When we think of how to design a garden, we think of the creation of a special place. The place may contain any amount of different areas such as flowerbeds, vegetable patches, herb gardens, or water features.
Because the garden is a very personal place, it is important that you as the owner and user, have a large say in the planning. While professional garden designers may have many years of training in design, the final design should still be up to the people who are going to use the garden the most.
The Design Process
The first step in designing a garden is to put your idea down onto a large piece of paper. You may need to do this many times before you are happy with the results.
Having a plan will not only save you money, but also a lot of time. You will be able to keep your master plan at hand throughout the construction, and refer to it often as your garden develops.
There are many online sources which offer designs for gardens, and these are worth looking at and getting ideas from. However, at the end of the day, your garden should be planned with you and your family or friends in mind. Only you - as the user - will know what will work and what will not.
Have a realistic idea of who will use the garden, and how old they are. Are there any older people who may use wheelchairs, are their babies who you would not want near water? Do you entertain a lot, or do you prefer secluded, quiet areas?
Make a realistic list of exactly what you want in your garden. It does not matter if you re-do the list again and again, but when it is complete, you should have an idea of what you want your garden to be and how various areas will work together.
Analyse your site: make a note of the soil types, how much drainage there is, existing trees or plants that you want to keep, move, or remove completely. Spend some time in the area and see what the climate conditions are.
Some places will be more protected than others, while some will be drier or more prone to wind and sun. It is important to be there at different times during the day and the microclimates will differ each time.
Have a theme: your theme may be a rambling garden with winding paths, or it may be a secluded area with water features. You may enjoy straight edges or lots of colour. Would you prefer vibrant colours or muted shades? This will determine the type of plants you select.
Take a little time to think about what you want to see every time you go out into your garden. Do you need space for the family dog, and if so, where is the best place for this to be?
Do you like the idea of a totally wildlife garden, with plants that attract butterflies? Think about including a hedgehog sanctuary!
The theme of your garden largely is dictated by the size of your plot and the location where you find yourself. A city garden will possibly not be suited to rambling paths, and may work better with more containers than gardens, while a rural area may lend itself to vegetable patches and ponds.
Mediterranean types of gardens are as formal or informal as you want them to be. Gravel forms a great part in this style, with plants such as olive, rosemary and grape vines forming a large part of the plants.
Country gardens are normally made up of masses of colour, winding pathways, and perfumed flowers. Even in a rectangle plot, the edges are softened by the profusion of plants and foliage.
Formal gardens are normally comprised of clear floor space with symmetrical designs. Often there is a central focal point such as a statue which draws the eye to the point. These gardens work well with small spaces, as well as large areas.
Contemporary gardens are normally made up of crisp, clean lines without fussy details and clutter. Materials in this type of garden tend to be of stone, slate and wood, with plants forming an integral part of architecture.
Map the area: you should draw the area to scale. Measure out the available land, make a note of any peculiarities such as shady areas, full sun spots, marsh ground, and any other things which will influence the design.
Label your drawing with north, south east and west and roughly draw in the house with any structures already in place. After you have the structures in place, head outside and explore the land.
Pay attention to any sloping areas, which may need extra drainage. Mark out the nearest water sources for when you set up an irrigation system.
Make a note of any items you need to be removed, such as tree stumps or damaged plants.
Decide what you want: if you have children, do you need a play area? Itemise such things that you want. These may include areas for dogs to play, a garden shed for your tools, water features, fences and hedges for privacy, and footpaths.
Be realistic about some features. Is it practical to have a fish-pond, or could you be happy with a water-wall to save space?
Once you have an idea of the plants you want, contact a garden centre and find out how long it will take for them to order the plants for you. Some may take a few weeks, while others they may have in stock. They will give you an idea of any waiting lists for trees.
Create a diagram: make sure that you draw out the area accurately and to scale. Be prepared to redo this until you are completely happy with the design.
Ask for advice, perhaps at your local garden centre. They will be able to tell you about the annual temperatures, rainfall and other conditions. They will also be able to tell you about plants and trees which do well in the area, and possibly put you in touch with a wholesale centre.
Make sure you have a notebook to write down any ideas and suggestions. You may want to keep a list of different plants suitable for various areas and soils.
