Designing a garden before planting lightens your workload and helps you get the most out of any garden space.
You don’t have to be a landscape architect to put the elements of garden design to work for you. And remember that most plants are very forgiving. Your garden design should reflect you rather than a textbook. 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 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 do it out of necessity. For some, it provides a sense of sanctuary, while others are working kitchen gardens. Keep your underlying goal in mind as you ask yourself the next question.
What do you have to work with?
The physical properties of your garden and landscape location directly impact plants are soil, sun, and climate. Soil supports your plants. If you use containers or raised beds, soil composition is easy. Just add potting soil. If plants will be grown in the ground, get your soil tested by a reputable local lab. These tests are inexpensive and invaluable.
Top dress your soil with aged compost at the beginning of the design process. As you plan and decide, worms, microorganisms, and other beneficial critters will improve the soil for whatever you plant.
Sun exposure dictates which plants will thrive in your yard. Whatever the design, you will need to work within the parameters created by how much sunlight each area of the garden gets at different times of day and throughout the seasons. Color code your drawing to show which areas get full sun, partial sun, partial shade, or dappled shade, taking hourly notes.
Your microclimate includes plant hardiness zone, annual rainfall, wind, slope, pollutants, and even tap water chemistry, all affect which plants will perform well in your garden.
Principles of design
Professional landscape architects use specific design principles to help them make good decisions, and you can, too. Below, you will find a description of eight design principle with 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. As you create boundaries within your garden, see if they feel right. Whether fences, hedgerows, or walls, boundaries can keep chickens out of the salad patch, nosy neighbors from seeing in, and hide any eyesores. Identify fixed boundaries already in place and those you want to add.
Lines are visual cues that pull our eyes along a path. Lines can be straight, curved, vertical, or horizontal. Buildings, fences, pools, existing plants, and paths create lines. A row of tall sunflowers 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 that garden on a path made of wooden planks, wood chips, or cobblestones. The feel of the entire space changes. Do the surfaces currently 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 and shape have an impact on how a space is perceived. Shapes are two-dimensional. Forms are three-dimensional. Geometric forms, like circles and squares, create a more formal garden. The more natural forms of streams and shrubs create a relaxed atmosphere. When shopping for plants, keep their mature form and shape in mind, as well as size. What shapes and forms will create the feel you want in your garden?
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 soothe and create openness. Buildings, paths, and other design components also have texture. Create a sense of expansion by putting finer textures around the edges, medium textures inside the perimeter, and one or a few coarse-textured plants closest to the house. Reverse those plantings to create a sense of closeness. 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 were 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 color schemes and a color wheel to create balance and add 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).
The buildings, paths, and other existing features of your yard are part of this color factor. What colors already exist on your property? Are there places you can alter to create a more pleasing experience? Research has demonstrated that color plays a role in our moods. What mood do you want to get from your garden?
7. Garden furniture and art
Most gardens offer a place to sit, relax, and enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Patio furniture, awnings, yard art, pergolas, picnic tables, fire pits, and all the other elements of your space influence 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.
Lighting can provide safety and add atmosphere to a landscape. Solar lights are a popular choice for illuminating a garden at night, but some plants, like some people, need the lights out to sleep well. Consider directing outdoor lighting onto paths, doorways, and seating areas to avoid distressing plants.
Your garden is your own. There is no right or wrong garden design, as long as your plants are healthy and you enjoy it. If you are unsure about how to start, consider these garden themes:
Plant selection is similar to painting a room. You know what you want the result to look like, so you buy your paint. A week goes by, and you are still sanding, spackling, and taping. Adding plants to your garden or landscape, like the paint, is the last step in a process that takes time. Permit yourself to take the time you need to plan and prepare. After analyzing soil, sunlight, surfaces, lighting, lines, location, boundaries, form, furniture, color, texture, and art, you can finally decide which plants will suit your purposes and microclimate.
While deciding which plants to put near each other (and which ones need some space), you may want to consider companion planting. While there have been a lot of false claims and propaganda about companion planting, there are some scientific facts you can put to work for you, such as the Three Sisters Method of growing corn, squash, and pole beans together, used by Native Americans.
As tempting as it may be to install your new plants as soon as you get home, it is a far better idea to place them in a quarantine area until you are sure that they are free of pests and diseases, saving you a lot of time and money in the long run.
When installing plants, ensure that each location provides 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 ending with 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 by the installation of larger plants.
Print a Google Maps image of your property for an easy place to start. Heck, print a few of them! Then play around with it. Explore each of the design principles. Pencil some new plants in. Use your eraser and different colors. Add what you already have and try new ideas before picking up a shovel!
Take some before and after photos and enjoy what you accomplish!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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