Do you have a vision for a unique and beautiful garden? To turn your dream into a reality, proper planning is essential.
In this detailed guide, we’ll step through the process of designing and planning a garden from scratch. We’ll review design principles, plant selection, and more. While much of what we’ll discuss is also applicable to vegetable gardening, our focus today is on creating an aesthetically pleasing space for human enjoyment.
First, we’ll cover basic design concepts. Then we’ll move on to a step-by-step guide for planning your garden.
1. Understanding Garden Design Basics
The Importance of Planning and Design for Your Garden
Anyone can buy a beautiful assortment of plants and flowers, put them in the ground, and shower them with love and attention—and still be disappointed in the results if the garden wasn’t properly planned.
Garden planning and design involve thoughtfully considering how you’d like to use your space, knowing which plants can thrive in the growing conditions that you’ll provide, and choosing elements that work well together functionally and aesthetically.
Basic Garden Design Concepts: Balance, Proportion, Scale, Rhythm, and Unity
As you plan your garden, embrace the fundamental principles of artistic design. These include:
- Balance is the symmetrical or asymmetrical distribution of elements across areas, such as a path that runs between two flower beds of equal size.
- Proportion and scale refer to controlling the size and emphasis of different components, such as including a row of short flowers in front of a tall hedge.
- Rhythm involves repetition, flow, and a sense of movement that directs a viewer’s eye to move across the garden and take in the entire scene.
- Unity refers to individual elements forming a harmonious whole. Unity is achieved via balance, proportion, and rhythm. You can also create unity by maintaining a consistent theme. Theme possibilities are endless; you could choose to focus on certain colors (e.g. blues and purples) or certain sorts of features (e.g. a bird-friendly garden with a bird feeder and a bird bath).
Garden Landscape Elements
Your garden may include flowers, shrubs, trees, ground cover, hardscaping (paths, walls, etc.), furniture, water features, artistic displays, and more. These elements can be used to play with shape, color, and texture to create interesting patterns and themes.
When you view gardening as an art form, you begin to discover opportunities for using plants and other materials to create beauty. For example, the colors in plants and flowers can be used to build warmth or vibrancy. Meanwhile, the shape and height of a trimmed hedge may be used to enclose the space and direct a viewer’s eye to take in the entire garden or provide privacy.
2. Deciding How to Use Your Garden
Planning begins with looking at the big picture. What are you hoping to achieve? How much time and money are you willing to devote to creating the space you envision?
Define the Purpose of Your Outdoor Space
First, define the vision you have for your new garden.
Are you seeking a private and peaceful sanctuary? A play area for your kids or a spot for entertaining friends?
Perhaps you’d like to grow some veggies or create a pollinator hub for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
Choosing your top priorities will help set your design process in motion.
Consider Your Budget and Time Commitment
Gardening can be pricy. The costs add up as you purchase materials like tools, plants, soil, and mulch. However, it’s entirely possible to garden on a tight budget by embracing practices like creating your own soil, growing plants from seeds, and upcycling materials.
If you’re worried about overspending, make a monthly budget and stick to it.
You’ll also need to consider your lifestyle—how much time and energy can you commit toward creating and maintaining your garden?
If you want to keep things low-maintenance, choose no-hassle plants such as simple shrubs or herbs. Or, perennials with strong, dense foliage, such as hostas, tend to be resilient and easy to care for. For ground cover, use long-lasting solutions like gravel or brick for paths. For open ground cover areas, use drought-resistant plants like moss or creeping thyme.
If you have all the budget and time you need, then the sky’s the limit. Grow an assortment of high-maintenance and extravagant flowers, develop manicured grass ground cover, and take on other ambitious challenges like shaped hedge trimming or a koi pond.
3. Taking Stock of Conditions, Materials, and Limitations
Every piece of land offers opportunities and presents challenges. To get the best use out of your garden space, consider the following factors.
Climate, Microclimate, and Sun Orientation
A basic understanding of your local climate is critical to selecting and caring for plants. Start by looking up your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone. Read up on your zone and only choose species that are known to thrive there.
Along with your regional climate, your property—or parts of it—may belong to a microclimate that presents differing conditions from the surrounding area. For example, cities are typically warmer than the rural land that surrounds them.
On an even smaller scale, individual portions of your property may be particularly sunny or shady, creating tiny microclimates that affect which plants you can grow. Understand which areas get more and less sun and arrange your plantings accordingly.
