Garden Design–A Primer

So you’ve got this space, and you’d love to turn it into a sanctuary far from the madding crowd. A few keys to keep in mind when planning or renovating your garden are rest and roam: allow the eye to rest (i.e., not TOO busy, or pauses in the chaos), and provide a route for the eye to roam.

1. Connect the various parts of the garden through some kind of logical access-way: paths, gates, arbours, grassy openings. This gives a sense of continuity even though the areas may have very different functions.

2. Provide access to all parts of the garden. If you can’t easily walk there, you’re not seeing what’s there, you’re not checking out the health of the plants, and no one else will see it if you’re not seeing it.

repurposed pavers leading around the back of the shade garden so I can access it.

Repurposed pavers leading around the back of the shade garden so I can access it. Clever how the diamonds of the trellis above cast a matching shadow on the diamonds of the pavers below. I carefully planned it that way…:-)

3. Provide drifts of colour, not a smorgasbord of colour spots. Repeat colours or specific plants in various spots around the garden.

Rudbeckia fulgida

Rudbeckia fulgida with Hemerocallis fulva in the background. Both multiply and/or self seed, both very civil in their habits!

4. Include evergreens–shrubs such as broadleaf evergreens and conifers, and evergreen perennials.

Evergreen Stipa tenuissima complements growing bulbs

Evergreen Stipa tenuissima complements growing bulbs

5. Don’t try to FILL the spaces with COLOUR. Green is very restful, both for the soul and for the eye.

Bed of lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria magus).

Bed of lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria magus) in early morning.

6. Balance the size of the space with the size of the plantings. A monkey puzzle tree will not suit a 100 s.f. front yard. Know the mature size of your plants. (Remember, Google is your friend.)

7. Balance the “weight” of items, whether plantings or hardscapings, around a fixed point. For example, something tall and narrow on one side of the entrance might be balanced by something low and long on the other. Thanks to Sue from Not Another Gardening Blog for this useful illustration of asymmetrical balance:

Notice the asymmetrical UNbalance on the left, and the difference on the right, where the "weight" of the three shrubs in the left corner feels similar to the weight of the tree in the right corner.

Notice the asymmetrical UNbalance on the left, and the difference on the right, where the “weight” of the three shrubs in the left corner feels similar to the weight of the tree in the right corner.

8. Use vertical space: arbours with vines, artwork that is taller than the surrounding plantings, hanging baskets and window boxes.

Some of these ideas can be implemented right away, others may take a little more time. But none are difficult. Do you have areas in your garden that can be changed right away? Would you like to try something new to gain a little more structure in your garden? Post comments and/or questions, and I’ll try to answer or find you an answer.

You can check out the RLGS Facebook page where there are sometimes additional posts. You can also follow me there.

Stimulate Your Creative Juices!

When you’re looking at your garden/balcony/outdoor space wondering what you should do to make it more beautiful/useful/practical, you can start with asking yourself some basic questions.

So for those who want to make some–or a lot of–changes, here’s a questionnaire to stimulate your creative juices.


This analysis is designed to give an overall concept of your property, family lifestyle, and the design elements that need to be considered for the conceptual landscape plan. Don’t do this fast, think about it for a few days.

  1. List family members and hobbies – interests which might influence property use
  1. Are there any allergies or other medical problems/conditions which should be considered?
  1. Do you have any pets that might require a special area or run?
  1. Do you want or need a fence? Height restrictions?
  1. Do you live in a development with any covenants you should be aware of?
  1. Entryway:

a. Would you like it open, or more enclosed and private?

b. What type of walkway exists? Is it wide enough (welcoming)? Is shape pleasing?

c. Do you see the need for other major walkways or paths?

d. What paving material (stone, brick, gravel, pavers) do you prefer?

7. Driveway – vehicle access:

a. Is it adequate in size for the cars in the family?

b. Is there adequate parking for guests?

8. Utility:

a. Where will you place your garbage cans?

b. Do you need an outdoor storage shed? Woodpile? Compost?

c. Future outbuildings (on rural properties), greenhouse, barn ?

9. Children’s area:

a. Do you want a specific play surface?

b. Do you need room for play equipment?

10. Entertaining – Outdoor living:

a. Do you entertain large crowds? small? informal? formal?

b. Would you like (more) decking or a large patio?

c. Permanent outdoor seating–built-in benches?

d. How much of this area do you want in the shade, sun ?

e. Outdoor cooking area?

f. Swimming pool or hot tub?

g. Special game area or sport court?

h. Outdoor lighting?

11. Edible Gardening: Do you want specific areas for vegetables, flowers, herbs, fruit trees?

12. Maintenance: How many hours a week are you willing to work on your property? Will you be hiring out the maintenance chores? Irrigation system?

13. Do you have specific plant preferences and colours? Plants or colours to avoid?

14. Do you want any of the following decorative features / accessories?

bird attractors / water features / large boulders / gazebo / pergola / arbor /garden sculpture / container plants ( pots) / garden furniture/ other?

  1. Circulation: In considering typical outdoor activities of your family, are there areas where you foresee a path, or traffic-tolerant surface needed?
  • SITE– do you have a site map / plot plan? (available from builder or county)
  1. Approx. size of property __________________________( provide specific dimensions of property lines if available)
  1. Site character (wooded, open meadow, steep, urban lot, rural…..)
  1. Problem areas- steep slopes, poor drainage? erosion? shallow soil?
  2. Considering your lifestyle, what feeling or mood do you want to establish? ( natural, formal, oriental, English country……) Does this tie in with architectural style of house?

5. What are the most frequently used rooms of your house? What do you see from those windows?

6. Are there any natural features on the property that you would like to emphasize? or change? boulders, woods, stream, slope/ hillside (site contours), view…

  1. Where is drain field, or septic tank location? Can you locate the lines?
  1. Are there easements or deeded restrictions that you know of?
  2. Are there areas of micro-climates (total shade, protected or enclosed areas…)?
  3. Are there street lights, noises, or views outside the property that cause problems or need screening attention?? Drainage or traffic patterns that influence site?
  4. Do any existing plants, trees or structures need to be removed or relocated?
  • Priorities:

List your five highest priorities.






List your five least-liked aspects of your outdoor space:






Wow! After reading all that, take a breather and don’t look at it again for awhile. But let the ideas generated percolate a bit, and you’ll find yourself designing in your head. You might even start designing on paper.