Designing a garden before planting can make your work easier and help you get the most out of any garden space.
You don’t have to be a landscape architect to put the basic elements of garden design to work for you. Use the information below to start creating a workable garden design for yourself. And remember that most plants are very forgiving and your garden design should reflect you, rather than a textbook. When I am designing a space in the garden, I use a “Perfect Enough” mindset. Perfect Enough means exactly how it sounds. It will work, I like it, and that’s good enough. It does not have to look like a glossy magazine photograph. Garden design is part science, part art, and part whimsy. So, grab some paper, a pencil with an eraser, and a rough sketch of your garden area, and let’s get started!
Whether you are working with a balcony, a small rental yard, or a more substantial suburban backyard, there are always options for gardening. The first thing you need to ask yourself is:
What do you want out of your garden?
Some people garden for fresh tomatoes, melons, and herbs. Others garden as a means toward self-sufficiency, while some garden out of necessity. Some gardens provide a sense of sanctuary, while others are working kitchen gardens. Keep your unifying goal in mind as you read through these principles of garden design to create a satisfying garden. The next question is:
What do you have to work with?
These are physical properties of your garden and landscape location that directly impact plants:
Principles of design
Professional landscape architects use specific principles of design to help them make good decisions, and you can too. Below, you will find a description of each principle, plus questions to ask yourself about your own space.
The limits of your property certainly create boundaries, but you can use garden beds to build boundaries within boundaries. You may be surprised to learn that the human brain has a certain affinity to specific ratios. These ratios are described by the Golden Mean and Fibonacci Numbers (below). Research has shown that we feel more comfortable with shapes and patterns that follow these two principles. In fact, that’s why credit cards are the shape they are! Many plants grow in patterns using these numbers, as well. As you create boundaries within your garden, see if you can put these numbers to work for you, to create spaces that feel “right”. You can also use boundaries to keep chickens out of the salad patch, nosy neighbors from seeing in, or to hide equipment. Identify the boundaries you have and those you want to add.
Golden Mean refers to a ratio (1:1.618…) in which adding the measurement of one long side plus one short side and dividing that total by the long side equals the measurement of the long side divided by the short side. Don’t panic! For example, if you have a garden plot that is 61.8 feet long and 38.2 feet wide, you have the Golden Mean. Here’s how:
(a/b = b/a+b)
Fibonacci Numbers occur when you take two numbers in sequence and add them together for the next number in the sequence: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, …
What’s really amazing about these two mathematical tidbits is that two consecutive Fibonacci numbers come very close to creating a Golden Mean! Let’s try it and see! We’ll use 5 and 8.
13 / 8 = 1.625
Lines are visual cues that pull our eyes along a certain path. Lines can be straight, curved, vertical, or horizontal. Buildings, fences, pools, existing plants, and paths all create lines.. A row of tall cypress trees will draw your eyes skyward. A curving stone path quietly invites you in to explore. Look at the lines that already exist in your yard and see how each of them makes you feel. Do they fulfill your goals? If not, how can they be changed?
Imagine walking through a garden on a concrete sidewalk. Now imagine walking through the same garden on a path made of wooden planks, or wood chips, or cobblestones. The feel of the entire space changes. Do the current surfaces in your garden allow for proper drainage? Are they durable? Are they comfortable or safe to walk on? Do they match your Dream Garden?
Form, or shape, has a big impact on how a space is perceived. Shape is the two-dimensional view, of say a circle, while form is the three-dimensional sphere. Geometric forms, such as circles and squares, create a more formal garden. Natural forms, such as those created by meandering streams, create a more relaxed atmosphere. When shopping for plants, keep their mature form and shape in mind, as well as size. What shapes will create the feel you are looking for in your garden or landscape?
Texture refers to a plant’s bark, foliage, flowers, and overall structure. Texture can be coarse, medium, or fine. Coarse-textured plants attract attention and delineate space, while fine-textured plants sooth and create openness. Buildings, paths, and other design components also have texture. You can create a sense of space by putting finer textures around the edges, medium textures within that perimeter, and one or a few coarse textured plants closest to the house. The opposite effect can be created by reversing those plantings. How many different textures do you currently have in your garden? Do those textures create the feel you want from your garden? If not, what can you change?
If everything in your garden was green, it would eventually get boring. What colors occur in your garden during each season? Are there times or spaces that need help? You can use a color wheel and color schemes to add balance and contrast to your garden design. The color wheel refers to the three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), three secondary colors (green, orange, and purple), and so on. Color schemes can be monochromatic (all one color, in addition to green foliage), analogous (any 3 to 5 colors that are next to each other on the color wheel), or complementary (colors opposite each other on the color wheel). Keep in mind that the buildings, paths, and other existing features of your yard are part of this color factor, too. What colors already exist on your property? Are there places you can alter to create a more pleasing experience? Since colors have a big impact on mood, you can create the feel you want with these colors:
Garden furniture & art
Most gardens offer a place to sit, to relax, to enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Patio furniture, awnings, yard art, pergolas, picnic tables, fire pits, wood boxes, and all the other manmade elements of your space have an impact on the overall feel of your garden. Looking at what you already have, ask yourself if those items fit in with your overall design, color scheme, forms, and textures.
If time will be spent in the garden or yard at night, lighting can provide safety and atmosphere. Solar lights are a popular choice for illuminating a garden at night, but keep in mind that some plants, like some people, really need the lights out to sleep well. Lighting can be used to shine on paths, doorways, and seating areas without distressing plants.
Your garden is your own. There is no right or wrong way, as long as the needs of your plants are being met and you enjoy it. If you are unsure about how to start, consider these common garden designs:
Plant selection is similar to painting a room. You know what you want the end result to look like, so you go out and buy your paint. A week and half later, you’re still sanding, spackling, and taping. Adding the plants to your garden or landscape, like the paint, is the very last step in a process that takes time. Give yourself permission to take the time you need to plan and prepare properly. After analyzing soil, sunlight, and surfaces, lighting, lines, and location, boundaries, form, and furniture, color, texture, and art, you can finally decide which plants will suit your purposes and your microclimate.
When deciding which plants to put near each other (and which ones need some space), you may want to consider intercropping, or companion planting. While there has been a lot of false claims and propaganda about companion planting, there are some scientific facts that you can put to work for you, such as the Three Sisters Method, used by Native Americans.
As tempting as it is to immediately install your new plants, it is a far better idea to place them in a quarantine area until you are sure that they are pest and disease free. This can save you a lot of time and money in the long run.
When installing plants, be sure that each location will provide the correct sunlight and wind protection. It is nearly always a good idea to install larger plants first, starting with trees, then shrubs, then perennials, and finally annuals and ground cover. Not only will this plan help you to stay focused on the design, but it will also protect smaller plants from being damaged as larger plants are brought in.
I know this sounds like a lot of information. That’s why many people hire professionals, but don’t let that stop you from trying. A printed out Google maps image of your property is an excellent place to start. Heck, print a few of them! Then you can explore each of the design principles, adding what you already have and trying out new ideas without picking up a shovel!
Take some before and after photos and let us see what you have accomplished!
I hope this information inspires you to grow more of your own food. You can ask your garden questions on my Home page.