun and I still had all my fingers. I could envision my garden with a whole new vertical dimension.

Clearing out the spent plants was easy. I temporarily potted up some perennials and set them aside. The old rectangle was now clear. I worked the soil and add some nice fresh compost, working that in. Then I located the center of the garden. Here I would set up the three-tiered pyramid. Looking down from the deck, it would look like three diamond shapes set one upon the other. I oriented the first large square turned 90º to the axis of the garden. Looking at it, it looked like a diamond. The second tier was turned another 90º, and the third square was turned another 90º. Looking from above you see a diamond sitting on a square, sitting on a diamond.

On either side, set at an equal distance from the center, I located the two-tiered sets. These consisted of only the largest and the middle sized squares. Two tiers high, they would flank the central pyramid and satisfy my sense of symmetry. I set the boxes in position, filled them with soil, building them up as I did so. I positioned the large base box so its side ran parallel with the axis of the garden and stream. The second tier box was placed at a 90º so as to give a diamond on a square design. It wasn’t long before I had my new garden. I went up to my deck to view the result.

What a difference! New cedar created variously turned diamond patterns against the rich dark soil within and around them. I realized I had accomplished many things at one time. Not only did I do away with the flat garden that had been there by giving it a vertical dimension, but also I had created an interesting series of patterns. The cedar gave a woody texture that could be handle either formally or informally. 

Over time it will age to a silver-gray color that will give a patina of long life, a kind of authenticity, if you will. What’s more, I had created a number of diamonds and triangular shapes. They would give the empty garden some interest over the winter. They would also make it easier to plan what would go in the garden when it came time to plant in the spring. Strategically located stepping-stones, fieldstones and brick pavers, added color and an earthy feel to the whole.

You can find the plans I used in Richard Freundenberger’s Woodworking Projects for the Garden, Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 1995, New York, NY. It is an easy, inexpensive way to brighten up your garden.

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