For example, a south-facing wall soaks up the sunshine each day and releases heat during the night, resulting in a frost-resistant surface. You might grow climbing plants or shrubs along sunny walls to capitalize on the extra heat, choosing varieties that might not grow in the cooler parts of your garden.
Soil, Topography, and Drainage
Examine your soil. If it’s full of earthworms, that’s a great sign. If it’s extremely solid, rocky, or sandy, you may need to replace a large quantity with topsoil. You can also adjust your plant selections to choose species that grow well in your existing soil. For example, lots of shrubs, herbs, and root vegetables grow well in sandy soils.
If you want to be thorough, get a soil test.
You can use a home testing kit to learn your soil’s pH level. Or, you can order a lab test that determines the levels of nutrients like potassium, phosphorus, and organic matter. After learning which levels are outside of ideal ranges, you can amend the soil as needed by adding topsoil, compost, or fertilizer.
Another important factor is topography. Topography refers to the slopes, bumps, and other natural features that cover the surface of the land. You may need to redistribute some soil in order to create flat surfaces. Or, you might be able to use natural topography to create diversity in your design. For example, you can turn a low area into a pond or cut ridges or levels into the side of a slope.
Closely related to topography is drainage, i.e. the removal of water from the ground’s surface. Topography and soil composition affect drainage, often creating both opportunities and challenges for gardeners.
To manage drainage proactively, identify problem areas where water pools or floods. Address any issues by installing moisture-loving plants or controlling water flow with swales, berms, or ponds.
Along with climate and ground conditions, take stock of the major existing features that are present in your space. These may include trees and shrubs, paths and fences, grass or other ground covers, and furniture. Decide which elements to keep, which ones to improve, and which ones to remove.
Views and Privacy
Stroll through your garden area and consider the views from inside looking out and from outside looking in. Determine which views to enhance and which ones to block.
For example, the location of a seating area can be informed by the amount of sunlight it receives as well as the view from the seats. Meanwhile, you can plant trees and shrubs or even create a living wall to create a more private space that’s less visible from neighboring properties.
A garden that’s large, visible from the public right of way, or requires substantial construction work may be subject to local regulations. For example, city or county codes or homeowners association (HOA) rules may limit the height of a fence, require a permit for tree removal, or prohibit the flow of water runoff into a sewer. Before you break ground, do your homework to make sure your plans don’t conflict with any applicable restrictions.
4. Making a Garden Design Wish List
Once you’ve gotten a feel for what’s possible in your space, craft a wish list for the items you’d like to include in your design. You can also take this time to prioritize your goals and consider to what extent you’d like to focus on either functionality or aesthetics.
When making your wish list, think about how you want people to feel when they enter your garden. What kind of atmosphere do you want to foster? Cozy, formal, exotic? Consider the plants, materials, and arrangements that will create the desired mood.
If you’re not sure where to start, look into different styles such as cottage gardens, Japanese zen gardens, or wildlife gardens. Perhaps you’d like to focus on native plants and sustainability. Or, you may want to grow some fruits and veggies or try out edible landscaping.
You can fully embrace a certain style, pick and choose elements that you like, or imitate a particular garden you admire.
During this phase, identify the specific features that you would like to include in your garden. Consider how each item could contribute to the overall look and feel of your space. Do you want a pond, fountain, patio, gazebo, or other focal points? What sorts of plants would you like to include?
Certain features (such as shading or drainage installations) might be necessary for practical reasons while others may be included purely for aesthetic purposes.
To collect ideas, use gardening websites and magazines. You may find it useful to create inspiration boards on Pinterest to create an inventory of ideas that catch your eye.
5. Choosing the Right Plants
If gardening is an art form, then choosing the right plants is like blending the perfect colors for your paintbrush. Select varieties that grow well together and form aesthetically pleasing combinations.
Plant Characteristics: Size, Bloom Time, and Growing Requirements
Before deciding to include a certain species, research its characteristics, including size, habit, bloom times, and growing requirements.
Take into consideration the long-term maintenance requirements of your plants; some need regular pruning, lots of water, or more or less direct sunlight.
The My Garden Life Plant Library can help you identify the key details for nearly any flower, shrub, or veggie that you might like to grow. As a member of the Garden Club, you can pin your favorite plants to your account to build your own personal plant library.
What Goes Where? Choosing Garden Locations for Different Plants
When deciding which plants to include in your garden design, think about which area each selection will be best suited for.
