Garden Designers Roundtable: 5 Ways to Spice Up Your Garden with DANGER (just a little)

Is the scariest thing in your garden the risk of stepping in a pile of fresh dog doo? While real danger isn’t good—rotting deck boards, a spiny agave leaning out over the front walk, or a heavy piece of statuary that isn’t secured in place, especially if you have kids or pets—the thrill of a little perceived danger can be invigorating to a bland garden. Children instinctively know this, which is why they love climbing up into a tree house, leaping across a creek on slippery stepping stones, and picking up creepy-crawly bugs and toads to surprise Mom.

As garden makers, we can add small thrills in order to elicit a few more oohs and aahs from visitors exploring our gardens. Here are 5 ways to spice up your garden with a pinch of danger.

1. Plant a few “scary” plants, and place them where they can easily be admired without any real danger of injury. Examining and gently touching a thorny or dagger-like plant is thrilling; falling into one, not so much. Agave or cactus spines will draw the curious like Sleeping Beauty to Maleficent’s spinning wheel (“Touch it! Touch it, I say!”). Wingthorn rose (Rosa sericea ptericantha), bed of nails (Solanum quitoense), or Poncirus trifoliata ‘Flying Dragon’ are other good choices.

2. Make paths that require you to pay attention to footing or that feel a little claustrophobic. Your main walk should be securely constructed, so that even the most rickety grandpa or toddling child can traverse it to the front door without harm. But lesser paths can be a little more “dangerous.” Think stepping stones across a water feature; Japanese gardens are especially good at this. Or narrow a path around a large boulder or dense shrub so that you can’t quite see what’s coming around the bend. Add a surprising piece of art around the turn to heighten the thrill.

3. Add height to your garden and play with a feeling of vertigo. If you’re lucky enough to garden on a slope, this is easy to accomplish. Terrace your slope with patios or resting places, creating overlooks and the thrill of looking down from a steep height. Even a flat garden, however, can contain an exciting elevation change:

Add a raised platform—a deck, a yoga platform, or even a tree perch—to capture a view of the surrounding area or just a new perspective on your own garden.

Or try adding a large boulder or three as accents. You’ll see that kids love climbing on it, and you may want to too!

4. Let living creatures, even scary ones, inhabit your garden. We all want butterflies and birds in our gardens. But what about spiders, snakes, bees, and wasps? Can you have one without the other? Not really. Insecticides (including mosquito misting systems) kill beneficial bugs as well as harmful ones, and they may poison birds who eat contaminated insects. Go natural instead, allowing birds and beneficial insects to gobble up harmful ones. Remember that spiders are important predators of bad bugs, and bees and wasps are beneficial pollinators who generally won’t bother you if you don’t bother them. And most snakes that you’ll encounter in a garden are non-venomous and merely hunting pests like rodents. Be glad! For the most part, just let them be unless they’re really a danger.

I nearly walked face-first into a web occupied by a large spider in my garden one evening, and it scared the bejeezus out of me. But now that I know it’s there, I just walk around it, and I check the web each day to see what the spider has caught. She adds a little thrill of danger to my garden, and I like that she’s reducing the mosquito and fly population. Plus she makes a good Halloween decoration.

5. Be daring, try new things, live dangerously! Think about the gardens you’ve most enjoyed. Did the owners play it safe, content for their yard to look like everyone else’s up and down the street? Or did they surprise or wow you with unusual plant combinations, creative hardscaping, handmade garden decor, a playfulness, the zing of personality that you just can’t get unless you’re willing to risk looking silly or being thought tacky by the “safe” neighbor. Maybe your ideas will succeed, and maybe they won’t. But at least you’ll have tried, and that’s more than many people ever do in their gardens.

Boring gardens just slay me.

So the lesson here is, don’t play it too safe in your garden. Let a little danger in—perceived danger, that is. Be willing to make your visitor (and yourself) a little uncomfortable on occasion. After all, you don’t want anyone dying of boredom out there.

Now that would be really scary.

This is my contribution to today’s posting on Dangerous Gardens by Garden Designers Roundtable. Click for links to other designers’ posts from around the U.S. and the U.K. Also, be sure to read the guest post by Loree Bohl, of the appropriately named blog Danger Garden.

Loree Bohl : Danger Garden : Portland, OR

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

19 Responses

  1. Great take on this month’s topic, Pam! It’s so true about intentionally using a little uncertainty to liven up a garden. I seem to walk face first into spider webs more often than not and spice things up, they do (followed by a litany of bad words that spice things up a little more) – ha!

    I can just imagine, Rebecca. That’s my usual response too, after a frightened “Gah!” —Pam

  2. Unique by Design says:

    Rebecca Sweet… bad words proceeding out of her mouth… Noooo! lolol! Great post Pam! Love the idea of playing with vertigo, brilliant play on both words and technique!

    I’m glad you enjoyed my take on this topic, UBD. —Pam

  3. I will admit to a few “Eeek it’s a mouse!” moments in my own garden, but I wouldn’t have it any other way! I especially liked your tip about the stepping stones – that’s an idea that almost anyone can incorporate in their landscape. A bit of tension is a good thing!

    Yes, it keeps things from getting dull, doesn’t it? Thanks for stopping by, Jocelyn. —Pam

  4. I love that photo of the raised deck framed by Opuntia, very dangerous Pam! And while I wouldn’t be thrilled to see a snake in my garden (enough of those growing up) I have learned to let the spiderwebs be, and you’re right…this time of the year they do add a seasonal decor.

