Dreams blossom in implausible plots

Designing a garden is a bit like planning one's life: List your dreams, then prioritize. This is what New York garden designer Rebecca Cole tells her clients. Many of them get tripped up in this early stage because their dreams don't quite jibe with reality. A typical wish list might include a low-maintenance garden, masses of flowers all the time, and green all winter. "One has got to give," she writes in her latest book, "Paradise Found: Gardening in Unlikely Places" (Clarkson Potter, $35, 192 pp.).

Ms. Cole, also author of "Potted Gardens," helps clients overcome limitations to realize their dream gardens. Urban rooftops, communal terraces, or pool-table-sized patios are all specialties. Like a closet organizer who transforms a cluttered heap of clothing and shoes into order, Cole works wonders with outdoor spaces that appear to have little potential.

After they list their dreams, she instructs clients to consider the primary purpose of their garden: Will it be used for outdoor dining? Is it intended to be a quiet retreat where the owner can sit and read or contemplate?

One of her clients yearned for a garden that would be a refuge from her high-stress workday. Cole achieved this by designing a cozy English-style garden that her client could see from her bedroom. To give it a soft look, she rounded the hard edges of the rectangular terrace and planted flowers in round pots. For clients who can enjoy their gardens only in evenings after work, she has planted all-white gardens. "At night, white will seem to drink up the moon, and by day, it highlights the color next to it," she says in a recent phone interview.

Cole is known for her natural, monochromatic aesthetic. "My best design tip [for small spaces] is to use only one or two colors," she says, explaining that novices often make the mistake of planting a rainbow of colors. "Lots of different colors can really detract from the elegance and peacefulness of a garden."

Another Cole trademark is repetition. For example, instead of buying only a few of several different flowers, she opts for masses of just one or two types.

With all her designs, Cole follows what she calls a loose formula: two-thirds "perennials" - trees, shrubs, and flowers - and one-third annuals. Some of her favorites include prairie flowers such as Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan) and Echinacea (purple coneflower), ornamental grasses, and shrubs like Snowmound spirea.

She has two gardens of her own, one in Manhattan and the second in the lake region of New Hampshire, where she spent summers as a child. In New Hampshire her grandfather grew 150 varieties of roses, but back then, Cole didn't care about working by his side. "I was always running off to fish or row a boat," she recalls. "But something about his example must have impressed me."

A year ago, when she moved into a 1840s town house in Manhattan's SoHo, she tackled its neglected 890-square-foot sliver of a backyard - but not without some initial jitters. "Suddenly, I was looking at my own blank space," she says, "and thinking, where do I start?"

But she pulled it off, repeating two basic combinations - spirea with ferns and hydrangea with hostas, and mixing in English ivy, anemones, coleus, sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas), and Eupatorium.

She enhanced borders with container plantings. "Containers are great for varying height and texture," she says. "You can garden fully and lushly with them, going up a lot without taking up too much space. And because you can move them easily, they allow you to experiment."

The design included such architectural elements as fences, pillars, and old white-painted garden furniture.

Since she was a child, Cole has had what she calls a weakness for old garden furniture, and to this day, she is forever on the lookout for interesting finds at flea markets, yard sales, and antique shops.

But collecting outdoor furniture isn't just a hobby for Cole. "I often begin my garden designs with the furniture I find," she says. "You wouldn't design a living room without first considering the carpeting and paint colors, so why would you overlook furniture in a garden?"

She tells her clients not to plant a single flower or shrub until they have gathered all the elements and have pictured how they will fit together. "If you sunbathe, get good lounge chairs," she suggests. "If you're a writer, you'll need a good solid table, a chair, and an umbrella, and if eating alfresco is your passion, there is nothing better than a big old harvest table."

She is also a fan of other architectural elements such as statuary, birdbaths, and fences. She urges collectors to look for pieces with classic lines. "A good rule of thumb," she writes, "is that the simpler the design, the longer it will remain in favor....What a magnificent painting does for a living room, an old statue can do for a humble garden."

The hunt for such items is half the fun, she says, adding that "fun" is not typically the word she'd use to describe her work during this busy growing season. "It's like when I acted. The auditions were horrible, but the show was great. Gardening can be the same - it's tedious at times, but also rewarding when people love your work. And it's so nice to work in a business that's all about beauty, joy, and grace."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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