How To Design and Plan a Garden

Designing a garden should be easy, right?  Just wander around the garden store, pick out the plants that you like, take them home and plop them in the ground.  Unfortunately, unless you have a really excellent eye for design, your garden probably isn't going to turn out quite like you hoped it would.  You'll need to start with a basic knowledge of how design in the landscape works.

  1. Choose a garden location.  It's a good idea to start small with your first project, but if you're feeling brave, go for something larger!  Once you've chosen a location, draw a map of it.  You don't need to be an artist for this step.  The idea is to get to know your location.  Graph paper works really well for drawing garden sketches.  You can make each square equal one foot or two feet--whatever is logical for the size of your garden. 

    Once you've drawn out the basic shape of your garden, add in any existing hardscape.  Hardscape are the non-changeable elements in your garden, such as patios, sidewalks, fountains, retaining walls, etc.  The next thing to add to your sketch are any elements in the garden that you don't want to change, such as the gorgeous sunset maple that's been there for years, or the boxwood hedges that provide some privacy from the neighbors.  If there are any hardscape elements that you'd like to add, put those on the sketch as well.  Now, you should have a framework to work within when planning your garden.

  2. Choose a garden style.  Garden styles fall into two basic categories.  Informal gardens have curving paths and asymmetrical lines.  They do not look as orderly as formal gardens, but they are charming and friendly.  Formal gardens are at the other end of the spectrum.  The plants in formal garden are neat, tidy and orderly in straight or diagonal rows.  Formal gardens may not feel as inviting as informal gardens, but they look impressive. 

    Within these two basic categories, there are a host of sub-categories, such as cottage, English, Japanese and American gardens, as well as specialty gardens, such as water gardens.  When choosing a style for your garden, consider the style of your house as well as your own personal preferences.  If your house is very formal and symmetrical, a loose, billowy cottage garden will probably look out of place.  Likewise, if you own a small, ranch-style house, you don't want a large, formal English garden.  The best way to determine what style you like is to look at gardening books and magazines.

  3. Know your location.  If you have a garden location which is shaded most of the day, and you dream of a sunflower garden, you'll have to either change your location or give up the dream.  Some factors that will help in determining which plants to purchase are soil type, soil pH, amount of sun, and wind conditions. 

    Soil type is the classification of your soil according to particle size.  Clay soil has small particles that clump together and dry out slowly, but retain nutrients very well.  Sandy soil has large particles that dry out quickly, but nutrients drain away just as quickly.  Loam is somewhere in the middle.  Some plants have a definite preference for a certain soil type.  Knowing this can save you time and money in the long run.  Soil pH tells you whether your soil is acid or alkaline.  This is important because some plants, such as hydrangea, will bloom in entirely different colors depending upon the soil pH.  The amount of sun that you receive in a day should be at least six hours to classify your location as sunny and between four and six hours to be considered partially shaded.  Anything less than this is considered a shady site.

  4. What mood do you want to convey?  This is when a basic knowledge of color design is useful.  A color palette of greens and blues will convey a peaceful feeling.  Reds, oranges and yellows will make a garden feel lively and stimulating.  If you want strong contrast in your garden, plant flowers in directly contrasting colors, such as yellow and purple or blue and orange.  If you want a monochromatic look, plant various shades of the same colors, such as pinks, fuchsias and reds.  Many people opt for a somewhat monochromatic look by planting all warm colors, such as red, orange and yellow, or all cool colors, such as blue, green and purple.
  5. Start adding plants to your sketch.  Begin by shading in areas by color.  Remember, plants will make more of an impact when they are planted in drifts than when they're scattered here and there.  Once you're happy with your color sketch, start choosing flowers which will fit within the scheme.
  6. Consider transition.  You don't want to plant tiny, pretty dianthus next to five-foot-tall pampas grass.  Your eye should always gradually wander from one point to the next in a garden.  Try to envision how your plants will look when they're full-grown.  Each transition should be gradual and subtle.
  7. Start planting!  Once you're happy with your sketch, now it's time to go back to the garden center and start buying plants.  Prepare your soil well, then follow your sketch and start planting.  If you need help in transferring your paper design to your garden site, measure it out with a tape measure, then lay a garden hose along the line you wish to follow.

Your garden may look sparse in the beginning, but within a year or two, all of the plants should reach full size.  If your garden doesn't look just as you envisioned it, it's okay to yank out some plants and replace them with ones that fit better with your design scheme.  In fact, tinkering with a design until it's perfect is the best part of designing a garden!  


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