How to Design a Garden

awn junction with border of herbaceous planting with betula jacquemontii
Bird baths and other accents can be part of your garden design. Clive Nichols / Getty Images

Growing plants well is a wonderful thing but arranging them in a handsome landscape is even better! A good landscape design plays many roles. It blends the house into the yard, making the entire property look good and increasing property values. Through the design of the landscape, you can create outdoor privacy with vine-covered trellises, hedges, fences, or informal clusters of plants that act like walls of an outdoor room. You can seclude certain areas of the yard or buffer the entire property perimeter.

Landscape designs might include work areas, places for composting or vegetable gardening, even areas for storing trash cans and other less-than-decorative necessities. You can designate places for entertaining -- decks, patios, barbecue pits, or perhaps a white garden for guests to enjoy on a moonlit night. You can even have areas designed especially for the dog or the children's play equipment.


What Can Your Garden Do for You?

A beautifully designed landscape may look attractive, but if it doesn't accommodate the needs of the people who use the property, it is not practical. Before finalizing the plan for your space, discuss it with members of your household. Use them as a sounding board as you think about needs and plans for the space, whether it is small or large. Make a list of the functions that you'll want each area of your property to serve. Once you list everything you want, you can begin to find room for it all and start getting the most important elements in place.

In this article we will discuss the many aspects of good garden design, including everything from planning your garden on paper to placing various garden elements. We'll look at different types of gardens, and decorative elements such as color, shapes, paths, and fences.

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Garden Color

These shastas use color to make a dramatic impact, with their bright yellow petals and dark centers.

Just as you'd think about color, texture, and form before selecting furnishings and paint for a room, you also need to consider these elements in landscape design. You'll find a wide array of options available in building materials, paving materials, types of leaves and flowers, textures of bark and shapes of trees, and even the types and colors of mulch. Are you interested in a punchy blend of contrasting colors, like rich red with mossy greens? A garden of blue flowers accented with pale yellow ones? A blast of hot-colored azaleas and bulbs in the spring? Soothing greens that last through the year? Warm earth tones? Analogous colors in careful harmony?

Use warm colors and cool colors to give the garden just the right amount of emphasis. Warm colors such as yellow, orange, and red are bold and appear visually to be closer to you than they are. This makes them ideal for a garden located farther away from your house. Cool colors such as blue and purple recede from the eye and look farther away than they really are. They make pleasant, quiet gardens close to the house, but they may be lost if placed farther away.


You can blend cool and warm colors to give a feeling of movement and depth to the garden. Color blends also provide vivid contrast, which some people find exhilarating. Analogous colors, whether warm or cool, are next to one another on a color wheel and effortlessly harmonize together. If you're not born with the kind of flair for color that lets you find unique combinations successfully, find a color theme you like and stay with it throughout the landscape. This will give your property a designed look.

In the next section, read about how carefully choosing textures and forms will further complete your well-designed garden.

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Garden Texture and Forms

Artichokes are not only edible, they also offer great textures to your garden.

As with color, you can give your garden a finished and designed look with texture and forms. The whole design should have cohesiveness, which you can achieve with repetition. If you have a brick walkway, use more brick for other elements such as terraces or built-in planters. It doesn't all have to be brick -- you might have a path of "freebie" wood chips, but edge it with two lines of brick just for the sake of continuity. If you have stone in one place, brick over here, railroad ties over there, and round cement pavers in another spot, it all looks too jumbled.

Consider varying leaf sizes for more design interest. Large leaves like those on hostas or oak leaf hydrangeas advance and stand out (similar to warm-colored flowers). They are striking in prominent locations, but if overused they will lose their impact.


Small or finely textured leaves, as on thread leaf coreopsis or carrot tops, recede from the eye and look farther away. They can best be appreciated up close. If you are trying to make a garden look deeper, these varieties might be used toward the rear as a floral optical illusion. But when used exclusively, fine-textured leaves may look busy and weedy.

Flower size is another variable for an interesting design. Large flowers are bold and prominent. Smaller flowers and fine flower clusters recede. Blending airy small flower sprays with large, bold flowers combines the best of both textures. Planting larger flowers toward the front of a garden and smaller flowers toward the rear increases visual depth.

