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How to Design Gardens

Tree, Shrub, and Vine Design Ideas

Designing your landscape is much like decorating your home, but you need to plan even more carefully. After all, you can always move the sofa or change the picture on the wall until you get just the right effect. However, you can rarely move a tree, shrub, or vine once it is established. You should plan your landscape on paper first if you want it to be effective.

Use graph paper to update your yard.

Use graph paper to map out your yard.

Start by mapping out your yard. Graph paper is perfect for planning: It takes much of the difficulty out of measurement (each square can be a precise measurement, say 1 foot by 1 foot) and makes drawing straight lines a snap. Draw in the permanent structures first: the house, the garage, the sidewalk, the driveway, and anything else you will not be moving or changing in a major way. Include such features as windows in your house, which help determine special views you'll want to enhance. Draw these in pen.

Next consider any plants or secondary constructions (fences, garden walls, lights poles, and the like) that are already in place and not likely to change. These can be either penciled in or inked in, depending on how sure you are that they really will be conserved. Remember to add utilitarian constructions such as telephone poles, tool sheds, and fire hydrants that you may want to make less visible, as well as any features of your neighbor's yard that you want to either continue to enjoy or hide from sight. Don't include anything you intend to remove. You now have the base on which to develop your plan.

The next step is to start testing your landscape ideas. Make several copies of your base map so that changes are easy, and you have a clean copy for your final plan. Pencil in a few shrubs or trees (or cut out their forms in paper and paste them in place). If the initial results look good on paper, try putting more plants elsewhere. Any time something you add doesn't please you, just erase it and start again. Consider your family's needs both now and in the future; the plantings should mesh with these requirements. For example, if you have young children and intend to install an above-ground pool to keep them busy for the summer, don't plan to plant tall trees nearby because their shade simply won't be welcome.

Once you have your plan, it is time to start shopping for plants, but again, only on paper. At this point, look for shapes, forms, and heights rather than specific species. Try to visualize the height of the plants you want, and the space they'll take up. Include some variety in your plan but don't hesitate to use the same plant in different places or in mass plantings. The pattern thus created will help unify the landscape. Plantings of totally disparate trees, shrubs, and vines will look like a hodgepodge collection. Consider contrast and balance, texture and color, scale and form. If you have large trees on your lot, remember that the scale of your plantings will have to be much larger than in a yard with no trees or only young ones. Large trees tend to dwarf other plants unless the other plants are large also. You might want to color in your plan at this point with different shades of green or spots of color to represent flowering shrubs, trees, and vines.

Planning on Paper

Use graph paper to develop a scale drawing of your house and yard. Ink in permanent structures, then pencil in those features that you are considering planting. Make ample notes to help you better organize your thoughts. When you've developed a plan that seems to meet all your needs, you can begin to look for the proper species to plant. Pencil in potential plantings until you have a design that suits your needs.

Putting Woody Plants to Use

Accent Plants

An accent plant usually stands out from the other plants surrounding it because of an unusual feature. Don't overdo accent plants, or they lose their effectiveness. They are designed to draw the eye, and the eye can't look in several directions at once. One accent plant per major garden feature per season is plenty.

Accent plants stand out from other trees, shrubs, and vines.

An accent plant stands out.

Many woody plants are well-suited to serve as garden accents: incidental features that highlight part of the landscape and draw the eye to it. Unlike annuals and perennials, which certainly make excellent accent plants when they are in bloom, many woody plants can offer season-long interest. It may be a special shape or texture or foliage of a contrasting color. It could simply be a plant that would be quite ordinary in other circumstances but stands out because it is different from the surrounding plants. For example, an upright shrub would make a good accent in a bed of low, spreading ground covers. Small weeping trees often make excellent accents, since they are tall enough to be visible year-round, and their pendulous branches look intriguing even when they are not clothed in leaves.

Shade Trees

Shade trees need to be carefully placed, or they will quickly crowd each other out. Check eventual width and plant them so they will barely touch at maturity. Try planting shade trees about 20 feet from the house on the southwest or west sides. They make convenient air conditioners, lowering the indoor temperature by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Deciduous shade trees have the advantage of blocking excess summer sun but, when their leaves fall, they let in light during the winter when it is most needed. Place them at the corners of the house rather than directly in front of the windows. This ensures they don't block your view, and trees that frame a house make it look more attractive.

When planting shade trees, remember to leave some room for sunlight in your yard, especially if you have or intend to have a swimming pool or a flower, water, or vegetable garden. You can plant shade trees to the north or northeast of these features, where they will cast minimal shadows.

Flowering Trees

These are usually smaller than shade trees and are not as likely to overpower the landscape. They make excellent accents when planted singly, and this is often their best use on small lots. On larger ones, you can try mass plantings or repeating them to define a straight or curved line. Many flowering trees offer all-season interest, with spring flowers, green or bronze summer foliage, colorful leaves in the fall, and bright berries or attractive bark in the winter.

Shrubs are quite easy to incorporate into the landscape as long as their eventual height and width are taken into account. Don't fill up a planting space with young shrubs for an immediate effect. Although it will look good at the moment and perhaps for a year or so after that, it won't take long before the area is terribly overcrowded. Instead, place the shrubs so they will create the best effect when mature; fill in the gaps with mulch or temporary plantings (annuals, perennials, bulbs, and the like). When used as hedges, shrubs can be planted much closer together than they normally would be.

Shrubs can be planted singly, as accent plants, or in borders, often to form a background for other garden plants. Although a shrub border can be composed of mixed plants, you'll get better results by grouping several of a given type together or by repeating a particular shrub elsewhere in the border rather than by using one of a dozen different types of shrubs. Mass plantings of the same shrub are also attractive.

Vines are a great design piece because they cover ugly elements.

Vines add height and beauty, while disguising
elements you want to hide.

Foundation Plantings

Most houses, with their rigid construction and geometric outline, look peculiar if surrounded by lawn only. Houses can best be integrated into the surrounding land through foundation plantings. Plant shrubs and vines, possibly even small trees, near the walls of the building. Do not place foundation plants too close together or too close to the walls. Find out their full diameter at maturity and space them appropriately. Shrubs, even narrowly upright ones, should be planted at least three feet from the walls. If you have an overhang on your roof -- plant the shrubs completely outside the drip line of the overhang. Roots under roofs or porticos will not receive any rain water.

Low-growing and spreading shrubs are ideal subjects for foundation plantings. Vines growing up trellises also make excellent foundation plants. Don't be afraid to mix in perennials or substitute a beautiful perennial garden for shrubs.


Climbing plants are ideal for landscaping because their height and width are limited by the structures on which they grow. Unless climbing plants "escape" by reaching into nearby trees or other structures, they'll remain within bounds. Be careful about planting clinging vines, such as English ivy, up against the house itself. If the mortar is weak, the vine can damage the house's structure. (Scrape at the mortar with a key: If it resists, there will be no danger of damage.) Just in case, consider training vines up trellises set about a foot away from the house.

In the next section, we'll discuss how to design a garden for shade.