It's All About

September 02, 2011

by Kathy Klein, Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Gardeners' Dirt
The VEG water garden illustrates a distinctive feature with various design principles.  It has a rounded shape with a miniature waterfall made of small rocks that are flanked with those of larger mass.  Texture and color are in the plants, and there is overall empty air space.  Don't overlook the black swan garden accessory.
The entrance of Victoria Educational Gardens, inside the main gate, contains various design elements that could be in a real English cottage garden. Notice the lines of the walkways, the shapes and mass of the features, numerous flowers and trees with various textures, and colors interspersed throughout.
Zen gardens incorporate empty space to assist with focusing on the basics of design.  The Zen garden at VEG includes line elements with its border and raked gravel.  Form, mass and structure are evident with the rocks and small lantern, and color is faint with shadowing.  In its simplicity, it is a very gasic garden design.
Lines, shapes, mass, textures, colors and empty space should all be considered
For the purpose of this article, design is differentiated from style. Garden styles, to name a few, include English cottage garden, herb garden, vegetable garden, water garden, Zen garden, xeriscape garden and cactus garden. Each style brings to mind a specific mix of vegetation and accessory features, but each of these styles has an underlying structure that is the garden's design.


The bones of garden design incorporate some elemental principles of design including line, shape, mass, texture, color and empty space.

Hidden within the style is elemental design, the bones of the garden. For example, if you want a square foot garden, do you want 3 square feet by 3 square feet, or 2 square feet by 4 or would you prefer 5 square feet by 5 squares? If you are designing a water garden, will you have one level or more so that you can incorporate a water fall?


A garden, such as a square-foot garden, is built on shapes, and in this case, squares, that are combined in usually a rectilinear fashion to produce the designed structure. Next, the mass, texture and color, and in this case the functionality come into the picture. Tall plants are placed to the rear or center to allow proper light for closely planted neighbors. Texture and color are incorporated by the distinct differentiation produced by the variety of plants, such as ferny-topped carrots, red tomatoes and peppers, a few marigolds adding color and other green leafy vegetation.


An herb garden is sometimes a closely planted mixture of many interesting herbs, and other times it is meticulously designed as a medieval, intricate, interlaced garden near the kitchen of a castle, manor or estate. In the latter case, lines may intertwine to form the appearance of shapes, such as knots and chains of plants. Colors may vary from the palest sage green, to the darkest purple basil, and mass will also be identifiable interspersed with empty space. Once again, the texture is produced by the large variety of contrast in leaf shapes and sizes. Do the above descriptions form a picture in your mind?


Now, bring the idea of garden design closer in view. In fact, take the idea to the Master Gardener Victoria Educational Gardens, across from the control tower at Victoria Regional Airport. With further reading, refer to the included photos.


The lovely area inside the main gate of VEG on Bachelor Drive has some of the characteristics of a real English cottage garden. The Master Gardeners, who care for and maintain this section of VEG, somehow manage to always provide a breath of beauty for us whenever we enter the garden. Think about the design bones or concepts that underlie the beauty.

Line is evident in the walkways and the edges of the beds. Shape and mass are represented by the water lily feature, the beds, accessories, structures, fences, buildings, plants and trees that fill the area. Color abounds. Textures are varied and the empty space is indicative of butterflies flittering through the area.


Travel to another part of VEG on the opposite side of the Officer's Club building. Tucked away with the ground covers, behind the water garden, you will find the Zen garden. In its simplicity, it is a good place to examine structural bones and think about garden design.


Empty space is a very important design element here. Lines are established by the edges, the visual sight path within the Zen garden and the lines raked into the gravel that can vary with the elements, the strokes and how recent the raking. The raked lines can represent a stream of water to the degree that it seems to flow, and this is the most fluid part of the existing design.

Form is established by a rock that split in transport, Japanese lanterns, and these same elements contribute mass and texture to the design. The lantern, rocks, raked lines in the gravel and edges are varied textures in the design as it presently stands.

The other design element is color. There is no color, right? But look closely, is the lantern lighter than the stone? What about the shadows that are cast?


In talking with one fellow Master Gardener, the idea arose that a much larger rock would enhance the Zen garden. While working with another master gardener, we discussed that the Zen garden needs a Japanese maple. What do you think? How would you arrange or change the space in relation to the other elements? While you are thinking this way, you are working in garden design.

No wonder novelty shops sometimes sell desktop Zen gardens complete with sand and pebbles and a tiny rake to allow people to practice various arrangements at finger tip level.

Next time, you view a garden, look beneath the style and see the bones or design concepts that are in the garden.
Line - Visual paths for the eye to follow, and edges of surroundings
Shape - Form of garden plants and objects
Mass - Bulk, size, impact of garden elements; the space used
Texture - Feel, touch, surface, consistency, quality, grain of elements
Color- Dye, shade, blush, tint, hue
Empty Space - Area around, between and above elements in the garden



Design starts in the brain and can be sketched on paper, long before the first shovel of dirt is moved.
Designs can have evolution and be done in stages.
Line is often a matter of taste. Some like graceful curves and others prefer precision straight lines.
Often a garden feature is too small. The mass of objects in the garden design should be scaled to appropriate size for the garden.
A variety of textures add interest to any design.


It's all about trees . . . and more
Sept. 24
8 a.m.-4 p.m.
VEG Pavilion, 283 Bachelor Drive, Victoria Regional Airport
Eleven speakers including Heidi Sheesley, owner of Treesearch Farms, Houston; Dr. Jerry M. Parsons, professor and extension horticulturist, retired
Plant sale for registered attendees
Five TDA Pesticide CEUs - 4 IPM, 1 general
Registration due Sept. 14
$50 per person includes lunch, all programs, speakers and plant sale
For more information, visit or call 361-575-4581
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at