So, what is your personal style? Do you dream of an English garden or are you more prone to feel at home in a casual setting? On the next pages, we will look at garden styles.

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Determine Your Garden Style

The bright and varying colors of wildflowers might be part of your ideal garden.

Before you start buying things for your landscape, think about what you like, what goes with your home, and the amount of finishing and trimming you are interested in doing. Stylized topiaries (plants trimmed into geometric or fanciful shapes) must be nipped into shape every month or so, but naturalistic, dwarf plants take care of their shape pretty much by themselves. Styles of gardening vary around the world and in different eras. If attempting a historically correct garden, choose a selection of old-fashioned plants instead of new cultivars that were not available in that period.

There are fashions in plants and garden accessories just as there are fashions in clothing, music, and indoor furnishings. A recent planting fashion combined chartreuse-leaved plants with purple-leaved plants, and suddenly people were doing this everywhere. It's a good idea to think about style and keep the varied parts of your landscape in sync with one another. On a larger property, you can use a formal landscaping style near the home, but as the distance from the home increases, have the style become more informal and natural looking to blend into the surrounding countryside.


Some people prefer the orderly lines and shapes of a formal garden, but such a layout does require a certain amount of upkeep. Learn more on the next page.

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Formal Gardens

Bird baths are often seen in formal gardens.

A formal garden is a neatly trimmed, geometric, and, often symmetrical garden. It relies on handsome garden accessories of a classic nature, such as a pair of large urns on either side of the door, planted identically. If there is a path, it is likely to lead to a finely crafted bench or a gazebo.

Massed ground covers, lines of trees or shrubs equidistantly planted along a long drive, and tidy lawns fit the scene. Well-kept evergreens such as boxwood are in keeping with formal style. Pavements for pathways and terraces may be of brick, stone, or concrete. Outdoor furniture is classic and looks more civilized than rustic. However, well-made modern furnishings and accessories can also be used in a formal manner. Whimsy is out -- no painted plywood cutouts allowed!


If this style seems too straight-laced for your taste, you might prefer to know what is allowed in an informal garden. Read about it on the next page as we continue our discussion of garden styles.

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Informal Gardens

This casual garden frames a path with a varieties of plants that are allowed to grow freely.

An informal garden is naturalistic and usually includes asymmetrically placed design elements, naturally shaped plants and beds, curved spaces, rustic-looking furnishings, and more casual pavings, like decking and even wood chips. It can be flowery and colorful or low key to suit the personality of the gardener.

Furnishings can be of either traditional or modern design, but they are comfortable looking. This style sometimes employs unusual accents, such as a back-door frame painted to match nearby plantings or a sweep of tall ornamental grasses in a broad, cloudlike band.


Whether your are leaning towards a formal or an informal garden, you will need to make a landscape plan to help you determine where your plants and accents should go. In the following sections, you'll get tips on putting together your plans.

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Landscape Plans

A landscape plan may include plants, hedges, mulches, flower and ground-cover beds, and shrub or flower borders, which, together, comprise the softscapes. Planning softscapes requires knowledge of plant material and soil quality, plus a good sense of design.

Hardscapes, the other important part of landscape design, include patios, walkways, stairways, decks, walls, fences, pools, driveways, built-in planters, and parking areas. Major changes in hardscape are feats of engineering, requiring precise measurements and knowledge of foundation footings and soil settlement ratios, so it is wise to have the work designed and supervised by a professional landscape architect (unless you have outstanding skill and experience). Gardeners can manage smaller hardscape projects, such as making paths and edging beds, without too much difficulty.


Both softscape and hardscape projects should be planned out on paper before you order gravel and cement and start digging. On the next page, learn about creating your own garden plan.

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How to Create a Garden Plan

Drawing a landscape plan will help you place your garden elements.

