Breaking The Rules

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Musings

Having worked on the same piece of land, a steeply sloping and oddly shaped one half acre lot for a quarter of a century (which I am in the process of selling), I have a made a multitude of mistakes and experienced enough ‘ah ha’ moments that the joy of digging, observing and connecting to nature has never ceased to amaze me.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned in observing the transformation of my landscape over this extended period of time.

1. GET IN TOUCH WITH YOUR IMAGINATION. To imagine is to see possibilities, to see realities that don’t yet exist. In our technologically oriented society, little emphasis is placed on giving ourselves the time to let our minds wander. And yes, this is true for gardeners as much as it is for other folks who work at ‘indoor’ jobs. We all have an imagination. It is a significant part of our souls. For so many of us, it is submerged deep down inside. But it’s there for the taking, if you desire. How do you access it? I find that taking solitary nature walks with no agenda, where I allow my mind to relax and explore, to romp about in its own playground away from the constraints of daily life, begins to loosen the self imposed chains. Often after taking a walk, I will come indoors and quickly write down any thoughts that have come to mind.

I also use any childhood memories of sights, smells and sounds of nature to help conjure up yearnings below the surface. This spring, observing germinated seeds jump start into seedlings has given me a bit more ‘pep to my step’ and has actually stoked some creative juices within me. There is no one way to access your imagination. For you, it might be playing a musical instrument, listening to music, going for an invigorating run outside or working on a research project. But once you discover the plethora of fertile ideas within your own psyche, you’ll be surprised at the original thoughts that erupt from your unconscious into your conscious mind.

2.VIEW YOUR FRONT YARD AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO CREATE A GARDEN ROOM. Most Americans still think that front yards should look a certain way: lined up with a slew of evergreens, along with some deciduous shrubs, trees and perhaps a smattering of ornamental grassses. Pretty staid, isn’t it? I will never forget the first time that I went to Stratford-Upon-Avon in England and visited Anne Hathway’s home. It was a lovely tudor with a winding front walkway. But what grabbed my heartstrings most was the intensely planted front yard cottage garden. The time I spent in this garden left a significant imprint on my psyche. For the first time, I realized that a front yard had the ability to be created into a glorious garden room of its own.  Over several years and even more reincarnations, I finally created a front yard garden of my dreams: a romantic, heirloom rose/ perennial garden (as discussed in an earlier post). It has a gently winding pathway that leads to other garden on either side of the house, is dotted with native junipers, boxwoods and rows of yews plus rose arches to offer structure: the remainder of the garden is a mix of perennials, tubers, bulbs and annuals. People are absolutely blown away when they begin to walk through this meandering gatrden and realize that they are indeed in a garden room.

3. EXPERIMENT WITH PLACEMENT OF PLANTS. The rule of thumb that tall plants should be placed in the back of a mixed border with the shorter ones in the front and the mid-sized ones sandwiched in between may make sense most of the time but should not be treated as an iron clad rule. Some of my greatest plant placements have taken place when I let my inspiration take precedent over the ‘rules’. If a tall plant is light and airy, it can make a great exclamation point placed towards the front or middle of the border. I often place a large plant such as Crambe cordifolia towards the front of the border so that the the aroma of its delicate white flowers literally touches a visitor as she passes by. Other ‘overscaled’ plants that I intermittently plop down in the front of my borders are: agaves, yuccas, euphorbias, agastaches, phormiums, cannas, alocasias and dahlias. Their exotic leaves and/or flowers lend themselves to wanting to be stand outs in garden borders. I do the same with certain grasses like: Molinia ‘Windspiel’ or Panicum virgatum. The rhythm of the garden design can be broken up by placing these plants towards the front of the border: it jolts the eye and keeps things fresh and ‘in your face’. A little repositioning of plants goes a long way.

4. THINK OF THE LIMITATIONS OF YOUR GARDEN AS AN ASSET RATHER THAN A LIABILITY. This is a tough lesson to learn but one that is critical for  joyful gardening and for living a creative and fulfilling life. So many of us have been raised with a passive attitude of ‘wishfulness’: “If only I had” or “When I become”.  Embrace what property or place you live in now! Don’t wait until you purchase a perfect piece of land before you let your soul soar with imagination. It doesn’t matter where you live, whether it be a small row house, condominium, apartment window sill, deck, steeply sloping lot or acres of land. If you have desire and a great passion to garden, you will find a way to bring a garden into your life. I am convinced that it is in part because I have gardened all of these years on what many would consider to be a difficult piece of land in a typical suburban development that my garden has developed into what it has become: a tightly planted, feisty, exuberant garden.  In order to move forward, I eventually faced up to the limitations of what my property and surroundings were and then began to work with and through those limitations (kind of like working through a close relationship with another human being).