Draw up your final plan: only when you and everyone who is going to use the garden is happy, draw up a final plan.
Make sure that every person who is going to use the garden has given you some idea of what they want. This is particularly important with families – young children have different needs to teenagers.
Make a copy in case one gets ruined – you will be outside for many hours during the construction and rain, dust and folding the plan may damage it.
Keep your design in a plastic folder for protection, and refer to it often.
15 Factors to consider
1. Know your budget
As a rule of thumb you should budget to spend no more than 15% of the value of the house on your garden. This will then add the same amount onto the value of your property.
Another way to work out a budget is to factor on spending £100 per square meter of garden. This is the same when using dollars.
While this is a good baseline to work towards, it may not be the solution for everyone. You may be prepared to spend more than this, or less. It also depends greatly on the plot you are starting with, and what you plan to do with it.
Whatever your budget, it is important that you try to stick to it so that you do not run out of money halfway through the project.
If you seem to be going over budget, see if there are some plants that you could put off buying until the following year.
Try to get the full outline and the dividing areas in place first. Plants can always be added at a later date.
2. Type of soil
Consider the drainage conditions, the pH levels of the soils in different parts of the garden. Also take a look at the general condition. See whether the soil is clay or loam.
Heavy, clay soil will not drain very well, and you may have to factor in some sort of drainage system before growing anything there.
Sandy soil will need to be enriched by the addition of organic matter.
Local garden centres will know the types of soil that you typically may find in the area. They will also know the best way to improve the soil.
If there are sloping places, does the soil need extra drainage in these areas? Any drainage system must be set in place well before you introduce any plants.
It is always a good idea to have the soil tested so that you know just how acidic or alkaline it is. This will save you money when choosing plants which can survive in one type of soil and not another. This may be a costly job, but it will be well worth it.
Sometimes it is a good idea to keep older, mature trees and shrubs. You may also want to think about some evergreens as the replacement costs can be a lot less. It is a pity to lose a large tree which has taken so long to grow.
You may be able to move some large plants to other areas of your garden, to fit in with the design you have chosen. If you have decided to keep some, remember to consider the shade they provide and take this into account with the plants you want to grow there.
Remember that it is costly to buy an older tree, and it will take years to bear fruit or provide a good amount of shade, whereas an established tree will save you money and years of growth.
Quick growing trees such as Poplar, Eucalyptus, Sycamore, Willow will fill gaps and provide privacy in a very short space of time.
Slow growing trees like Crab Apples, flowering cherry, standard olive will take longer to reach maturity, so do not depend on them to fill gaps for many years.
Creepers and ivies like Virginia creeper, Boston ivy, Bougainvillea will cover unsightly sheds or garages.
Make sure that your plans have included a projected view of the garden as seen from both sides. Try to imagine looking out of a window, and also looking in from the street. Both views should be pleasing to you.
Remember that trees and plants grow. If you still want a view from a window in a few years time, then planting a quick growing tree there is not the best idea. On the other hand, if you need something to cover an unsightly shed, then aim for something fast growing.
Consider creepers and ivies when you want to cover unsightly sheds.
4. Check out rules, regulations and services
Wall heights, types and structures may be relevant in one state and not in another. Make sure that you are familiar with them before you start.
Municipal regulations such as sewage pipes, underground cables, and water pipes will play a factor in your design. Be sure that you know where they are before you start planning. It is a good idea to be aware of them even before you start your initial designs, to save redoing the design.
Be aware when using diggers, that you do not inadvertently damage cables and water pipes. Make sure that any workmen who you contract are also aware of underground services. Should they damage a pipe or cable, it is you who will be held responsible and be fined.
Be aware that you cannot plant plants with aggressive root systems near water pipes or conduits. Sometimes plants with this type of root system should also not be planted near to your house as the roots may damage foundations.
Some states have specified distances between plants and underground cables, which must be obeyed. Be sure to find all this out before you start, and work your design around them.
Check out your neighbouring property. Be aware of the shade that a large tree in your neighbours garden will cast. He may not want the tree cut back, so factor in the shade, and the leaves that may be dropped. Before you chop the branches of his tree down, make sure you are legally allowed to do this.