Draw a map of your property as it is, and use it to decide where the new garden features, beds, and plantings will go. This will keep you from making mistakes when you start buying and planting. The map needs to be to scale -- an exact replica of your property in miniature. Many designers use a scale in which 1/4 inch on the plan (a single square of graph paper) equals one foot in your landscape. This scale usually provides enough room to show considerable detail but is likely to require the use of oversized paper to fit everything on one sheet. You can tape several sheets of graph paper together to get the size you need.

This is a good opportunity to decide what to keep and what to eliminate from your current layout. What do you like about your home's existing landscape? Perhaps its pavements and patios are already the way you like them, and you just want to expand or beautify the gardens. Perhaps there are treasured old trees that have taken generations to grow. Perhaps the existing shrubs are good but overgrown and need professional pruning, not total replacement. Perhaps your grandmother's iris is overgrowing its space. It can be divided and used as a mass planting elsewhere on the property. Look over everything with a cold eye and evaluate whether it looks good, is in good shape, fits your plan, and should be retained somewhere.


You have four options with every feature: keep it, improve it, move it, or get rid of it. It takes many years for a tree to mature, so think twice before cutting one down. If it's gone, what will the view be like? Its replacement may take too many years to grow to fill the space, so consider whether shaping, thinning, and pruning an existing tree will make it a grand part of your plan. Nonetheless, if a tree is badly diseased or damaged, it may not be salvageable.

Once you have your measurements and know what you want to keep and what you would like to change, you can get started on your scale drawing. Even if you're not much of an artist, the tips on the next page will help you make a neat drawing.

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How to Make a Scale Drawing of Your Garden

Making your plan to scale will ensure that you actually have enough space for all your design elements.

A map will help you plan out the design of your garden before you've turned over a single shovelful of soil. It is important, however, to use a scale drawing, so that you can get precise measurements for each garden feature. Here's how any amateur gardener can become a skillful draftsman.

Measure the yard using a measuring tape (50-foot lengths work well), and sketch the perimeter on graph paper. Draw in existing trees, shrubs, fences, and other features you intend to keep, using an overhead, bird's-eye view. Trees and shrubs appear to be circular blobs, and fences look rather linear. Draw in the existing lawn. Make some copies so you can experiment with designs. Then pencil in possible bed outlines and imagine how they will look. Once you've decided on the location of the beds, draw in the plants you want to add (at the proper spacing) and get an accurate count of how many plants you'll need. There are computer programs available for home landscapers who want to test various designs from natural as well as overhead views.


You have a scale drawing of your existing landscape and have made multiple copies for worksheets. Now draw a simple sketch showing the general location of the elements needed in relation to the house and to one another. For instance, if an outdoor eating area is needed, sketch it near the kitchen or dining room for a good transition between indoors and outdoors. The relationship diagram will help you in the beginning steps of putting a plan together. Your considerations should include the amount of maintenance time you plan to spend in the yard.

The next step in planning your garden is about garden placement. You will need to think about the physical and geological conditions you'll be gardening under, as well as the all-important question of grass. How do you decide? Read our advice on the next page.

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Garden Placement

When planning your garden, your calculations will have to take the physical limitations of your site into consideration. What are the actual pros and cons of your conditions? Does the land slope or is it level? Is the site sunny or shady? Filled with tree roots or not? Certain kinds of gardens can only be placed in certain kinds of exposures.

For instance, you may want to plant an herb garden, which needs full sun, near the kitchen and the deck. But if this area is heavily shaded by an important tree that you wouldn't dream of removing, you'll have to change your plan and either give up on the idea of herbs or place them in a sunny area in another part of your landscape. Sometimes necessities like this lead to wonderfully imaginative solutions. Those herbs could be put into a large planter next to your front door, where you can brush by them every day and enjoy their scent when you come and go.


Be sure to match the flowering plant to the site. Most flowers are high-performance plants, especially sensitive to inadequacies in light, moisture, soil, or other elements. Give them exactly what they need to thrive.

In the following section, we shall take a look at how to develop your ideas for your garden design and make them workable with the space that you have.

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Developing Your Garden Design Ideas

Cutting and pasting your ideas is a great way to pass the winter.