Our gardens do mirror our souls and the way we live. So, take ownership of and embrace your property:  then let the creative process begin. If you persist at trying to find different solutions on how best to design and plant it, remain flexible and not rush to judgment in your decision making process, are willing to be an independent thinker and resist the need to design within ‘the box’, you will have a great opportunity to turn your piece of land into a little jewel. Often in life what we consider to be our greatest liabilities end up being our greatest strengths.

Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

Learn more about Fran and get free resources that will help you improve your life at

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Fran Sorin
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Lisa at Greenbow April 8, 2008, 7:46 am

I sure do need some ideas for the front of our house. Curb appeal doesn’t exist here. I have an aversion to working in the front of the house. It is full sun which should be an asset but I am allergic to the sun so I don’t go out there often. I will look forward to seeing and reading about some ideas that will ignite my imagination in regards to our front garden.

I don’t know where you live but what I’ve always found helpful when trying to stoke some creative fires from within is not only to visit arboretums or public gardens in your area but to take walks or drive in other neighborhoods. I have been amazed just a few towns away from me some of the magnificent ‘countrified’ front yards that are absolutely charming. They definitely inspired and gave me hope when I found the though of transforming my own front garden daunting. fran

Frances April 8, 2008, 8:38 am

Fran, that was a delightful treatise on finding your vision in your own space. Those shots of your garden show what you are talking about so well. I love your use of the word ‘romp’ when speaking of the playground in our minds. What an apt metaphor. Thanks for this inspiration, I am out to romp!

Great! am glad you’re getting out there and romping. i think if we don’t learn to play in our lives as adults, then everything we do, including gardening, takes on an air of seriousness, earnestness and diligence. Potentially, if that is the case, then gardening can become just another endeavor that needs to be done ‘correctly’ and to the best of your abilities…..yuck….just have fun and express yourself. All of us need to stop being such harsh critics of our own results. My mantra is to focus on the process, not the results. Not that I don’t love beauty and a terrific looking garden….but ultimately, the purpose of the garden should be that it gives each individual pleasure….period! fran

Priscilla April 8, 2008, 10:38 am

Wonderful post. I like you are telling people to break the rules and follow what they feel is right. It’s all about trial and error. There is no harm in being daring and I agree. Just wonderful post.

Am glad you enjoyed. Our intuition and feelings offer us more information than we are normally willing to follow. We all just need more courage to listen more deeply inside of ourselves. Thanks for posting! Fran

Nancy Bond April 8, 2008, 11:06 am

Wonderful, wonderful advice. 🙂 You made me smile just reading it.

Back at you!! Reading your post early this AM brought a smile to my face. Happy Spring! Fran

jeff-nhn April 8, 2008, 11:15 am

Great post. I agree with breaking the rules, some of the best landscapes are when people use their imagination and not the same old traditional looks.

Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, it is amazing how we get brainwashed into thinking that there is a right and wrong way of doing things…..even in gardening….rather than just having fun, playing, experimenting and knowing that sometimes whatever you design and plant will be terrific and other times you’ll end up thinking ‘what the heck did i do here’? fran

Sylvia April 8, 2008, 11:21 am

Lovely post and photos. I look forward to reading more about your front garden. Please Fran!

Sylvia (England)

I believe I did a post on the transformation of my front garden some months ago. Will go into archives when I have more time and fish it out and post it under Nan’s Design Workshop for this month of April. Fran

Pam/Digging April 9, 2008, 12:23 am

Good observations and advice based on 25 years in your garden. I find that visiting other gardens, from humble to extravagant, inevitably gives rise to imaginative ideas for my own. Creativity begets creativity.

