When choosing plants for your home garden, pick ones that do some work along with being good-looking. Not form over function, in other words, but form and function.

That was my major takeaway from a two-day session I attended as part of landscape design school last month. Regular readers of this column may recall that last year I began a landscape-design program sponsored by the Garden Club Federation of Maine; in order to graduate, I’ll attend two days of classes a year for four consecutive years.

“A landscape can be beautiful as well as highly functional,” said Lois Berg Stack, an ornamental horticulture specialist with the University of Maine Extension in Orono.

As an example, she described a line of red pines along one edge of her home that is attractive and serves to define the border.

Beyond its ornamental attributes, “Those pines provide wind protection on our property over an area that is eight times their height,” she said.

They make her home warmer in winter, in turn allowing her to grow plants that otherwise might not be able to survive Maine’s cold climate, and they offer warmth and shelter to animals, amphibians for one.

Another place plants have important functions beyond their good looks? On riverbanks. The biggest threat to rivers in Maine is not chemicals, Stack said, but silt, which gets washed into rivers from places where plants have been removed. Plants protect rivers from silt in several ways, she said: Leaves from trees and shrubs slow the falling rain so it splashes up less soil when it hits the ground. Natural grasses, perennials and groundcovers further protect the soil. And roots from all these plants bind the soil together, so that flowing river water won’t erode the riverbanks.

Don Leighton, a Falmouth native now working as a landscape architect in Rhode Island, talked to the class about how he uses plants to protect his own garden. It’s set on the Narrows River in Narragansett and is threatened by tides that are rising because of global warming.

When he bought the property seven years ago, the riverfront ground was entirely phragmites, he said, an invasive reed that can be seen along Interstate 95 in many marshy areas. Leighton developed a plan to eliminate the phragmites and to encourage the native marsh grasses to return.

It involved first, installing coconut- fiber coir logs to prevent erosion and next, mowing the phragmites; the idea is to keep them from getting enough green to feed the roots. (When I wrote a column earlier this year on alternatives to the herbicide glysophate, Eric Sideman of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association touted regular mowing as the best chemical-free way to get rid of invasives.) Leighton has had some success: so far, native marsh grasses have replaced the phragmites closest to the water.

My landscape design classmates and I also heard from Todd Richardson, of Richardson and Associates Landscape Architects in Saco. He began by talking to us about how plants create space in a garden. Since they also occupy space, this concept was difficult to grasp at first.

“We move in the space that plants create,” Richardson explained, “in between the plants.”

Think of it this way: whether you create a garden “room” or a path lined by trees or a gap in a hedge that serves as a gate to a neighboring garden, you are creating distinct spaces. The placement of your plants, in other words, creates gardening negative space.

Richardson also discussed how plants can play dual roles when it comes to shade, offering it both to the gardener – who appreciates shade when she sits outside on hot summer afternoons – and to shade-loving plants like rhododendrons and hosta. Tall deciduous trees such as native oaks, maples, hickories and ashes are good for creating shade, he said.

How a piece of property relates to distant and adjacent landscapes is another aspect plants control, Richardson said. Say you have a view worth emphasizing? Frame it with tall plants on each side of it. Conversely, if you want to block a view – or the sound coming from the street – a screen of plants can help do both.

Work with the natural landscapes that surround your home, Richardson and Stack suggested, citing the example of homeowners with hay fields or meadows. By mowing a path through such fields rather than mowing the fields in their entirety, the garden works for both people and animals. People can walk through the mown areas without picking up ticks. Pollinators and other wildlife have a good food source in the wildflowers that grow among the unmown grasses.

Where does this leave you? Over the winter, spend some time thinking about the space around your house. Come spring, see if any of the ideas I’ve outlined are useful for making your landscape work better for you.

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]

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