As you develop your ideas, try working with actual images of your yard. Take photos and photocopy them. You can shoot the entire front or backyard, the plantings around the house's foundation, or individual gardens. Enlarge the photos, then sketch in prospective new plants to get an idea of how they will look. A great time to do this is in winter. Although the yard may be dormant, you won't forget how it looks in other seasons.

If your house is visible from a road, you have a public view area. Think of your house, or front door, as the focal point of a picture. You'll want to frame the view, to draw attention to your house. Typically, foundation plantings are set at the base of the house to frame the house and connect it to the landscape. Foundation plantings can be a simple mix of small evergreens and flowering shrubs, ornamental trees, ground covers, and herbaceous plants. Consider shade when choosing trees; deciduous trees will shade your home in the summer while allowing sunlight in during the winter. Be sure to screen service areas -- trash cans, laundry lines, and the like -- from public view with shrubs or fencing.

You'll want to develop other sections of your landscape for outdoor living. You may decide to incorporate a service area -- a toolshed or clothesline. It should be convenient to the house yet tucked away from private entertaining and away from public view. Landscape designs might include work areas; places for composting, plant propagation, or vegetable gardening; even areas for storing trash cans and other less-than-decorative necessities. On the other hand, if you have a great view of a lake or a farm, don't cover it up with too many fences and shrubs. Frame your view with careful placement of plantings off to the sides.

If children will be using your landscape, a swing set or sandbox may be in your plans. There are attractive designs that look natural and fit into the landscape nicely. You'll want this area set aside from heavy traffic yet still in full view for easy supervision. Separate the dining and entertaining area from the children's area with a dwarf shrub border. It will seem more private but will still offer a view of the kids at play. One great idea for a children's sandbox is to make it look like a raised bed, in sight of the outdoor dining area. Instead of mulch and plants, fill it with sand and kids.

A private entertaining and dining area is among the most common functions of a well-planned landscape. Design it as you would a comfortable room in your house. The size of the area should be determined by the number of people who will be accommodated. A patio with an adjacent lawn for occasional spillover works well. Shade, as well as privacy, can be achieved through proper selection and placement of screening materials and a canopy of trees. All the furnishings and materials should complement the style of the house, whether it is modern or traditional.

The same goes for shapes. Go to the next page to read about why the shapes of your beds and lawn are important to the overall result of your garden design.

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Garden Shapes

Dig your flower bed in a shape that will complement your garden design.

Plan the shape of the lawn, which is usually the biggest feature in a yard. The lawn's shape should set the tone for the shape of the beds. If it's designed with straight or gradually curving lines, the lawn can make a pretty picture and remain easy to mow. Avoid sharp turns, wiggly edges, and jagged corners that are irritating to the eye and extra work to mow. Your lawn is an important part of the landscape. However, if space is tight you can replace lawn with pavement or decking for your outdoor living area or with ground covers and paths.

The shapes of the garden beds, paved areas, and lawn areas all contribute to the overall look of your garden. Don't muddy the design with too many small shapes or too many kinds of shapes; make sure shapes relate to one another and the property itself. Rectangles alternated with kidney bean shapes can get pretty weird looking.

A sloping, hilly property usually is easiest to landscape with simple, flowing, curved bed and walkway shapes that relate to its contours. To do otherwise could involve lots of professionally built, straight-edged terraces, steps, retaining walls, and other expensive hardscapes. But the landscape does not have to be all one shape. Most plots of land are rectangular, with a house in the middle somewhere. The garden beds at the edges can either be gently curved or follow the straight lines of the overall plot. Or a large circle or oval of grass can be completely surrounded with pavements and plantings out to the edge of the property line.

Proportions in a garden are perhaps even more important than shapes. On the next page we have set up a few easy-to-follow guidelines to size your garden features appropriately.

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Garden Proportions

©2007 Jupiter Images Corporation Flower beds, borders, and paths all add form to your garden.

Proportions of garden features are even trickier than shapes. Don't clutter the view with a lot of little shapes. Here are some general guidelines.