    I’ll have more soon from that garden with the deck and Opuntia, Loree. That’s one of the gardens I toured in Tucson. —Pam

  5. Julie says:

    Great post on a fun topic! You are a better woman than I am about spider webs. When I walk along the forest path to our large kitchen garden, I carry a stick, outstretched, that I wave in front of my face as I walk. I look like the crazy garden lady of the neighborhood, but I’ve walked into too many spider webs in the forest–ick! I do always leave the ones off the path alone, because the kids and I love to watch writing spiders, and other garden spiders are just good, organic pest control. Snakes, too, always have a place in our garden–just not the hen house. (Hubby relocates them when they make an appearance there.) Lovely photos, as always!

    I have totally done that stick routine too, Julie! And when I walk through certain parts of my garden in the morning, I do it with my arm stretched out. Yep, looking like a crazy lady all right. :-) —Pam

  6. louis says:

    I LOOOOVE it! I love the raised deck there. And that boulder/palm combo says Indiana Jones. There’s got to be something about to jump out from behind there. Thanks for sharing the danger with us.

    You are right, Louis, there IS something hiding behind that boulder and palm. A dinosaur! That’s from the Prehistoric Garden at Zilker Botanical Garden here in Austin. Click for more pics from my visit. —Pam

  7. Mary Gray says:

    What a great and useful interpretation of the “danger” theme. You are so right about people — especially kids — WANTING to reach out and touch thorns and spines. My son will freak himself out for ages whenever we visit the cactus room at the USBG, daring himself to touch the spines. I also love your example about including paths that are narrower or less “safe” looking — gives the visitor the feeling they’re exploring rather than just ambling through. great post!

    Thanks, Mary. Your son sounds like he’s developing a healthy appreciation for cactus. The danger of the spines is, I swear, half the fun. —Pam

  8. Snakes! It is so dry here this year, there hasn’t been one here, or anywhere I’ve hiked or ridden. Great steps in creating some hort-horror, Pam. And I’m enjoying seeing the occasional place I visited in Tucson with “all of y’all”.

    I really liked that elevated deck in the Tucson garden we visited together. I’ll have more from that garden up on the blog soon. —Pam

  9. Great advice, presented in a fun way. I particularly like the slightly dangerous path that takes concentration to traverse. Next time my husband complains about the need to step over plants and avoid small pebbles in the side yard path I designed, I’m pointing him to this post.

    There ya go, Susan. See, there’s always a good reason for the seemingly crazy things we do in the garden, right? —Pam

  10. Debbie says:

    Pam, Those are all great ideas for ‘dangering’ up a garden. I especially like the idea of a few large boulders – most kids will find them much more interesting than a standard issue playset.

    I often wish we’d gone the “boulder field” route when our kids were young, Debbie. I’m sure it would have been used as much if not more than the playscape we ended up with. However, a boulder field would be hard to take with you if you move, which we did, so I guess it worked out. ;-) —Pam

  11. Sylvia says:

    My dangerous garden included BATS this year! gone now that their pups are big enough & it’s getting colder…maybe next door to Florida or Mexico, but we put up with the bat guano mess for months while they rested securely in the outside louvers over our garage door. Keeping bats “outside” in the garden is really important and much better than finding them winging their way thru your attic. We’re so grateful that we’re researching building them a more appropriate house in our garden next spring. They did a great job of eliminating all those pesky mosquitos and knats we are famous for in southwest GA. I would brag to my friends that even though we lived next to a large pond (drainage) I could sit outside on the patio during the summer…an unheard of luxury here.

    Sounds like you’re continuing the Austin tradition of bat love, Sylvia. —Pam

  12. Scott Calhoun says:

    Great ideas with great photo illustrations. Danger is a desirable feature in a garden year around.

    I couldn’t agree more, Scott. —Pam

  13. Denise says:

    Risk looking silly or tacky? Every day, Pam, every day…
    Great post!

    Ha! Me too, Denise. (contemplating putting some culvert-pipe planters out front where the neighbors can see…) —Pam

  14. ricki says:

    Mildly scary FUN…and so appropriate for October.

    Thanks, Ricki. I’m glad you enjoyed it. —Pam

  15. A fun post at a fun time of year. Simply spook-tacular suggestions for a lively garden!

    I’m glad you think so too, Marcia. Thanks for stopping by! —Pam

  16. Love it — what a color take on the danger garden concept.

    There were so many ways to go with this fun topic. I’m glad you enjoyed my take on it. —Pam

  17. great ideas pam, especially of looking at your paths and elevation changes from a “dangerous” perspective. here’s to throwing caution into the wind…

    I’m with you. Cheers, Andrea! —Pam

  18. Genevieve says:

    Pam, I just adore your take on danger in the garden. especially the advice to use elements like stepping stones across water that make you slow down, pause, and think in the garden. Lovely photos to illustrate, too. Thanks for a great read!

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Gen. Thanks for stopping by! —Pam

  19. Love your idea that a little danger can spice up one’s experience of the garden. As a designer, the safe choices always present themselves in stark contrast to the uncharted, and therefore more dangerous moves. I especially like your discussion of how a somewhat dangerous element can slow the pace of the narrative. How a garden reveals itself is a topic of keen interest to every gardener. This is such a great post! Thanks, Deborah

    I love having your thoughts on this topic, Deborah. You phrased it very well. —Pam