Look at overhanging trees, and plan your pool or water feature in a different area if it means that you will constantly be scooping up leaves.
You may need to make use of screening plants to conceal an ugly fence or wall. You may also consider taller plants for extra privacy.
Try to resolve differences over trees amicably. You will probably be living next door to your neighbours or many years so try to communicate before reacting.
5. Think about your family needs
Your outdoor area should be considered to be an extension of your indoor space. It should be both functional and practical.
Ask yourself how you want to use the garden, how much time you have to keep it looking good, and what the budget is.
Address areas that you will need, taking into account any children, pets, entertaining areas and living areas.
If you enjoy growing your own produce, then factor in a suitable sized space which is near to a water source, (and far enough away from your entertainment area) for a good compost area. Consider a shed where you can store all your tools.
Do you need vehicle access to the back garden, and if so, do you need a paved drive and gateway?
Be realistic about the time you will have to maintain the garden. Will you have time to cut the lawn every week or would it be better paved? Can you maintain a pool or water feature?
When planting fruit trees, remember that when they are of fruit bearing age, they will produce masses of the same fruit! Do you have the time to deal with that, or would you be better with trees that require less maintenance?
How much space do the kids need? This will differ according to their ages, and will influence the size of space allotted to them.
How many garden tools are you likely to store? A rideable mower will need an area to protect from the elements. Could you work with artificial turf instead of grass?
If you have small children, then any water feature should be made safe against curious youngsters. Pools must have fences with gates, and ponds should be safe in case a child falls in. With very young children, you may even consider delaying a fish pond until much later.
6. Link the areas
Think about your garden as an extension of your living area, and as such all the areas should be connected somehow. Consider paths or pebbles or slabs. Separate the areas with arbors, small hedges or low walls.
Cooking areas: If you plan an outdoor cooking area, make sure that there is a space close by to eat. Cooking areas should always be near a water source, in case of fire. Try to keep eating areas near to the house to save carrying eating utensils a long way.
Pathways: Add a little interest to your pathway by adding some steps down to another area. Maybe a small gate into a vegetable garden?
Repeating plants: seeing the same plant further along the path will draw the eyes further along to the next area. Ideally it should feel as if you are walking from one room to the next – as in a home. Hedges may hide a compost maker, and climbing plants can cover a shed to make it more attractive.
Aim to provide a sense of mystery and exploration as you walk along the path. Around every corner there could be another secret area.
7. Pay attention to the functions of the plants
Plants have three uses, namely aesthetic, structural and utilitarian.
Aesthetic plants are used to create a visually pleasing area. While a bed of roses does nothing functional, it may be something that pleases you to look at during the flowering season. Daffodils and tulips may serve no other purpose than to remind you of spring.
Structural plants are used to organise and define spaces. Small hedges serve as borders between a seating area and a water feature. Low growing plants such as blackberries and raspberries serve as defining partitions as well as providing fruit through the year. Structural plants are primarily used for privacy and division of areas.
Utilitarian plants are those which are designed to be useful or practical. You may grow a grape vine for shade but also for the fruit. It is important that when you plan to use these plants, you consider the future purpose as well as the required space. Remember that the tree or plant is going to grow so make sure you allow adequate space for this expansion.
If you have a water feature or pool, make sure that the plants and trees around it do not clog the filter or give you added work in skimming the leaves off. Also remember that the roots of trees may damage the structure of the pool.
8. Structure your design
The size of the full grown plants will be dictated by the size of the garden. Once you have the shape of a plant bed mapped out and dug over, group your plants in ways that take into account their rate of growth.
Group slow growing plants together, and fast growers apart so that slow growers are not overwhelmed by plants which have taken over.
Start with the outline plants – those which will define the different areas of your garden. Refer to your plans, and have the hedges, walls, gates and paths in place before you continue on to the next step.
The irrigation system should be set up in the early stages of planning, and be in place when you start planting.
Tallest plants next. Once your areas are established, begin with the plants which are the tallest or which will be at the back of the area, perhaps against a wall or fence. Plant them first so that you do not have to step on plants in the front to reach them.
Smaller plants. After you have the highest plants established, start filling in with the smaller ones, and the shrubs which will be at the front of your area.
