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Dimensional Design - a Holistic Approach to Garden Planning

Volume 2 Number 2 - October 2005

Lisa Orgler





Dimensional Design is a holistic approach to garden education based on team effort (the team is key!).  The team works together to develop programmes, horticulture and entomology displays, interpretation, communications, and amenities to support a theme each year.  All staff develop ideas as a team creating one cohesive unit. The Dimensional Design process educates the public through three steps: Stratification (each year a theme is chosen on which to focus), Repetition (once a theme is chosen it is repeated through all areas of the garden), and Application (the theme is chosen and now repeated through the different areas).  Brainstorming is an integral step within the Dimensional Design process and includes the following steps: search, share, select and schedule.

Reiman Gardens is a 14-acre garden located on the south side of the Iowa State University Campus in Ames, USA.  It functions as an educational display garden that celebrates the natural and botanic diversity of Iowa, while drawing inspiration from the state’s agricultural traditions. Reiman Gardens began almost ten years ago with the seed of a twenty-year plan that was ultimately implemented in less than seven.  The physical aspects of the gardens took precedence over education for many years, resulting in non-focused educational planning and the absence of collaboration between garden areas.  Within the last three years, staff have developed a multi-disciplinary approach that focuses all garden areas with one theme.

Dimensional Design

The Dimensional Design process can be compared to a term paper, with each year representing the paper. The theme is the title (stratification), the different areas are the outline (repetition), and what reaches the public is the content (application).  Everything that happens that particular year should support the theme.  If one was to write a paper on buck roses, yet included a paragraph on dwarf conifers, it would not be focused and might confuse the reader. The gardens’ programmes, horticulture and entomology displays, interpretation and communications should work together the same way and not have individual areas venturing off on their own.  Pieces that do not fit the whole are called ‘floaters’ and should be avoided if possible.  The unique aspect of this approach is that it is carried out on an annual basis, rather than display-to-display.  By working annually, all displays have interconnected sub-themes that also support the annual theme.  The attached matrix chart shows this concept.

The Dimensional Design process educates the public through three steps:

  1. Stratification.  First, the staff must choose an annual theme.  The theme concept evolved from the idea that many layers and dimensions create a whole garden.  By concentrating on one layer or dimension each year the public learns about the Gardens a little at a time.  As years pass these layers build up and the public understands a larger portion of the Gardens.  The theme concept also challenges the staff to stretch the limits in all areas.  Theme years also add a sense of freshness to the gardens and encourage return visits.  An annual theme has a series of sub-themes that support it.  For instance, the annual theme might be ‘The Art of Gardening’ (our theme in 2006), with sub-themes for the horticulture displays such as ‘Post-Modernism: The Car in the Garden’, ‘Tulip Pointillism’, ‘The Blue Garden’, ‘O’Keefe and the Calla Lily’.  As a whole these sub-themes start to paint a broader picture of the annual theme.
  2. Repetition.  Once a theme is chosen, it is repeated throughout all the areas of the gardens.  These areas include education and events programmes, interpretation, horticulture, entomology, communications, and the amenities (café and gift shop).  Staff from each of these areas compose the design team.  Working together allows productive idea generation, everyone to understand what is happening and support for each other through shared resources. As a result, the public is better educated about a certain topic because they see it in different forms throughout the year.  They may view a topiary horticulture display, learn how to create topiary in a workshop, read about the history of topiary through interpretation, or even buy a small topiary in the gift shop. Rather than learning about horticulture or entomology in one dimension, they are learning about it from many dimensions. The different areas that offer repetition are highlighted at the top of the Matrix chart; the chart represents one year.
  3. Application.  The theme is chosen and now repeated through all facets of the gardens.  The next step is to bring the focused information to the public.  Each area is broken down into smaller ‘tracks’ that allow this information to reach visitors through various methods.  Visitors come to the Gardens for different reasons each with their own learning style and interests.  Some are attracted to gardening because they love to cook, create art, for its therapy, are interested in science, or just simply enjoy beautiful things.  The tracks take the theme year, formatting the information to reach a diverse audience.  The matrix chart lists all the tracks below the individual areas and shows how everything is interconnected.


Brainstorming is an integral step within the Dimensional Design process. The goal of these team meetings is to develop unique ideas that support the theme year.  This process is important in creating new concepts in gardening.  It challenges the team to think 'outside the box', so we can in turn enchant and educate the public by offering outstanding displays and programmes.

These meetings are broken down into four steps:

  1. Search.  Once the theme is chosen, the team meets to discuss all the different aspects of that theme that they can research.  For example, if the theme is ‘The Art of Gardening’ the team creates a research list that might look like: cubism, design principles, sculpture, impressionism, post-modernism, horticulture techniques, etc.  Each staff member on the team takes several of these topics to research over several weeks (library, internet, etc.).  It is important to note that the topics chosen do not have to be horticulture related, and is often more productive with a wide range of topics. By bringing together very different ideas, new ideas are grown.  Why not challenge ourselves to make a post-modern garden? As a result, the public will learn about an artistic style and how they can replicate it in their own garden.
  2. Share.  Once everyone conducts his or her research, we meet again to share what we found.  Each team member presents their information to the group.  Then we open it up for discussion and make a new list of items we think could make a great programme or display.  This step may stretch over several meetings with additional research as needed.
  3. Select.  Once all of the best ideas are collected, the team selects their favourites and decides what format is best – inside or outside horticultural display, entomology display, educational programme, interpretation, exhibit, etc.
  4. Schedule. Next, the team sets dates, assigns lead designers and creates the sub-themes leaving the fun part…implementation.

