Working with what you’ve got

PARIS, Pa. – It’s all about working with what you’ve got.

Master Gardener Martha Swiss recently led a garden design workshop at Paris Presbyterian Church’s The Gathering Place Coffee Shop. She also does landscape and garden design through her company, Martha Swiss Garden Design.

Swiss discussed accentuating the positives and minimizing the negatives while taking account what the area would be used for – entertaining, cooking out or play – and who would be using the area – guests, children or pets.

“(The use) varies from person to person,” she said. “You’re designing for a specific purpose. The first thing you have to think about is how you use your space: relaxation, play, the needs of your family.”

The first step in designing a garden is assessing the area – everything from available sun and shade; drainage; the location of utilities, out buildings and items such as heat pumps, trash cans and air conditioners; current plant beds and trees; sidewalks, fences and patios; and property boundaries.

“You need to consider the amount of space as well,” she said. “You’re extending the space inside your home to the outdoors.”

The principals of good architectural design can be applied to garden design, especially the use of shape, contrast, texture, color and pattern.

“Color is really fun in gardens,” she said. “There are a lot of things you can do with color in a garden.”

Just as an interior designer has to think about floor and wall space, so does a garden designer, Swiss said.

“Mulch, stones, grass – consider that your floor,” she said. “Trees, shrubs, fences can define the space, and that’s your walls.”

Even a “ceiling” can be created with arbors, trellises, trees and gazebos. To “decorate” an outdoor room, a garden designer incorporates plants and garden elements from garden ornaments to water installations, Swiss said. In choosing plants, garden designers must keep in mind the plants’ sun/shade needs, the type of soil, the level of soil moisture and the change of seasons.

“Get a copy of your survey and just draw in to see how you want it to look and how you want to use your property,” she said. “We have four seasons in the area, and winter can be very long. How will it look in each season? Fall is my favorite season, and, in my garden, everything is built around that. If you came to my garden in spring, you wouldn’t see much, because I’ve designed my garden to be at its peak at fall. Think about how it’s going to look from inside the house, as well.”

Swiss showed a slide show of different gardens, all with different styles, purposes, amenities and distraction. She encouraged those in attendance to keep an eye out for garden ideas they liked and visit public gardens.

“Think about how you want to use the space and what style you want,” she said. “Take the time to look at gardens and see what you like. The entry way should be welcoming, and, most important, you should create a sense of space and establish a flow in that space.”

The goal is to draw the eye to a focal point – an attractive plant bed, sculpture, water element or grouping of containers or benches – away from any negatives.

“You need to establish a flow, pathways and focal points,” she said. “Consider maintenance, as well. Look at the size and play around with scale.”

Swiss lives in Robinson Township. She obtained master gardener certification through Pennsylvania State University. Master gardener training takes two semesters. Penn State Extension agents and university professors give seminars and lead practical field trips. As part of the program, master gardeners are required to provide 50 volunteer hours in the first year and 20 volunteer hours and 10 hours of continuing education classes each year thereafter to keep their certification.

Swiss is a volunteer at the Pittsburgh Botanical Garden at Settler’s Cabin Park, which will open to the public in August. The garden will be the first to be built over a reclaimed brownfield and will include teaching and display gardens, wooded areas, concert space, hiking and walking trails, a visitors’ center and research facilities. Volunteers will give gardening programs.

Swiss has written for Pennsylvania Gardener Magazine, Fine Gardening and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She writes for the botanical garden’s newsletter, Bloom. She graduated from Chatham College’s landscape design program.

(Wallace-Minger can be contacted at