Consider having some stepping stones which take you to the plants at the back so that you can reach them when you need to dead-head, or trim back. This will save you standing on smaller plants to reach the back.
Repeating groups of plants gives an interconnecting pattern, and draws the eye further along the garden.
Each plant or group should compliment the others in the group, so your rose garden will not look good with wild flowers growing around the roses. It may look more attractive with low growing shrubs such as violets around the base.
A wild flower area will look stunning with various grasses as borders rather than a hedge. Repeat your grasses along the way for greater effect.
9. Create focal points
You may have a statue that you want in an area of your garden. Think about the plants that you place around the statue, and remember that the plants will grow. Do you want them to spread or grow up around your statue?
The point of a focal point is to draw the eye to something. This is normally something of interest, or a conversation piece. It may be anything that you like looking at.
Use a tree. Sometimes a plant may be the focal point, there are trees such as the Japanese Maple which has magnificent foliage.
Statues or arbors.The focal point does not always have to be in the middle of the area, sometimes an arbor off to the side is more effective. A statue which is surrounded by low growing shrubs is better displayed in a corner than in the middle of a lawn.
Be selective about the plants that you place around the focal point as many will distract from the item you want to show off. The focal point says something about your character, so do not be afraid to use unusual items or statues. It is this that gives your garden a very personal feel.
Gates and ornaments. Enhance a gate with an attractive climber around the edges, fish ponds will benefit from small ornaments at the edges. Streams look great with small bridges across them.
Different angles will give different results to focal points so be sure to look from all angles before deciding which is right.
Entrance arbors can be beautified with climbing roses to mark the entry into a formal garden, while white picket gates may lead into your vegetable section.
Use colour. Contrasting colours of your focal points will draw the eye to them, so rather that your statue and surrounding plants being green, aim to have colour around the base of the statue.
The focal points can be whatever you enjoy looking at. Be adventurous and do not be afraid to try different things.
10. Pay attention to details
When you start to add plants to your garden, it is easy to overfill spaces. Rather than placing too many plants, which you will need to trim back at a later date, focus on good quality, healthy plants and accessories. Fewer, better ornaments work well.
Learn about the plants and how they will grow, some of them will spread rapidly, others will grow upright over many years.
Think about your garden in the winter months and select plants which will give some colour throughout the year.
Different combinations of plants will give varying aesthetic effects, some will compliment each other, and some will not. Know which form your plant will take as it grows.
Make a note of which plants need sunshine and which prefer shade, which need a lot of water, and which can be left dry. Make sure you group your plants together according to their nutritional needs.
11. Factor in enough time
Garden maintenance takes time, effort and money. You should work out just how much you have of each of them before you start your project.
If you have a very large grass area, consider investing in a mower that you can drive, instead of push. This will save you time in the long run.
Consider putting in an irrigation system to cut down on time spent with a hose pipe. You should set this up as you are laying out your different areas, and adjust it as you place plants in their positions.
You should have worked out a budget at the start of the project, and it is important that you stick to it. If you overspend, you may find that you can only complete one section at a time, until you have more income.
Remember that it is not necessary to overfill your garden, as plants will grow, spread and fill out. After a year you do not want your garden to be overcrowded, as this causes diseases, along with extra work to thin plants out.
12. Watch those steps
Remember that while steps look great leading into different sections, they should be no more than 6 inches high, otherwise they will be an effort to use, especially for elderly visitors.
A general rule of thumb is that the run (or depth) of the step plus twice the rise (the height) should be 26 inches or less. This computes to steps with a rise of 6 inches having a run of 14 inches. This gives the most comfortable height.
If you are going to include a lot of steps in the garden, then try to make a landing after every fifth step.
The landing should be as wide as the steps, err on being generous with landings.
Make sure that the steps are stable and even, to prevent tripping. If you plan to grow small plants at the edges, make sure they are trimmed so that they do not encroach on walking areas.
Take into account the seasons, and whether the path is likely to get icy in the winter. You should take precautions to keep the paths safe throughout the year.
Avoid paving materials such as polished granite or smooth outdoor tiles, as they will be slippery in the rain and winter. They will even freeze and can be dangerous.
Gravel is a great method of filling in a path. If you choose this, make sure you select unsifted gravel as this contains different sized pebbles which will not compact together. They will stay loose as you walk on them.
