Garden Design 101 by Ron Vanderhoff

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Garden Design 101 by Ron Vanderhoff

We all do it. Walk into a nursery and spot a beautiful, flowering plant that we must have. Moments later, we discover another gorgeous plant that we believe would look just perfect planted right next to it. “Isn’t that the first thing you do?” asked Cristin Fusano, a notable garden designer and horticulturist who gave a crash course on The Basics of Garden Design at a recent talk at Roger’s Gardens.

To illustrate her point, Fusano pulled over a pot of blooming purple Heliotrope and paired it with a pot of “Baby Bliss” Dianella, with its tiny flowers of indigo blue and yellow.

“They may look great together. But before you do anything, you need to pay attention to what they need,” Fusano told the audience of a 140 people. “First, you have to consider their different watering needs.”

The Dianella is known as a “drought-tolerant” plant, which means it can survive on winter and spring rains, while the Heliotrope requires some type of regular watering regime.

“Although they are nice together, they just are not compatible,” Fusano said.

Choosing plants based on compatible watering needs is just one of the basic steps of garden design, Fusano said. She went on to share these tips on the other characteristics of gardens that maybe perform as well as they look:

*Choose or create a “plantable” space. In general, the idea is to make sure the garden bed is level so it captures water and drains well. Fusano said even steep slopes can be terraced to create workable garden beds. Also, pay close attention to the sun exposure, which changes during the seasons. What is a sunny spot in summer may be in the shade during winter.

*Improve the soil. “Feed the soil, not the plants,” she said. Most gardens in Southern California have heavy clay content, and need amendments to break the clay into smaller particles so water can drain. “Don’t ever add sand to your garden,” she warned. She recommended Roger’s Planting Mix.

Chose “Backbone Plants” to set the stage. She recommended starting with permanent and evergreen plants, selecting them for their height, foliage, color, structure or texture. She recommended a variety of Pittosporums, including “Ruffes,” “Emerald Wave,” “Ivory Sheen” and “Wrinkled Blue.” Other favorite “backbone” plants included Calla Lilly “White Giant”; Heuchera “Big Top”; Azarra microphylla; Loropetalum “Pippa’s Red”; and, Begonia fuchsioides “Jack in the Beanstock.”

* Fill in with smaller plants. In front of and around the backbone plants, choose from a variety of flowering shrubs, roses, flowering vines, showy perennials, low ground covers, hardy annuals, bulbs and tubers and other seasonal color. “You keep mixing things in until it all looks good,” she said.

By |2014-01-15T00:54:16+00:00January 15th, 2014|Gardening, Landscaping|3 Comments

About the Author:

Ron Vanderhoff is a lifelong Southern California gardener and the General Manager and Vice President of Roger’s Gardens. He is a local director of the California Native Plant Society and serves on a number of state and local advisory committees involving horticultural education and natural resource protection. He was a principal contributor to The Butterflies of Orange County and The Wildflowers of Orange County and the Santa Ana Mountains, as well as a special contributor to The Sunset Western Garden Book.


  1. joan mcsunas October 15, 2012 at 5:59 pm - Reply

    appreciate all of your ideas

  2. Jan Kinderman March 13, 2016 at 5:07 pm - Reply

    Is Cristan still teaching classes at Roger’s? She designed our backyard, so so beautiful and we loved her classes. We moved away about ten years ago but we would come back for a class she teaches!!

    • Roger's Gardens March 14, 2016 at 9:15 am - Reply

      Hi Jan,

      Cristin Fusano is a good friend of ours and a great garden designer. Although she is still very much doing garden design, she is no longer leading seminars or classes.


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