Along with accounting for topography and sun orientation, here are a few additional tips for arranging your plantings:
- Along your home’s foundation, use tidy, low-maintenance evergreen shrubs
- Locate shorter species in front of taller ones to create backgrounds and foregrounds
- Low-growing flowering plants are ideal for adding color to border areas
For a more flexible design, do some of your gardening in containers such as flower pots. That way, as your design evolves, you’ll have some plants that can be easily moved into different areas.
Pairing and Arranging Plants for Color, Texture, and Seasonality
Create a beautiful and healthy garden by blending different colors, textures, and seasonality among plants with similar sunlight requirements.
Plant selections should be based on the purpose and design of the garden.
For example, if you’re opting for a wildflower meadow, you can carefully select a variety of native plants that attract pollinators and bring seasonal splashes of color. A formal or contemporary garden, on the other hand, may benefit from tidy grasses and ornamental evergreens which provide structure without much seasonal variance.
Additionally, think about how individual plants may interact with one another visually. Consider color contrasts and foliage shapes and aim to strategically locate your most striking elements in featured locations.
To create visual interest with colors, combine different plants through monochromatic, complementary, or contrasting schemes.
- Monochromatic schemes exhibit various shades of one color.
- Complementary schemes pair colors from opposite sides of the color wheel (such as reds with greens) to produce eye-catching contrast.
- Contrasting schemes use colors closer to each other on the color wheel (such as oranges with yellows) for maximum impact that’s not too jarring on the eyes.
Last but not least, consider methods for making your space look great year-round. Succession planting is the agricultural practice of seeding crops in intervals to maintain a continuous harvest. You can use the same principle in your garden to extend your blooming seasons.
Or, you may prefer to have the entire garden blooming all at once, perhaps even timing your blooms to coincide with the date of an outdoor event that you host.
Along with seasonal planning, you can also look further down the road. Consider which perennials may end up dominating their spaces as they grow year over year and which annuals will need to be replaced.
6. Drawing Your Garden Plan
To move your plan one step closer to fruition, sketch a map. This process helps you visualize and refine your design.
Here’s a suggested outline for drawing a garden map.
- Create a base map of your garden area that includes measurements of the borders and sections. This will serve as a blueprint for the rest of the design process and help you to keep track of your available space.
- Sketch a preliminary design with shapes and borders that define each area in the garden. This rough sketch will help you visualize how different elements can be arranged to create balance and unity.
- Refine the design by accounting for proportions and scale. Consider how much space is required for each element. Don’t forget to consider the shadows cast by taller plants and installations, which could impact views as well as the health of lower-growing plants.
- Fill in details such as specific plants and materials. Add color with a variety of flowers and foliage plants and add texture by including different types of ground coverings (e.g. gravel or bark chips). Carefully arrange your focal points to draw attention from one area to another. Take into account the views from different areas within the garden as well as views from inside your home or from other areas of the property.
7. Bringing Your Garden Design to Life
Before you put your hands in the dirt, create a project timeline and set some goals for completing milestones. Make sure that your goals are realistic and keep in mind that many tasks must be timed seasonally. For example, tree planting should generally occur in fall or spring but not in summer or winter.
Depending on the starting point of your workspace, your first step may be to prepare the site. This means:
- Clearing your outdoor space of any existing materials or structures that aren’t included in your design.
- Grading and shaping the site: this could consist of leveling the ground, creating slopes, or digging swales or ponds.
Next, you can install hardscaping features. These may include:
- A deck or patio
- Water features, such as ponds or fountains
- Seating areas with benches, chairs, or tables
- Interesting elements such as a bird bath or fire pit
When you’re ready to prepare garden beds, follow these steps:
- Loosen compacted soil with a tiller, hoe, or spade.
- Examine the soil; if necessary, perform testing (see Section 3 above) and take steps to amend the soil.
- Depending on the type of plants you’ll be using, additional preparations may be required, such as mulching or adding fertilizer.
- Thoroughly remove weeds.
Finally, you can start planting. Deposit your seeds and starters in their designated locations in accordance with your detailed garden plan.
Keep up with watering, provide additional nutrients as needed, weed regularly, and adjust landscape elements if necessary once the plants begin growing and taking up space.
After planting, you can work on details like flower bed edging, decorations, seating areas, and whatever finishing touches you desire to help bring your dream garden to life.
“Hardscaping” is a term used to describe the non-plant elements of your landscape. It’s a way to add interest and depth to an area by using stone, decorative structures, and fencing to contain and define spaces. For more ideas on how to give your outdoor space better structure and definition see our article on Hardscape Essentials.