10 Tips to Achieve a Timeless Mackinac Island Garden, Wherever You Live

Absolutely nothing says summer on the Great Lakes like Mackinac Island cottages with their water views and vibrant, elegant gardens. Award-winning landscape architect Jack Barnwell, the man behind many of the island’s premier landscapes, shares secrets of the quintessential style and how to create your own Mackinac Island garden (wherever you live!).

View consideration is the key.

Whether the vista is expansive—looking out at the lake from a great-room window, or an intimate space seen from an office window, framing views from indoor and outdoor rooms is a top priority. For year-round framing, big arching limbs of spruce, or white pine work beautifully. For a summer view, lilacs are a favorite of mine for their classic spring bloom and the ability to prune them to a feathered-out architectural form that can arc around a view.

Plant birch and aspen.

The fluttery leaves of these tree species create dancing, dappled light that allows for a bigger plant palette in the microclimate beneath them.

Make statues and fountains visual destinations that create respite.

Gardens are first and foremost meant to be calming, peaceful spaces that invoke a feeling of relaxation.

Build flagstone paths.

Flagstones, or large flat irregular stones, create an iconic Mackinac garden look. If setting into an existing lawn, lay them out on top and cut around the edge with a sharp flat edging shovel. Then flip the stones out of the way, remove the sod, and sprinkle a little sand in to set the stones back into the spaces, making sure they are nice and sturdy. In shady areas, we often use woodland moss as our “joints.”

Mind your edges.

Bordering garden beds with a stone wall (even if it is as low as 6-to-8 inches) allows for multiple benefits including more volume for soil amendment, ease of maintenance and turf edging and a clean finished look.

Create “immersive” outdoor rooms within the garden.

These spaces should feel private, safe and secluded whether they are tucked into the site’s natural topography or created through plantings.

Use living ground covers instead of mulch!

Mulch is overused in this country, especially the dyed wood chips available at most big-box stores. Avoid over-mulching by planting evergreen ground covers instead. Our go-to shade ground covers are pachysandra and vinca minor (myrtle). If kept in bounds, they provide a stunning ground cover. There are many other small spreading perennials like tiarella (also called foamflower) and ajuga that offer similar results.

Layer plantings with robust flowering shrubs, like hydrangeas and “powerful perennials.”

I call perennials that offer more than just their flower appeal “powerful”… in other words, they offer great long-lasting foliage and a good show of flowers for a longer season of performance.

Plant classic heirloom quality perennials for a timeless Mackinac look.

Varieties like shasta daisy, herbaceous peonies, iris, lilies and roses are tried and true and are often the hardiest perennials in the garden.

Lilacs, American flags and geraniums …

There aren’t many gardens on Mackinac that don’t include these three elements that add so much to the island’s summer look. Lilacs love the limestone-rich, slightly alkaline gravelly soils and have thrived on the island for centuries. Plant them in a well-drained, full-sun area away from towering pines to enjoy these fragrant spring-blooming beauties.

As for geraniums, always go for “zonal” or zonal-cross geraniums—never seed-grown. Zonal geraniums are propagated from cuttings and will give you the big flower heads and bigger foliage. When dead-heading, don’t use scissors, instead follow the stem down to the node where it sprouted from and snap it off. 

Jack Barnwell Design has worked on landscape projects all over Northern Michigan, Florida and other parts of the country.

Grand Garden Show

Want to see Mackinac Island Gardens up close and personal? Visit the annual Grand Garden Show on Sunday, August 25 to Tuesday, August 27, 2019, where you’ll be treated to inspirational gardening sessions and exclusive walking tours to private gardens.