Written by davethetreecenters • March 04 Design Your Garden – Part 1

With winter drawing to a close in most parts of the country – and flowers already showing on early bloomers in the south – it seems like a good time to put some thought into laying out your garden. Perhaps you have just moved into a new home, with an existing garden that you don’t like, and you picture something much better. Maybe your present garden is overgrown and not what you would like. Whichever is you, creating something better is not as hard as you might think. You don’t need to be artistic, or know all about plants, you just need to know what you want and what you like. This will be the first of a series scattered over the next few weeks, with ideas of how to go about that. Let’s get started.

When most people think ‘design your garden’ they picture either hiring a designer or being able to draw beautiful plans with pencil and paper or use a computer design program. Far better, and easier, is to work standing in the garden, instead of sitting at your computer with a program that you now must learn how to use. It is very easy to get lost in the process and the software, and forget the goal, so let’s forget all about that stuff. Instead, start with what you already have, and what you want.

Your Existing Assets

What trees or larger shrubs are already on your property? Make a list and try to identify them – maybe a neighboring gardener can help with that. If you like the look of them, let’s try to keep them, unless they are obviously in the way of something important you want. In a perfect world you would wait a year to see what your garden does, but that is rarely practical for most of us, who want to get on with things. Make a list, and if you want, draw a rough sketch showing where they are. Trees take decades to grow, and sometimes a tree can be greatly improved by a tree surgeon, so don’t be quick with that chain saw! Smaller shrubs are much more expendable, and most older gardens have lots of worn-out old shrubs, in old varieties, which can easily be replaced with much better plants, that will grow quickly – so unless they seem special, or are in a good location, treat them as expendable.

Your Wish List

Now sit down and think about what you want your garden for. There are lots of options. Casual barbeques with the family? Entertaining friends? A play area for your children? A secluded place to retreat too with a book/beer/cocktail? A place to grow food to supplement the table, enjoy real freshness and save money? A beautiful welcome on the street for visitors and to raise that all-important curb appeal? Attractive views from windows? A collection of rare and unusual plants?

You can see there are lots of possible choices, so make a list in order of importance. Some of these things are general concepts, but others need particular areas – perhaps a lawn, patio, play-house, vegetable plot, etc.

Create Outdoor Rooms

Your home already comes equipped with rooms for different functions, but your garden is open, and probably has no more than an area between the house and the road, and an area out back. Creating spaces for those activities is a great approach to garden design, with functional areas that satisfy the different activities. Don’t forget – as designers often do – to have a space for compost, storing soil or manure, and perhaps you want an outdoor building for garden tools and supplies, if you don’t have room in, or easy access to, your garage.

Now stand in the garden, at the curb, or at those windows, like the kitchen, and think about how to arrange those spaces. For example, if you have a kids’ play space on your list, you probably want it where you can keep an eye on them from the kitchen, or wherever you spend most of your time. The retreat you dream off will be best in a corner somewhere – just not next to the compost bins! Those too should be tucked away, and while a bed of kitchen herbs is useful just outside the backdoor, a vegetable garden can be further away. If you do have a site drawing to scale, then you can make pieces of paper roughly the size you think you need for those activities, and juggle them around on the plan, but really, standing out in the garden and going, “maybe over here for the barbeque”, is an approach that works better for many people. Some string and sticks are useful to sketch out areas, or a hose. Working on the ground is almost always easier if you are not a designer, as we think better in real situations.

Choose a Style

So now you have a general idea of what you want to keep, and a feel for where you might want to have the functional areas of your garden – including any patio or terraces. Now, time to relax and think about general styling. This is a matter of personal taste, and what kind of an area you already have. For example, if you have an older home, it could be mid-century, or even older (at least in style). A mid-century home looks best surrounded by curved beds and flowing pathways, in the same style as your home. Likewise, if you have a colonial-style home, then a more formal layout, with low hedges and some clipped plants is more appropriate.

If you are not sure what you like, pick up a pile of gardening magazines, or create a Pinterest folder, and collect garden pictures you like. When you look at them all together, your taste in gardens will stare back at you.

If you live in a rural area, you might have a wooded area, so a semi-natural, woodland garden will probably be best. With a town home you most likely have a small, enclosed courtyard-style garden, and something minimal and perhaps Asian-influenced might look perfect. In a larger garden there is a general ‘rule’ that close to the house should be more in keeping with the architecture (modern, formal, etc.) but as you move away the garden should become more relaxed and natural. Even if you are not in a natural area, you can create that look by planting a mixture of shade and flowering trees around the boundary, mixed with larger shrubs and ground-cover, which will gradually become ‘semi-wild’ as the plants grow and mature.

How Much Time do You Have?

This is a vital question to end with for now, before you get too far along the road. This is not about the time to build your garden – which of course is also important, but about how much time you have or want to give to it long term. Every garden needs some attention, particularly at key times of year, if only for general clean up. Features like formal hedges and clipped plants, or areas with bulbs and annual flowers, need more work, so realistically, how much time to you have, and how much time do you want to spend working in your garden? Think of hours per week – zero, two, five, ten? The answer will help you decide what to plan and plant, which we will talk about in the next blog in a couple of weeks. By then you will have all this preliminary looking and thinking sorted, right?