Cover Story

It's Garden Design Time


by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Writer  

In the weedless, bugless comfort of your easy chair, take the most essential and most fun first step in gardening: Design your ideal landscape. Use this down time to inventory your site, make a practical checklist of your needs, then a wish list of your most extravagant dreamscape and meet yourself in the middle with a budget that is divided into the proper stages to realize your plan.  

Using graph paper and a little imagination, you can create a to-scale sketch of your dream garden. This drawing was the preliminary plan for the garden pictured below.

Site inventory. Take a slow walk around your property and, most importantly, take a fresh look and record your honest appraisal of its best features and its worst problems. Let the site speak for itself and its relation to the environment, and try to listen as if you were Frank Lloyd Wright. This site inventory should include its orientation to the sun, views (good and bad, both from the garden and also as framed from inside the house), slope, drainage, any changes of level, proximity to neighboring buildings, any sources of noise that may need muffling, large trees, and any other special features. Take notes and photographs and sketch a simple drawing of what you see. If house plans are available, all the measurements of the house and the property lines near the house are compiled for you; this makes an easy base plan over which tracing paper can be placed for you to sketch your inventory of positives, negatives, and the next key step — suggestions for improvement.


Create a panoramic view of your yard by photographing sections and taping them together. Use a marker to sketch ideas right onto your photos.

Site analysis. Return to a comfortable spot and cogitate with optimism and invention. This is the time to look at ways to solve problems by seeing your site’s potential, devising clever ways to minimize your site’s faults and maximize its assets. For example, a 6-foot shrub planted close to your personal area can be as effective a visual barrier to create privacy as a 30-foot tree on the property’s edge. The removal of a diseased tree just might open up a pleasing view of your neighbor’s handsome and healthy Southern magnolia whose dark green leaves would make the perfect backdrop for a mixed border of shrubs and perennials without your having to rake the constantly dropping leathery leaves. Designers call this borrowing “visual appropriation.” Just remember, a mature tree is the best way to achieve the goal of having your garden look old and established from the start. Renowned landscape architect Thomas D. Church reminds us always to examine the “decorative value of branch structure” in these living garden sculptures.


Spring 1997 - New bare fences, unglazed brick, and a grassy rectangle. 


Fall 1997 - Two intimate garden spaces defined. 


Spring 1999 - In just two growing seasons, a once-bare lot is transformed. 

Get into the Zone. The next step, sometimes called the “bubble plan,” involves dividing your yard into outdoor zones based on their functions — areas for entertaining, outdoor dining, work, play, or just reading the paper. This is an experimental phase, your chance to indulge your most extreme garden fantasy, so give your imagination free rein. For a quick thrill, overlay a photograph of that nice level area in the side yard with tracing paper and dash off a garden whim per page as if you had just won the lottery — here an outdoor shower swathed in fragrant vines, there a lavender walk to a picket-fenced Colonial herb garden. Even if the concept is not used, some part of it may be adapted. There may not be room or sun enough for a geometric herb garden with brick paths, but an artful grouping of attractive pots filled with culinary herbs on the deck near the kitchen door may be plenty serviceable for cooking. A total Zen garden may be rejected in favor of a quiet, meditative corner with a comfortable seat in close proximity to a stone sculpture or small pool of stirring water.


This undulating sidewalk creates an interesting visual pattern that simultaneously edges perennials and provides a very practical mowing strip, cutting down on maintenance. 

 Functions and junctions. Bring all family members into the act at this bubble stage and be sure to take into account any very young or canine members who may not have voiced their opinions on all the possible uses for outdoor space. List desired site uses in order of importance and the requirements of each. For example, roses and vegetables need full sun. Outdoor dining needs to be close to the kitchen on a hard, level surface with some shade and privacy from neighbors and the street. The size of each area is determined from its priority ranking, the number of people using it, and the space available. It is best to plan related functions as a unit such as the driveway, walkway, and porch entry with the important “psychology of arrival” in mind, being visually open and welcoming. Consider placing steps further out from the door to make a more spacious landing area, lending a generous feel of graciousness to the guests’ arrival experience. Of course, utility areas such as the trash, storage, wood pile, compost pile, or potting shed should also be related and removed from public view and living areas. Try to relate outdoor functions to their indoor counterpart: wood to the fireplace, herbs to the kitchen sink, play area within view of the kitchen window and near the mud room. 


Foliage color is around a much longer time than bloom. Combinations such as the purple and chartreuse of these leaves punch each other out. 

You will need to think about the best traffic patterns within the garden in relation to the priority of the zones, and some rerouting may be necessary. A long main axis is visually strong, the garden walk itself serving as one of the chief design features while also functioning as a divider to various garden “rooms.” An axis also presents an opportunity to highlight an impressive focal point at its termination. A stone walkway flush with the edge of a perennial border serves as an aesthetically beautiful yet practical mowing strip, greatly reducing maintenance. On walkways you travel often, close-up views of the details of delicate blossoms and the various stages of bloom can be appreciated even on the smallest plants, so decide which of your favorite plants appeal to all the senses and use them appropriately, leaving large drifts of mass plantings for distant views. Steps connecting paths on different levels should be ample, comfortable, and located so as to entice one’s passage on them. The classic formula is: twice the riser plus the tread should equal 26 inches (as in 6-inch risers with 14-inch tread or 4-inch risers with 18-inch tread; a 1/8- to 1/4-inch fractional pitch should be included to shed water).


