This Garden Has Rhythm...

...and harmonizes plants for shade and light.

August 5, 2011

Anne Sheldon's Atlanta garden is a visual symphony: an orchestration of the movements and rhythmic qualities of plants into an arrangement that celebrates her musical and horticultural talent. A cellist who taught music and played professionally for more than 20 years, Sheldon believes that all art forms are interrelated. "Gardening and music are both creative endeavors," she says. "They both require skill and knowledge, and they employ the same elements."

For instance, a piece of music and a garden often flow in similar ways. A song's introduction corresponds to the path leading into a garden. A musical bridge takes a listener to the next section of a piece just as a gate or arbor is the transition between garden spaces. Like a refrain, repetition in the garden unites different elements into a whole, and a melody makes a song memorable just as the style of a garden creates its noteworthiness.


Movement of the Geographical Sort
Twenty-three years ago, when she went looking for a house in Atlanta, Sheldon emphasized that she wanted a home that had good views of the property from all the windows. She found the perfect house with lots of windows, but the landscape was completely barren. The site also had quite a grade change from the front to the back. But full sun bathed the front yard and large oaks shaded the back: the differing light conditions that Sheldon also had on her wish list.

Sheldon grew up on the Monterey Bay in California, where the summers were dry and the humidity low, so gardening in the Southeast was quite a shock, she says. "I really had to learn about gardening here—coping with humid heat in the summer, when the nights do not cool down; constant issues with diseases and pests; and working in compacted clay."

She studied the vagaries of her new climate, went on garden tours for inspiration, and cultivated landscape designer mentors, whom she met through the Georgia Perennial Plant Association, of which she is now president. She also volunteers at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, as well as in the gardens of the Atlanta History Center. "And I learned from my mistakes. I killed a lot of plants, but you can't be intimidated by that, you just have to budget," she says with a laugh.

As if practicing a piece of music, going over and over some passages until they are effortless, Sheldon works in her yard, continually trying new plants or techniques until everything works together harmoniously. "You have to be fearless," she advises.

Syncopated Harmony
The first thing Sheldon did, with the help of her husband, Andy, was replace the lawn with flowerbeds and plant a Korean boxwood hedge at the front sidewalk. The hedge enclosed the front yard and created a garden room as a welcoming entry. Brick pavers and bluestone set in gravel replaced a narrow sidewalk.

"This front garden is so hot that I can grow all my Mediterranean herbs here, such as thyme, oregano, rosemary, and marjoram," Sheldon says. Atlanta sits reliably in Zone 7b, but she believes her site's conditions steer it more toward Zone 8. The garden retains heat into the night from warmth radiated by the pavers and captured by the enclosed space. For this garden, Sheldon selects plants that are heat-and drought-tolerant plus disease-resistant, such as a Knock Out rose, daylilies, bearded and Siberian irises, and 'Annabelle' hydrangeas.

The house was originally white, but Sheldon felt that was too harsh for the ovenlike summer climate. She painted it an earthy peach color, reflective of her western roots, with accents of blue on the doors and shutters. Most of the containers are clay, repeating the terra-cotta refrain. Blue obelisks play as staccato notes against the cooling green foliage of the front yard.

Along one side of the house, Sheldon converted an unused concrete driveway into a lush tropical passageway to the back yard. Instead of breaking up the slab, she built a raised bed of stacked stone directly atop one section. The remaining narrow expanse of concrete became the path. The former driveway edges are planted heavily, with timbers recycled from the back yard corralling plantings along the side nearest the house. "As you progress down this path, you're going from hot sun to the coolness of the back yard. By the time you get to the back, the air temperature feels as if it has dropped at least 10 degrees," says Sheldon

A Quiet Concert
The walkway passes under a lattice arch and into a dining courtyard. Here is where the levels begin to change, like graduated tempos, in the yard. A granite wall holds back the slope, creating a sunken enclosure.

"I wanted the feeling of an amphitheater, that you are surrounded by plants, with the illusion of privacy and no sense of neighbors," says Sheldon. Morning sun and evening shade allow for wake-up breakfasts and relaxing dinners. A medley of plants—Japanese maples, variegated grasses, and smoke tree—get enough sun from half-day rays but don't have to tolerate the heat of the front yard. On the side of the courtyard, a small water feature under crape myrtles muffles intruding sounds and cools the air.

Stone steps in one corner lead to the upper back yard, a shady enclave. Beyond a curved patch of lawn lies a kidney-shaped pond rimmed with stones the homeowners collected while traveling. In this hotweather retreat, the soothing colors and textures of ferns, carex, coralbells, and hostas sound the quietest notes in the garden.

To establish a sense of rhythm in the garden, you must have movement and repetition of plants, says Sheldon. "You have to garden in layers, to have some vertical elements and contrasting shapes: rounded, conical, spikes, to name a few."

Most of all, a garden must be in tune with the gardener, says Sheldon. "You have to learn your sense of self and place. Your garden is a strong definition of who you are. It has to be appropriate to you and to where you live."

Composing a Landscape
Anne Sheldon's tips for perfect pitch in the garden:

  • Entry spaces, to the garden and to the home, should be clearly visible.
  • Use fragrance, sound, and visual cues to entice visitors to move through the yard.
  • When buying a home, be sure to check the views from inside the house.
  • In a small garden, give the illusion of tucked-away larger spaces through the use of paths, framed views, and entry points.
  • Mistakes can be serendipitous. Something new will happen in the garden tomorrow, so don't worry about today's mistakes.
  • Color in the garden is influenced by the available light. Hot sun demands hot colors; shade prefers cooler, subdued tones.
  • A plant color palette should relate to the color of the house. Be consistent in choosing colors for accents. Sheldon uses chartreuse, red, and blue.
  • Fill planters primarily with perennials for easy care, then add annuals as seasonal accents.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2010 issue of Organic Gardening magazine.