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I'm feeling the panic of getting ready for the June Garden Tour hosted by the Idaho Botanical Garden. My garden is not close to ready for visitors.

All day Friday I agonized over which plants to purchase for a section of my front garden. It’s a long, narrow plot running all the way to the street. (This pic also shows the pallet of siding ready to be placed on my house.)

This part of my garden poses a challenge because it’s long (about 60+ feet) and somewhat narrow. Up to this point, all I’ve done is plop plants here and there in a random manner. I’d see a plant I liked and I’d drop it in the ground. But this year, what I was seeing wasn’t making me happy.

My first instinct was: “I need more plants!”

For several hours that evening, I looked through garden catalogs, searching for just the right plant to fill in this particular section. Nothing rose to the top as a good choice. I felt anxious and defeated. Finally, on Saturday morning, I realized what the problem was.

I was trying to solve the WRONG PROBLEM.

It wasn’t about finding just the right plant for my sun and watering conditions. It wasn’t about removing plants that no longer looked good. It wasn’t about purchasing a giant metal sunflower to add some hard texture.

Had I not stopped to think about my particular problem, I could have easily spent a few hundred dollars buying plants, yet the real problem would still have been there. And I’d still be anxious and unhappy.

Designing for the Long Narrow Garden

The problem had everything to do with the shape of this garden section and its design (or, rather, its lack of design). A long, narrow section needs to be divided into pleasing shapes with a gentle flow and resting/focal points so that one’s eye doesn’t travel from one end all the way to the furthest end without interruption. It’s not a runway; it’s a garden.

Identify the Knowns

The first thing I decided to do was to hone in on the knowns—the things that I wouldn’t or can’t change. In my case, I can’t move the peach or apricot tree. Also, the garden is bordered by a gravel path that I want to include. I’ve got some flowering plants that I don’t want to transplant elsewhere. Others, like the row of sulfur buckwheat along the driveway, are destined for the trash.

I enlisted my sister to help me design this space. She’s one of my go-to girls for garden design. Here’s how our conversation went:

Me: I need your help to design this long garden space.

Sis: Well, I have some ideas.

Me: Okay, but first let me tell you what I’m thinking.

Sis: Yes, do that.

Me: Well, I uh, um, I want to, uh, um, I’m thinking that, uh. Oh, heck! I don’t know what the hell I’m doing!

So, my sister and I talked for a long time about what was going on in the garden as is—the good, the bad and the ugly. She made some excellent suggestions and afterwards I no longer felt like throwing up or selling the house and moving into an apartment.

On Sunday morning, I did some more research, which meant looking at lots of photos. And finally, after hours online, I decided I needed a path, one that winds through this long garden section. I love most of these ideas from Sunset Magazine.

I drew up a quick sketch and then felt ready to proceed. So, I’ll be ordering a fair amount of gravel soon. I’ll have to dig up some of my ground cover, but I can move that to some bare spots around my yard. My tentative plan is this:

  • Dig out the winding path and then fill it in with sand first and then small gravel.
  • Remove the plants I don’t want
  • Find additional plants for fill-in
  • Add any other structural elements, such as an arbor, bench (I’d like a sitting area) or large wood or metal features

In upcoming posts, I’ll talk more about which plants I’m going to add and where I’ll put them. Till then, remember this: The next time you’re faced with a gardening dilemma, take a step back and be sure you’ve identified the real problem. It might not have anything to do with the type of plants you want. Look at the shape of the garden and think in terms of creating “rooms” and a flow within it. 

Some websites that discuss designing for the long garden:

  • 8 Steps to The Long Thin Garden of Your Dreams - here
  • How to Draw a Garden Plan - here

 Do you have a long, narrow garden? If so, how have you solved that thorny dilemma?