Garden Design 101

By National Gardening Association Editors

You've looked at your home, apartment, or condominium a thousand times, but have you looked at it through a gardener's eyes?

Have you considered what's possible? A cottage cutting garden, a small orchard, a collection of useful herbs, or a private garden spot for morning coffee or evening relaxation may all be possible.

The formula is simple. Your creativity + solid information + a plan can produce that little corner of paradise that has always been part of a "someday" dream.

It all begins with a plan. You don't have to create it all at once. A plan allows you to complete stages as your budget allows and make sure that what you do this season won't have to be undone next season. It also allows you to think carefully about the plantings and varieties best suited for your climate, your needs, and the conditions on your property.

If you expect to make major changes or additions to your garden, a consultation with your nurseryman or a landscape architect could save you money in the long run.

First, collect pictures of scenes that please you. Tastes vary. Some people like precise formal gardens, some want to play croquet on a big lawn, others like the wild country look.

Second, take an inventory. Do a "floor plan" of your property on a piece of graph paper. Take note of existing plantings, walls, walkways, driveways, and other features. Also note sunny and shady areas. The north side of the house is bound to be shady, and that means planning for shade-loving plants and grasses.

For example, in the northern United States, lawn seed mixes for shady areas will require more grasses called fescues, which like shade, and less Kentucky Bluegrass, the sun-loving grass of the North.

Problem areas--like low spots where water gathers--may require special treatment like the installation of drain tile.

Third, consider what spaces are public and which are private...or which you would like to make public or private. Plan to achieve private outdoor living areas. "Borrow" landscape by planning to open up pleasant views and screen unattractive areas. What will you see in the foreground, midrange, and background? What would happen if you went up with a multilevel deck or down with a sunken area?

Fourth, consider convenience. If you plan to grow fruit, vegetables, and herbs, you can zone your garden for convenience. The herbs and salad garden belong close to the kitchen, where it is easy to visit every day. Fruit trees can be at the far corners of the property.

If space is a major consideration, plant intensively and mix flowers and vegetables together.

Fifth, think about the type of landscaping that would be appropriate for your neighborhood and home style. A Japanese garden around a country cottage could be more weird than wonderful.

As you begin to select plants, consider your climate zone. Research how large the plantings will become in a few years. For flowering plants, consider their colors, height, and the time of year they blossom. Put tall plants behind short ones and plan to have continuous color from the first flowering bulbs of early spring to hardy mums, which will withstand a light frost.

Try to place plants so the tall ones won't shade the short ones. That means short plants toward the south, tall ones toward the north (unless you want to create a shady area and plant it with shade-loving plants).

Be bold to make an impact. Plant in large masses rather than skimpy ones. The eye enjoys the contrast of open and closed spaces that flow together. It is drawn to the irregular shape and the curved path. When visiting carefully planned gardens, you will notice that rarely do you walk straight through them. You are directed along a winding or zig-zag path that reveals new scenes at every turn. The same technique can be applied in a suburban back yard.

A garden plan is a creative process that will bring joy for years. As one gardener describes it: "My garden is my artist's palette."

Photography by National Gardening Association

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