Island Beds

Make island beds half as wide as the distance from where you view them. Island beds, often oval or kidney-shaped, are situated in areas of lawn where they can be viewed from all sides. They may be near a corner of your yard or by your driveway or entrance walk. No matter

where you put it, an island bed needs to be wide enough to look substantial from your house, patio, or kitchen window -- wherever you usually are when you see it. A tiny garden located far from the house is more comical than beautiful. So, for example, if an island bed is 20 feet away, make it 10 feet across. In very large yards, keep island beds closer to the house if you don't have time to tend a large island bed.


Borders can take up to half of the space in a small- or medium-size yard. For example, a 40-foot-wide yard could have one border 20 feet wide or two borders 10 feet wide. Borders -- traditional gardens usually set at the edge of a yard, fence, or hedge -- also need enough size to be in scale and make an impact in the yard. Wider borders can accommodate taller plants, including trees, shrubs, and large clumps of perennials and ornamental grasses, taking on a rich diversity.

Another element of garden development is laying out pathways. Different kinds of suitable paving and shapes and sizes need to be taken into considereation when you plan your paths. Read more about it on the next page.

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Garden Paths

Build garden paths anywhere that gets enough foot traffic to wear out the grass. Paths make pleasant straight or curving lines through the yard and make it easier to get where you need to go in wet weather. They also save you the trouble of having to constantly reseed barren, foot-worn areas.

If you have a large lot, make paths wide enough for two people to walk side by side. If your path is of grass, make it wide enough to accommodate a lawn mower. Give your paths turns or curves so that part of the scene comes as a surprise as you stroll. Terraces and patios, too, should have an uncrowded feeling, with plenty of space for the furniture plus more for walking around the tables and chairs. Include extra space for container gardens.

Paving materials range in style, price, ease of installation and maintenance, and appearance. Here are four popular options:

  • Irregular flagstones create a casual but handsome appearance. The walkway is leveled and laid out carefully on a gravel bed, with or without mortar. For a more formal appearance, rectangular stones are used.
  • Professionally laid brick paving is durable and rather formal. There are several possible patterns and edgings, but simpler styles look best. Paving bricks are flatter and broader than bricks for buildings. Recycled or antique bricks can be used for pavings and edgings.
  • An ordinary concrete sidewalk, plain and simple, is a good-looking and practical choice and is usually less expensive than stone or brick. Be sure to make the path sufficiently broad or it may look too cramped.
  • Where a path is needed, and a casual look is desired, wood or bark chips can be used. This kind of path is permeable, so water does not run off, which makes it environmentally friendly. Because the chips break down, a new layer must be added from time to time to refresh the path. The old, decomposing chips can be left in place under the new ones or used for mulching or soil enrichments.

Often your garden will need to be fenced in. You may want privacy, or simply desire some decoration. Whatever your rationale, there are several types of fences to choose from. We will look at some of the most common styles in the next section.

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Garden Fences

©2007 Jupiter Images Corporation The white picket fence is beautiful, but may not always be the most practical.

Fences can be made of wood or lookalike plastic timber. Different sizes and patterns affect the style and function. No fence lasts forever, but better woods like cedar and redwood have longer lives.


A stockade fence is practical for total privacy, for it makes a solid wall. It is often used near a busy street and to keep pets and children inside the yard. Usually made of unpainted cedar, this fence requires little maintenance.

Picket fences are more for design than practicality. Traditional in New England and other places, picket fences, short or tall, have a friendly feeling but still mark property lines and boundaries. They are usually painted white and utilize boards that are pointed at the top.

The rustic cedar split-rail fence is often used on farms and properties with lots of acreage. Simple and inexpensive, it marks the property line and, at the right height, can be used to outline pastures for cattle and horses. Individual rails can be replaced if necessary, without redoing the entire fence.

While many board fences have a front side and a back side, one particular type of board fence alternates the fronts and the backs, so it looks the same from both sides. That is why it is referred to as a "good neighbor" fence. It is not uncommon for neighbors to decide to install this type of fence on their mutual property line and share the cost.

You have a very large palette of design elements to choose from when planning out your garden. With the help of these tips, you should be able to create a garden that reflects your personal tastes while making your home look beautiful.

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