Great point. When visiting a really finely designed garden, I walk away feeling totally inspired and thinking to myself…..’wow! how did this gardener think of all of these ideas?’ Invariably, whether it be a year or 5 years down the road, without even consciously being aware of it at that moment, I incorporate some of their ideas into my own garden. I love your phrase: ‘creativity begets creativity’. Fran

mss @ Zanthan Gardens April 9, 2008, 8:02 pm

How funny. After having a few visitors to my garden over the weekend and answering their questions, I was about to write a post called, “Break the Rules”, too.

The rules I break. I have a one-season garden. Living in the south, I find it too exhausting to try to have flowers all year (although I do). Also my yard is too shady and the water too dear for a summer garden flowers. So I pull out the stops for one season, spring and pack it in for the summer. For these same reasons, I also rely on self-sown annuals rather than perennials. That, I suppose, is how I’ve turned my limitations (hot, miserable summers) into an asset–or at least stopped fighting them.

Other rules I break. I have meandering paths too narrow for more than one person. I don’t have many places to sit in the garden. (Too many mosquitoes.) The garden is mostly a walking through garden. However, it is also designed to be viewed from within the house. (I guess that’s where I do my sitting.) I mix vegetables in the flower borders–wherever I can find some sun.

The result is a pretty personal garden that I can’t really imagine anyone else having. But it makes me happy and I’m not too worried about trying to impress anyone else.

mss@Zanthan Gardens-
I love that you have been able to discover your own sense of style, uniqueness and ‘breaking of the rules’. Your last line says it all….that you have a pretty personal garden that you can’t really imagine anyone else having. thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us. fran

Gail April 10, 2008, 2:17 pm

I was just standing in the front yard imagining what could bring more zing into the garden! My post yesterday was about decalcifying myself/my garden (term from Jamie Lee Curtis AARP interview) so I’ve been gobbling up this post and all the comments. Did I read correctly, you are selling this wonderful garden? Gail

I read the Jamie Lee Curtis AARP interview as well and found it compelling. I also identified with how she is trying to lead her life and have always been a big fan of hers. I think at this stage of her life she is trying to live authentically (which I always find appealing). Yes, I am in the process of selling my home and garden. It has been difficult to ‘let go’ but that is one of the lessons I am trying to learn as well…..detachment. I will make another very personal garden where ever I land. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t have my moments when I wonder what the heck I have done!! Am glad that you’re enjoying the post! fran

Layanee April 10, 2008, 4:58 pm

Such beautiful photos! I can only imagine what a difficult choice it is to leave this place of beauty you have created! Breaking the rules is something I am learning after years of following. March to your own beat…and embrace it!

For most of us, it does take courage and fortitude to learn to march to our own beat….and it is a continual, never ending process. As mammals, we are so strongly wired to be part of a crowd that to work at becoming more of an individual is no small feat. Good for you for having the desire and fortitude to do it! And yes, it is difficult to think of leaving this home and garden. But ‘letting go’ is one of the lessons I am working on right now in my life! Thanks for your beautiful note. Fran

Benjamin April 10, 2008, 7:13 pm

What a great post, Fran. I get the same feelings when I’m writing. For me, the garden is a retreat FROM creativity–that came out wrong. Maybe its a place to let the ideas in my head while writing to settle, clear up the water, tune up my body in the same pitch as my creative mind and spirit so they’re in sync. I certainly notice as the body goes, so goes the mind, and vice versa.

It took me two times to read your post before I understood exactly what you meant. I absolutely love the fact that your garden acts as a respite from other creative endeavors. It makes perfect sense. If you’re interested in the process of creativity and haven’t read Rollo May’s classic The Courage To Create, I urge you to do so. It will take an hour of your time. There is literally reams of research on what you describe within your self and being in sync….emotionally and physically. It sounds like you’re doing a very decent job at ‘living it’ . Kudos to you! Fran

Catherine, My Garden Travels April 11, 2008, 11:04 am

Words of wisdom. Some have so many excuses why they can’t. They need someone to encourage them and cheer them on. Thanks for being a Cheer Leader.

With pleasure. I always think of the garden as a metaphor for how we live or how can ‘potentially’ live. If we can learn to let go and play in the garden, it can become the portal for facilitating us to do it in other areas of our lives. Thanks for your comment. I’m happy to be a cheer leader. Fran

Heirloom Gardener May 2, 2008, 12:01 am

What an inspiring post, particularly the part about embracing the piece of property you have right now. As much as I dream about the multi-acre, flat piece of property I hope to have some day, I’m learning to love my smaller, sloped garden.

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