Paving such as these brick paths in the herb garden at Maymount in Richmond separate the garden into manageable beds, raised to promote good drainage, while also creating an aesthetically beautiful design.

Practical matters. Having given thought to the functions your ideal outdoor space would serve, now consider practical budget concerns such as the cost of grading, retaining walls, paving, lighting, irrigation, soil improvement, any outdoor structures (trellises, decks, benches, swings, arbors, pergolas, fences), or garden ornaments (statuary, fountains, architectural objects, birdhouses, feeders, and baths). Sometimes structures can perform double duty. Outlining a deck with benches takes the place of railings while providing seating enough for any party. A narrow retaining wall can become more useful by adding a cap wide enough to sit on (18 inches is comfortable). Orient structures so they are protected from winter winds, but can catch as much summer breeze as possible to extend the time they can be enjoyed. Remember enriching your soil and correcting any drainage problems are of paramount importance. Before digging, call the utility companies and, if possible, get them to mark a mechanical plan for your file showing electric lines, phone lines, gas and sewer lines.

Maintenance is an ongoing practical consideration for any garden design. Do you intend to do all your own lawn care and weeding or hire someone to help? If you are your own yard man, do not bite off more than you can chew by planting perennials that have to be frequently weeded and pruned. Plant only what you can “say grace over.” A tiny corner you pass by often that is packed with constant bloom and fragrance and provides a habitat for a bird family you can observe at close proximity can bring more joy than palatial borders endlessly in need of attention. Can you deal with the tangle of a full-blown cottage garden or are you a neat and tidy sort who likes to see mulch setting off each clump? If you are the latter, plant only peonies and poppies or stick to evergreen shrubs. Most perennials multiply greatly, giving you a huge return on your initial investment that most people appreciate; however, it is best to avoid vigorous spreaders (or bury them in a pot to contain their growth) if you do not have the heart to dig up faster-growing plants that overtake the slow ones. Planting perennials close together (12 inches apart or less) has several advantages: 1) the garden will have a full and exuberant look sooner; 2) plants literally support each other without staking; and 3) thick, healthy plants discourage weeds and require less mulch. If you are a patient and frugal gardener, though, plant fewer perennials at the beginning and use your divisions to start new beds. Obtain a good book on the care of perennials to get the best performance out of your plants. I recommend The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust.

Plant selection. Clearly one of the most exciting steps is actually picking out the plants for your dream garden. Yet remembering to operate within good design constraints in this step can also make it one of the most daunting. A designer must think in so many dimensions at once: height, width, depth, time (for succession of bloom) and try to achieve successful flower and foliage color combinations, as well as a desirable contrast in their form and texture. In selecting plants, keep in mind the amount of available light, soil type, and moisture content. Also, try to project your garden over time. A “Nellie Stevens” holly’s lovely pyramid shape perfectly punctuates each corner of your home’s new foundation when small, but in 10 years, the 25-foot tree will have consumed your house (if the mildew from lack of air circulation behind it did not rot it first). Usually, the more established your landscape becomes, the shadier it gets, so remember to sprinkle in more whites and yellows to brighten shade areas as the garden ages.

If you have any special months when you entertain annually, gauge your bloom time to the event: my Kentucky Derby party would feature peonies, late tulips, and regal iris. If you are fortunate enough to have a pool, plant crape myrtle, grasses, sedum, and tropical cannas for garden lushness at your pool party in the sizzling heat of summer. An Oktoberfest where steins are raised around an outdoor fireplace or freestanding Mexican chiminea could be further warmed by blazing orange pyracantha trained against the patio wall or by harvest gold chrysanthemums. Since perennials’ bloom time can be fleeting, force yourself to design more with foliage in mind — it lasts either three seasons or is evergreen. Grow extra annuals in pots so you will have them to plant (pot and all) to fill in spaces where color is needed. 

Rules of (a green) thumb. A cardinal rule of design is to repeat the plant itself or its color in bloom or foliage throughout the garden for unity and cohesiveness. In my front yard, a fountain of vibrant yellow spills from my huge forsythia, sunny pansies echo the vivid color in pots and windowboxes, and golden King Alfred daffodils trumpet springtime. Another good maxim is to choose one plant that has both good foliage substance and a splashy display of bloom to showcase each month. Azaleas and dogwoods dapple April; voluptuous peonies perfume May; roses reign supreme in June; Oriental lilies, daylilies, and black-eyed Susans bridge the early summer gap; hydrangeas’ blue and white mopheads cool off July; butterfly bush, phlox, and hardy hibiscus thrive in August; asters, dahlias, and mature annuals like celosia, cosmos, and cleome fill out September and October; berries of nandina, holly, ligustrum, and mahonia speckle the set of the winter stage.

Careful thought about all the things we want to do with the landscape leads us to discover all a garden can bring to our lives. Our efforts add great value to our property and bring balance to our indoor existence, harmony to our souls. Pull out the best garden implement of the season — a pencil — put it to paper, and get ready to reap the results.

 © Paula Brown is a freelance writer and lecturer on gardening topics. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she runs her design business, Imagine That. Questions, comments? E-mail her at


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