Garden Design
(Content adapted from Gardener's Supply Company)

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Glorious blue Dutch Irises with happy white daisies, perfect in this mass garden design display

When designing your garden there are certain things you should consider before you put a shovel into the soil.  If you're anything like me you'll realize that whilst there are general 'rules' to garden design, often, the most unique garden design is brought about when you let your personality speak for itself in your garden design.  For example, my husband who is a strict lover of routine adores the formal English garden design.  I tend to be more hotch-potch and garden design happens on the fly with me.

And yet I still do have to admit, that I love all gardens in their various designs and shapes.  I think it's because as I wander through someone else's garden, I imagine it's somewhat akin to embarking on a journey of discovery into a person's very soul and therefore it's an immensely spiritual undertaking.

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Garden Design - why is it so hard?

Even the most experienced gardeners start to tremble when it comes to garden design. Finding that perfect spot for that new plant could take weeks; mull through winter trying to sketch plans for a new perennial garden; and agonize for months thinking about how to redo the front walkway. Why are these decisions so mind numbing?  One reason could be that garden design is often throught of as expert work: requiring landscape designers, landscape architects, landscape contractors and garden designers. And yet consider this : some of the most beautiful gardens in the world were not expertly designed! Sissinghurst for example is the residential home and gardens of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. And as are the gardens of Tasha Tudor and Thomas Jefferson. Both these masterful gardens are the result of a sensitive hand, an attentive eye, and years of experimentation.  It's good to know that these particular skills are not the exclusive property of garden design professionals. This garden design article will help you overcome your garden design jitters, giving you the confidence to finally install a flagstone path, get rid of that hedge of long overgrown yews, and decide where to site your water garden.

Garden Design - the approach

Whilst some gardeners wouldn't even dream of planting anything without starting with a full on garden design complete with planting plan for their entire yard, others don't "design" their gardens until years down the road. And still other gardeners don't ever develop a any sort of plan - short term or long. Theirs is the spur of the moment planning, in readiness with their shovel and a few homeless plants.  Which garden design approach is right for you? That all depends entirely on who you are and what you are comfortable with. If you are brimming with confidence to forge ahead and go with the flow, then do so! If on the other hand, you face garden design with a little fear and trepidation, and you need professional advice, then that's the best option for you. There is no right or wrong, both approaches are equally valid.  There is no ultimate garden design for your property - there are as many different designs as there are gardeners. And all experienced gardeners know that a garden is never 'finished'.  Even if you did have a garden plan that you executed perfectly today, tomorrow would be another day and perhaps bring a new interest, challenge, or a whole new set of garden design ideas. The trees you've planted mature and suddenly your sunny meadow turns into a shady glen. Your beautiful weeping cherry that was the focal point of your spring bulb garden decides to die and you're open to options of replacing it with something else. Your initial passion of the romantic cottage garden turns into a fetish for the formality conferred by conifers. There are no "right" decisions in the realm of garden design. Self expression is what it's all about. Actually the toughest part of the equation may be just to learn to trust your own instincts, and giving yourself the leeway to experiment as you slowly evolve your own unique garden design.

Garden Design - the inspiration

Visiting other people's gardens may be the best source of design inspiration. Take along a camera or sketch pad to capture features that you find particularly successful or appealing. Notice when some of the design techniques described above are being used. Don't be afraid to ask questions about what the gardener was trying to achieve.

Glossy picture books of gardens run a close second for design inspiration. They have the distinct advantage of being available for perusal year-round. Use sticky notes to mark images that capture your attention, then go back and review your choices to see where the similarities lie. Comparing and contrasting different types of gardens can be very useful in helping you decide what sort of look attracts you. If you are gravitating toward a theme garden (colonial, Japanese, Southwestern, English cottage), you'll find dozens of books that illustrate the design features and techniques that distinguish these styles.

Some garden design books include complete planting plans that are theme-oriented, or are specific to a certain type of site. They usually provide a site plan, a planting list, and an elevation drawing that shows what the garden will look like at eye level. You can follow the plan, or pick and choose the elements that appeal to you.

Creative gardeners read garden design books the way creative cooks read recipe books. Don't feel compelled to follow the garden design verbatim. You can lift ideas here and there, and combine them into your own unique expression.

Garden Design - the basics

Starting with a site plan of your yard
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.

Garden Design - 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 and design accordingly. 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.

garden design fencesGarden Design - 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.

Garden Design - 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.   Most garden beds should be at least 4-5 feet deep.  If in doubt, err on the side of boldness and generosity.

Garden Design - 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.

Garden Design - Symmetry and balance
Humans seem to be naturally attracted to symmetry -- toward creating perfectly balanced features. Our bodies are symmetrical, as are the cars we drive, the arrangement of windows in our homes, and often the shrubs that flank the front door. Used judiciously, perfect symmetry can be a powerfully appealing design technique. But when overused it can become stiff and boring. The natural landscape, which we also find visually pleasing, is not governed by symmetry. In nature, something more subtle is at work, something artists and designers refer to as balance. Balance is an essential factor in garden design. It refers to visual weight: a birch clump balanced by a large bed of hosta; a brick pathway balanced by a wide swath of lawn; orange Oriental poppies balanced by deep blue lupines. In these examples, the two elements are not identical in size, shape, or color, but there is a response from each side that balances the other. Successful garden design incorporates both symmetry and balance.

Garden Design - Walls, roofs and paths
One thing great gardens share is a sense of place. Entering them is like entering a home - you are wrapped in a particular environment that is very different from the world outside. As in a home, the walls, roof, and floor help give a garden its unique character. When designing your own garden, you can use these aspects to create "rooms" in which plants are arranged in a context rather than floating in space.

garden design fencesWalls English flower borders almost always have a background behind them. In England, this is usually a tall stone or brick wall or an evergreen hedge. The backdrop serves to stop your eye from roving and allows you to focus on the intended view. Most American gardeners don't make use of this very effective technique, and our gardens often get lost in the larger scene. Whenever possible, anchor your garden by placing something behind it: a structure, a fence, or a planting of shrubs. Remember to keep it simple. The objective is to direct the eye to the foreground, not create a competing element.

garden design pergolas

Roofs. Though there are plenty of very successful gardens that are totally exposed to the sky, most of us are naturally attracted to more sheltered, intimate spaces: a garden that's been carved out of a woodland or is nestled beneath an ancient apple tree. We are, for the same reason, drawn to arbors, bowers, allees, and pergolas. The roof need not cover your entire garden. Including the experience of enclosure somewhere in your garden - it can be as simple as an arbor at the entrance - will help to create that sense of being in a special environment set apart from the rest of the world.

garden design pathsPaths. Paths lead us through a garden and link one area to another. Paths in themselves are an age-old comfort, showing us the way we are to travel, assuring us of a progression that is safe and intentional. The paving material and the way the paths are laid out can help define the style of the garden. A meandering pathway made of flat stones spaced several inches apart will have an intimate, informal feel; a wide brick path suggests neatness and order; a broad path of closely mown lawn conveys grandeur and expansiveness. Paths also create edges that suggest where new plants or even entire gardens could be located. See garden stepping stones for more inspiration.

landscape and garden edging - rocks, borders and garden edging, what are you options?

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garden design