Experienced gardeners have no problem deciding when to plant their peas, how deep to put their tulip bulbs, or how much to water their geraniums. But when it comes to garden design, even the most seasoned gardeners begin to sweat. We can spend weeks trying to find the perfect spot for a new shrub; spend an entire winter sketching plans for a new perennial garden; and agonize for years about how to reconfigure the front walk. Why do we find these decisions so paralyzing?
One reason may be that garden design is perceived as the work of experts: landscape architects, landscape designers, garden designers, and landscape contractors. Yet some of the most beautiful gardens in the world were not designed by experts. Sissinghurst, the home and gardens of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, is a perfect example. So, too, are the gardens of Tasha Tudor and Thomas Jefferson. These gardens are the result of an attentive eye, a sensitive hand, and many years of experimentation—skills that are not the exclusive property of design professionals. Our goal in this article is to help you overcome the garden design jitters, and give you the confidence to finally remove that hedge of overgrown yews, install a flagstone path, or decide where to put a water garden.
Some gardeners wouldn’t dream of planting anything without having a comprehensive design and planting plan for their entire yard. Others don’t think about “designing” their gardens until several years down the road. And still other gardeners never develop a long-range or a short-range plan. They do their planning in the moment, poised with a shovel and a couple of homeless plants.
Which approach is right for you? It depends entirely on who you are and what you are comfortable with. If you have the confidence to forge ahead and follow your intuition, do so! If you feel the need to get some professional advice, then that’s the best alternative for you. Both approaches are equally valid.
It is good to remember that there is no ultimate garden design for your property. There are as many different designs as there are gardeners. And even if you had a detailed plan that you executed perfectly, tomorrow would bring a new interest, a new challenge, and a whole new set of design decisions. The trees will mature and turn your sunny meadow into a shady glade. The weeping cherry that anchored your spring bulb garden will die and need to be replaced. You will tire of the cottage garden and develop a passion for dwarf conifers. In garden design there are no “right” decisions. What you have is a delightful (though sometimes unnerving) opportunity to express yourself. The hardest part may be trusting your own intuition, and allowing yourself to experiment as you evolve your own unique garden design.
One of the most valuable design tools is a site plan, or bird’s-eye view of your yard. Seeing your garden on paper makes it much easier to identify underlying design elements such as traffic patterns, scale, and symmetry. A professional designer will give you a site plan that is precisely drawn to scale, but your own rough sketch or a survey map will be adequate for all but the most complex landscape designs. Once you have a plan to work from, you can start to indicate the positive and negative features of your yard (trees, shrubs, fences, outbuildings, pathways, views) and natural environmental factors such as light conditions and soil or drainage problems. Pathways and garden areas can be sketched right on the plan. If you enlarge sections of the plan, you can also use it to create your planting map.
Should you hire a professional landscaper or garden designer to help you with your site plan? If you have the means and desire to do so, it will probably be money well spent. Professional advice will always give you a valuable new perspective on your yard and gardens. You may follow their recommendations to the letter, or select only the elements that you find most appealing or most manageable. It is not necessary to contract for a full-scale site plan. Most designers will be very willing to focus their attention on a particular area (like the entryway). One well-conceived and well-executed feature may go a long way toward identifying a design style that you can then carry forward yourself.
What follows is a list of design principles that are common to all the creative arts, whether it be painting, music, literature, or garden design. Don’t let them intimidate you. Just use them as tools to help you see.
Style. Every garden has a style or personality to it. Unless you have a very large yard that is divided into distinct areas or “rooms,” it can be difficult to gracefully accommodate lots of different garden styles in one garden. Begin by thinking about whether you want your garden to have a formal or informal look. Consider your site, the style of your home, and your own personality. Though you don’t have to be too rigorous about striving for a consistent style, you’ll want to avoid a jumble of diverse and unrelated elements.
Flow. A garden is more pleasing if there is a logical progression from one area to the next. Think about how you would like someone to view and move through your garden. Paths are one way to connect some of the various parts to achieve a sense of order and cohesiveness. Focal points, such as a piece of sculpture, a distinctive tree, or a captivating view, can be used to draw the eye and pull us forward into a new space.
Scale. Scale is about proportions—how the sizes and shapes of things relate to each other. A three-foot-by-six-foot island bed floating in a half-acre sea of lawn will be seriously out of scale. The same will be true of a dwarf apple tree located in front of a two-story colonial house. Most scale problems are due to skimpiness, such as beds and paths that are too narrow, or plantings that are too small and tentative. If in doubt, err on the side of boldness and generosity.
Rhythm. By repeating plants and materials, you can produce a sense of rhythm, order, and predictability. Too much repetition is monotonous, but, as in music, variations on a theme are pleasing. You may want to repeat certain distinctive plant materials, such as the spearlike foliage of an ornamental grass or the velvety gray of lavender or santolina. Repeating splashes of color will also establish a rhythm in the garden and help to guide the eye. But don’t be a slave to repetition. The best gardens always leave room for the unexpected—a giant pot of agapanthus, a whimsical birdhouse in a tangle of morning glories, or a blood-red rose tumbling over a stone wall.