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Garden Tour: Shape Shifter

In his Iowa backyard, designer Scott Johnson uses basic geometric forms as the affordable building blocks to a stylish landscape.

As an art director for gardening magazines, Scott Johnson plays with shapes every time he designs a page. He employs the same technique in his Iowa backyard. “I do like geometry,” he says. “And hardscapes bring that geometry into a garden’s natural shape.”

A type of clematis called sweet autumn drapes over Scott’s privacy panels. Its tiny white flowers look like mounded stars.

Squares and circles appear throughout Scott’s property, thanks largely to budget-friendly building materials that he stacks like the Lego bricks of his childhood. Consider the table he designed (above). It’s a rectangle and two cylinders, furniture distilled to its structural essence. He used hard-fire terra-cotta chimney flues as the legs and built the top out of cedar four-by-fours and four-by-twos.

Container gardening is also key to Scott’s composition. Ceramic planters provide colorful, moveable forms, especially when filled with shapely plants in a smart palette of blues, purples and greens. They’re also beginner-friendly. Scott recalls a fast-growing canna that burst through the walls of its small terra-cotta pot, providing a valuable geometry lesson of its own: Go big.

Drama Class Big-leaf tropical plants like elephant’s ear cut a striking figure in a large, bright ceramic pot (above). Scott pairs his with blue cabbage.

Private-ish “I didn’t want to close off the property with a fence. I like my neighbors!” Scott says. He assembled planks and posts into a few rectangular screens and strategically placed them by his side yard and back dining area.

Circular Logic Repeat favorite shapes or colors for design continuity. Scott collects concrete and granite orbs (and even bowling balls) and echoes them with rounded plants like ornamental kales and coleus topiaries. 

Square Dance The patio features a matrix of inexpensive 24-inch concrete pavers. Mexican beach pebbles fill the spaces.

3 Easy Ways to Stack ‘Em Up

Raised Beds Scott ordered 10 manhole risers from a local concrete pipe company. He rolled the 2x36-inch rings into place and stacked them five-high (no mortar required). The beds hold tomatoes, kale, peppers, sorrel, basil and parsley. In winter, Scott fills the bare spots with castaway Christmas trees—his own and one scavenged from a neighbor’s curb.

Tabletop display  On both the main dining table and this small side table, a granite remnant elevates and unifies a collection of pots. (Stone suppliers often discount the small pieces left over from cutting countertops.) Scott recommends choosing one large plant—in this case, the swooping spruce—as a focal point, then surrounding it with smaller plants that also have intriguing silhouettes. From left: Japanese holly, aloe, ‘Skylands’ oriental spruce and agave.

Plant Pedestal Scott alternately stacked two sizes of circular pavers to create a sculptural plant stand for a cheerful yellow container. “By bringing the pot closer to eye level,” he explains, “you can better appreciate the succulents’ details.”

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