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Designing a Knot Garden

Make beautiful patterns with a knot garden. Here's how one gardener designed hers.

Medieval English knot gardens were often patterned after glorious old tapestries or embroidered cloths — colorful hedges were seemingly woven together into intricate formal designs. Through the ages, these over-and-under knots have been loosened into less formal swirls and loops. And these days, gardeners are untying the knots altogether to update the old classics.

Jill Slater is a floral designer by trade, and the principles for creating a stunning flower arrangement are alive and well in her knot garden. Therey you'll find lots of color, texture, whimsy and interesting patterns. The boxwoods and gravel pathways are expected, but she's also included the unusual.

In the middle of one knot garden stands a French urn. "It's important to have a focal point in a knot garden because otherwise your eyes are just drawn everywhere instead of to a specific point," Jill explains.

Another thing that knits a knot garden together is the plant material. "There are lots of different plants you can use in a knot garden, and sometimes it's difficult to decide which ones to use. I recommend going to your local nursery, talk to them about the conditions of your garden and the look that you want."

Jill wants to update her traditional boxwood parterre or border hedge into a not-so-ordinary knot garden.

She's chosen santolina (figure A) for its contrasting foliage. It's a compact little plant that will help create compartments within the garden, and the lighter hues also play up the blooming backdrop of pansies.

"I like to add annuals," Jill says. "It's an easy and pretty inexpensive way to change the look of your garden."

And while Elizabethan gardeners probably didn't have convenient cell packs of pansies at hand, they did use aromatic herbs like rosemary, thyme or lavender to blend bouquet and beauty. In Jill's garden, the addition of a rose turns a classic style into contemporary.

"I've used 'Iceberg' roses because I like white in a garden. It stands out at night, and it also gives a very modern look to a traditional garden."

And just as there are all kinds of plants you can choose for a knot garden, imagine all the pattern possibilities.

"I could do a circle around the big pot," she says. "That would be easy and also inexpensive, because I wouldn't need as many plants. Or, I could do a second square within my square. I could create a flower shape around the pot."

But she decides to keep it simple: a simple "x" with the urn as the centerpiece (figure B).

Laying out the garden

For ruler-straight lines, Jill could spray paint along a taut string. Eventually though, pruning will keep the shape razor-sharp, so eyeballing the plant placement is sufficient. What's important is the spacing between plants: 12 inches would form a nice hedge over time, but for faster results, Jill plants the santolina closer together.

The root ball should sit in the earth about where it was in the container. "We've made a nice "x," but we've also really made nice compartments, which you fill with colorful flowers. You could even put colorful pebbles there, but the typical approach is to use knot-garden sorts of plants."

Individual plants in each compartment are another way of adding interest in traditional knot gardens. Jill uses two bare-root 'Iceberg' roses (figure C) and two lavender plants, which will look and smell great when in bloom.

Keeping it trim

Why don't we see more knot gardens? One of the reasons might be the meticulous pruning that's required.

Jill demonstrates an easy way to trim: She places two garden stakes between the areas on the hedges where she'd like to trim. These stakes have been measured and marked to a specific height (figure D) — and that mark is where she'll tie a string to each of the stakes.

Then she just snips along the string (figure E). Hedge trimmers make easy work of the big jobs and hand pruners are better for more intricate cuts.

Jill trims so that the top of the hedge is a little more narrow than the bottom. "That way, everything will get sunlight, and this will stay nice and green."

The twists and turns of giving age-old formality a modern makeover can net some very pleasing results. With a little planning, patterning and pruning, you too can unravel the ancient art of knot gardens.

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