Whichever material you choose for a path, make sure that the surface slopes away to the sides by approximately 1% to prevent water pooling, and freezing in the winter months.
13. Think about elbow room and head room
Keep your pathways wide enough so that two people can easily walk side-by-side along them. Nobody likes squeezing through small spaces. 5 foot is a good width for paths and archways, less is too cramped.
If you plan on having small, secondary, winding paths, keep them to no narrower than 3 feet.
Take into account the plants you grow along the sides of the paths. The taller the plants, the wider your paths should be. Tall plants will make your pathways feel restrictive to walk along.
Plan your outdoor patio or deck to accommodate enough people comfortably, to eat as well as mingle together. Work on 4 square foot of space per person.
When adding outdoor furniture to your patio or deck, try to leave a 3 foot wide space around every group of furniture. This will allow your guests to mingle comfortably with each other.
Work on the fact that you may get very tall people in your garden so make 7 foot the minimum height for archways, arbors and pergolas.
If you intend to grow climbing plants over the structure, you should add another 18 inches to allow for coverage. While this sounds excessive, it is better than having a guest scratch their head on the climbing rose!
When placing archways along your paths, make sure that the posts are set a few inches on the outside of the path, so that the width is kept the same throughout the pathway.
Consider the plants which will cover your archways, pergolas, and arbors. Make a note of how fast the plants grow. While they may look sparse when you first plant them, remember that they will spread, and do not overcrowd them.
It is a good idea to keep thorny plants away from the edges of pathways, to stop getting scratched as you walk past. Thorns are not a good idea in gardens where small children play.
Some plants are toxic to small children and animals so you may want to avoid them.
14. Lawn or paving
There is a place for a beautiful lawn in every garden, and it is true that a well-kept lawn is resilient and forgiving. Lawn is great to lounge on, and can be an amazing focal point in your garden.
A good lawn is expensive to lay, and needs a lot of work to keep it healthy and looking at it's best.
Lawn or paving? Consider the difference in cost between a lawn and paving. Think about the maintenance costs which may be more with the lawn. Don't waste time with a lawn when low-maintenance paving will work.
If you feel that a lawn is a 'must' in your garden, then don't skimp on it. Be bold with the shape, as a solid area of green grass can be the perfect counterbalance to beds and borders.
Create your own 'comfort zone', an area where you can totally relax and enjoy the fruits of your labour. This may be under a tree, on the patio, or in a secluded part of the garden.
15. Protect your new investment
You will have spent a lot of time and money on your project, and it is in your best interests to protect this investment. Do your research about how to feed and water your plants. Learn what to do with any trees. Prune at the right times of the year.
Keep a diary about your garden and if you notice a plant or tree which is not doing well, then consider moving it before it gets too big.
Keep your beds weed and disease free. Pay attention to bugs and pests and deal with them right away before they become a problem.
You may want to investigate alternative ways to keep disease under control, instead of using pesticides and insecticides which harm the environment.
Set yourself an amount of time to work in your garden, where you set out to maintain beds, paths and lawns.
Creating a space which serves as an extension of your indoor living space requires a good amount of planning. There are different things which must remembered before your garden will appear.
Having a plan is the first step along this journey. If you keep in mind that your garden will never be completely finished, and always a work in progress, you will have a better idea of visualising the garden in various stages of growth.
With planning and forethought, you will be able to enjoy this special place during all the seasons of the year.
Keep a diary so that you may refer to it at different times of the year, you will be able to see what worked somewhere and what did not.
Even with a meticulous amount of planning, be prepared for your garden to evolve and change along the way.
One thing is certain, if you spend time cultivating the plants you have set in place, your garden will reward you in ways you will never imagine!
Jen Miller is a former electrical engineer and product specialist with more than 20 years of product design and testing experience. She has designed more than 200 products for Fortune 500 companies, in fields ranging from home appliances to sports gear and outdoor equipment. She founded Jen Reviews to share her knowledge and critical eye for what makes consumers tick, and adopts a strict no-BS approach to help the reader filter through the maze of products and marketing hype out there. She writes regularly and has been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, The Muse, The Huffington Post, Tiny Buddha and MindBodyGreen.