Dimensional Design Implemented

At this stage, the process is still in its infancy; but is gaining momentum.  Reiman Gardens’ 2005 theme year, 'The Global Garden', is nearing the Dimensional Design ideal – which means that all programmes, displays, interpretation, and communications have one focus and build on each other.  The ultimate goal would be that 100% of all areas follow the theme year.  As we plan the next theme year, ‘The Art of Gardening’, we will continue to work towards this goal. 

How has Reiman Gardens focused on 'The Global Garden' theme this year?   Here is how one sub-theme, ‘The Origin of Corn’, is repeated in several areas:


  • The Origin of Corn Display (Mexico): This summer our Childrens' Garden has been transformed into a scene from Mexico.  It highlights the six major plant families in Mexico, including eight varieties of corn that originate from Mexico.  This garden also features teosinte (Zea mays ssp. parviglumis), a wild corn species considered to be the plant from which all corn originates. 


  • Discovery Stations: The Origin of Corn and The Vanilla Bean
  • Mommy & Me Youth (Pre-K) Programmes: Pretty Piñatas and Musical Mexican Maracas
  • Youth Camps (K-5): Globetrotting Gardeners (touches on all areas, including the Mexican theme)
  • Adult Workshops: Mexican Chili Arrangement of the Month and Salsa Container Garden
  • Interpretive signage: Highlights the plant diversity of Mexico, Teosinte (The Mother Corn) and the vanilla orchid (actual plants will be included).  Interpretation will be located within the Corn crib in the Childrens' Garden.
  • Volunteer Education: Adult Tour Guide Training focused on the theme year, so that volunteers can educate the public about current displays.


  • Reiman’s Pick: A bi-weekly article that is written by staff and published in state newspapers.  One week will focus on teosinte corn.
  • Interpretive sign templates developed for inside and outside gardens with graphics that emphasise the theme year.
  • Education Brochures: Brochure produced three times per year with articles and graphics that emphasise the theme year.


It is important to remember that this is just one example of many sub-themes that will occur under the annual theme of 'The Global Garden'.  Other sub-themes within horticulture (both inside and outside) include Japanese Rock Garden, French Parterre Garden, French Potager Garden, Mediterranean Garden, Topiary Display, Butterfly Safari, Orchid Display, Garden of Abundance (Italy), and Lights of St. Lucia (Scandinavia).  Of course, these sub-themes are reinforced through all areas of the gardens.  Together they create a term paper that focuses on one theme and the public is educated on another dimension of the garden while experiencing a wonderful journey in the process.


Le Modèle dimensionnel est une approche complète de l’éducation dans les jardins basée sur les efforts d’équipe (l’équipe est la clé !). L’équipe travaille ensemble pour développer des programmes, des démonstrations d’horticulture et d’entomologie, l’interprétation, la communication et les agréments du lieu pour soutenir un thème chaque année. Tout le personnel développe des idées en tant qu’équipe créant ainsi une unité en cohésion. La démarche de Modèle dimensionnel éduque le public à travers trois étapes ; la Stratification (chaque année un thème est choisi sur lequel on se concentre), la Répétition (une fois le thème choisi, il est répété à travers toutes les zones du jardin), et l’Application (le thème est choisi et ainsi répété dans les différentes zones). Le brassage d’idées est une étape intégrale de la démarche du Modèle dimensionnel et inclut les étapes suivantes : Recherche, Partage, Sélection et Programme.



Diseño dimensional es una visiόn holística a un jardín educativo basado en esfuerzo de equipo (el equipo es la clave!). Los equipos trabajan juntos para desarrollar programas, exhibiciones de horticultura y entomologia, interpretaciόn, comunicaciόn, y amenidades para apoyar un tema cada año. Todo el personal desarrolla ideas, cόmo un equipo creando una unidad coehisiva. El proceso de Diseño dimensional educa al público a través de tres pasos: Estratificaciόn (cada año se escoge un tema sobre el cual se enfocará), Repeticiόn (una vez que el tema es escogido, es repetido en todas las areas del jardín), y Aplicaciόn (el tema escogido se repite a través de diferentes areas).  Lluvia de ideas es un paso integral dentro del proceso de Diseno dimensional e incluye los siguientes pasos: Busca, Comparte, Selecciona y Programa.

About the Author

Lisa Orgler is the Assistant Director of Planning & Programs, Reiman Gardens, Iowa State University,1407 Elwood Drive, Ames, Iowa 50011, USA.  Tel: (515) 294 2710. Fax: (515) 294 4817
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