So you want to design your own garden? You don’t need a degree, or years of study to do a good job of it – just a grasp of some basic principles and ideas that you can build on as you go. Maybe you want to improve an existing garden, or maybe you are starting from scratch on a new lot. Either way, the same principles apply – as they do to designing anything at all. Let’s take a look.
Create Garden Zones
A key place to start is to figure out what your garden is for. Looking at? Playing in? Entertaining? Growing food?
Most gardens are all or most of those things, and good place to start is to figure out where each activity is going to happen. If you want to grow food, do you want a dedicated area, or will you grow fruit bushes and cabbages among your flowers, in the old cottage garden way? A children’s play area needs to be visible from windows, ideally perhaps the kitchen, so that you can keep an eye on them. Maybe you want a secluded spot to read, do yoga, meditate or just be alone? If you entertain there might need to be seating, and space enough for the numbers of people you will have over. Maybe that can also be an area for summer eating with the family. What about a pool? If you are thinking of one in the future, keep that area as a play lawn, and when the kids get older it can become a pool they and their friends will use (and you too!).
Find a Suitable Style
There are certain ‘looks’ we find in most gardens. A good place to start is to browse garden magazines and drive around different neighborhoods. You can also visit big gardens open to the public – a great place to pick up ideas. Once you find a look you like, ask yourself:
- Is it mostly using straight lines or curves?
- Is it a classic look around older homes, or does it have a contemporary feel?
- Do you want a garden with an Asian feel to it?
All these gardens have distinctive elements in them that, if you do the same, will give you a similar feel. Don’t try for an exact copy unless you are super-dedicated – just aim for the same atmosphere. Remember that some elements in certain gardens, like perfectly-clipped hedges, shaped bushes, trellises of roses, for example, need a lot of upkeep and care – are you ready for that? If not then choose something more casual, that is less labor-intensive. For more details on garden styles, check out our on-going series on garden styles through this introductory piece. Notice the links early on to specific styles.
Build a Unified Look – unity matters
Too many gardens are simply a jumble of areas and plants, with no sense of unity – a oneness that makes areas look complete. There are key ways to achieve this:
- Repetition – using the same plants, or design elements – for example a row of bushes or a line of pots – ties an area together. So does repeating the same plant(s) along a bed. If you have a favorite plant, especially if it’s easy-care and versatile. Lots of people use these ‘signature plants’ to give their garden a personal look. Catmints, for example, are great neutral colors that fill spaces and make for excellent repetition.
- Groups – another way to get unity is to cluster plants together – always use odd numbers, like 3, 5 or 7 – to emphasize their beauty and to fill larger areas. This could be a cluster of upright trees on a lawn, or a flow of rose bushes through a bed.
- Continuity – a hedge that flows around an area of the garden is a great example of how continuity creates a unified garden look. Using the same materials for pathways does the same, as you circulate around the spaces.
RHYTHM & LINE
The kinds of lines you use – straight or curving – play a big part in how your garden looks. When you lay out curved beds, use a hose-pipe to create pleasant curves. For straight lines, always use strings – a crooked ‘straight’ line just looks messy.
Just as the flow of your edges will create a pattern, so repetition of plants will give a beat to your garden design. Rhythm can be from even spacing, but also from irregular but repeating spacing of the same plant or design feature.
Make Sure You Have Balance
When you stand back from an area of the garden, or perhaps look at it from the curb, does it look balanced? Balance comes from distributing different visual elements evenly across a space. This can be symmetrical – a pair of bushes on either side of the front door – or asymmetrical, for example using several smaller rounded shrubs to balance the mass of a single large tree on the opposite side.
Besides balancing the bulk of plants (their mass), we also want to balance texture by arranging for fine-leaf plants like grasses to be distributed across the garden, as well as bold-leaves, and evergreens versus deciduous shrubs as well. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a single large grass as an accent, or a single tree, but try never to make an arrangement that looks lopsided.
Create Contrast but Preserve Harmony
Nothing looks more boring that a solid green wall of average-looking plants. Try to choose and arrange plants that have different shades of green, from the dark greens of yew bushes, through the bright but rich greens of many evergreens, and also blue-greens and silvery looks. Many plants today have colored foliage, and using them is a great way to add interest month after month. Make dark colored plants really pop by planting light colors – yellows and golds – behind them. Dark colors can easily ‘disappear’ if they aren’t planted with care. Place lighter foliage in front of darker greens.
Work With Color
Plants and flowers are all about color, but working with color is perhaps the hardest thing to do well. Designers use several approaching, and garden color needs a different approach than the methods used by interior decorators.
- Use ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ color palettes – cool colors like blues, lime greens, pinks and purples are always going to work together just fine – go to town. Warm colors like orange-reds, oranges, golds and bright yellows also blend really easily and never fail to invoke summer.
- Work with ‘dirty’ tones – if you skip all the pure, primary colors in flowers, and stick to pastels and muddy tones, then all your garden will look fabulous.
- Include neutrals that lift and blend all other colors – the garden neutrals are blue, silver and white. Use them in abundance to tie everything together, and the job is done.
- Avoid clashing reds – gardens are more forgiving of color ‘mistakes’ than interiors, and there is really only one big ‘no, no’. That is mixing together reds that have some purple in them, and blend with pinks, and the reds that have orange in them and fade to orange tones. For example, almost all peonies have purple-reds, while oriental poppies have reds that are distinctly orange. Roses have both kinds.
- And the clashing yellows – yes, yellows can clash too. Think about those acidic, lemony yellows with hints of green compared with golden, orange yellows. The big difference is that you can use those acid yellows to highlight plantings of purples and pinks, it gives them a big lift. But that won’t work well if you use golds. Beyond that, you don’t need to pay much attention to this issue.
And More. . .
If you want more, here are some other approaches to creating a more useful and attractive garden, in previous blogs. These three blogs cover a detailed approach that doesn’t involve drawing up plans. Design 1. Design 2. Design 3.