A Japanese maple surrounded by greenery.

Start With a Plan

To begin the design process, you need a base plan of your property, drawn to scale. This should accurately plot the location of all pertinent features (property lines, vegetation, grade changes, stone walls, structures, overhead and below-ground wires, etc.). If you have a property survey, it will help in plotting many of these elements; however, you will still need to confirm utility locations with the relevant authorities.

You can plot your own plan using two 100’ measuring tapes. Position the first tape a foot or two out from the back wall of your house, parallel to the house, and walk the width of the yard. At this tape’s midway mark, position the second tape at a right angle and walk the depth of your lot. You can now plot existing features using these two tapes as reference points. For example, if you want to plot the location of a large oak tree, travel the length of the tape to the point where you are even with the tree and note the distance. Turn at a 90° angle towards the tree and again measure the distance. Mark the tree’s location on your plan. Be thorough, as this analysis is a cornerstone of good design.

When measuring your property, make note of various opportunities and constraints that will influence your design. An opportunity, for example, may be an old stone wall that provides shelter and a special micro-climate for growing unusual plants. However, an area with several large trees that cast a lot of shade, or a low area that provides a damp breeding ground for unwelcome mosquitoes may be constraints.

Seek advice

Successful garden design is, in large part, measured by the receptiveness of those who view it. Invite your household members to share their ideas. It’s also advisable to seek input from abutting neighbors, as opportunities may exist to share landscaping beyond your property or to use part of their property for construction access.

Select a style

Unlike a botanical garden that may comprise several distinct garden types, a home garden benefits from having one consistent theme throughout. This is influenced by your neighborhood, the style of your house and, of course, your preferences. Garden styles can vary widely, from cottage casual, to Victorian formal, to contemporary minimalism, to name a few.

A garden gates serves as an entrance to the garden.

Create a landscape work of art

Designing a garden can be compared to painting a picture. In both cases, you position different elements to create a functional and aesthetic composition.

If the landscape picture is to be a success, it must have lines, forms and proportions that work in the context of your site. These may be well-defined and straight, such as those found in a formal garden, or they may be loose and meandering, such as those found in a naturalistic garden.

Functional areas (areas for eating, playing, etc.) may take the form of “garden rooms” and are defined by elements such as hedges, panels or changes in elevation. Smaller gardens, necessarily, have to accommodate a number of functions in each room, whereas more space can be devoted to each function in larger gardens.

A view of the garden through the gate entrance.

Some Elements of Good Garden Design

1. A strong first impression

The foreground area is seen first, so make it count! An attractive gate or arbor covered with clematis or roses adds to its significance. The foreground commonly includes human-scale objects (a potted tree, a sculpture, for example) that make visitors feel comfortable and in place with the scale of the garden. Using patio and decking materials to establish patterns that can be repeated elsewhere provides continuity throughout the garden. Incorporating some bold, brightly colored plants in the foreground attracts and holds the eye, leaving strong afterimages. Place finely textured, pastel-colored plants in the background to add depth.

Let the garden unfold from this point, bit by bit, as opposed to all at once; it will entice visitors onward and outward.

A bird bath placed among garden plants is used to draw attention and provide a brief visual pause.

2. Focal points

These are objects that grab and hold visitors’ attention, causing them to pause before their eyes move on. Focal points are usually located in the middle ground to draw the eye deeper into the garden. They are usually limited in number, with two or three being sufficient for smaller gardens. Focal points may include curios brought back from a vacation, water features, sculptures, recycled items, etc. Those with moving parts or running water add both animation and sound. Resist the temptation to locate focal point dead in the middle of the property, as it tends to look too obvious and can dictate the rest of the design.

A stone path leads the eye to the garden beyond it.

3. Smooth transitions

These join the visual planes of the garden and the various garden rooms. For example, deck or patio stairs that extend and widen outward toward the middle ground help merge the two areas. A few patio paving stones used as stepping stones in the middle ground has the same effect.

In background areas, let plants spill outward to the edge of the middle ground, and use a wavy border rather than a hard straight line to merge the two areas. A middle-ground feature, such as a sunny rockery, could extend into the background as a shady rockery to reinforce unity and repetition. Planting something spectacular throughout the garden, such as golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’), creates unity and flow.

A stone bird bath covered with ivy creates a bit of mystery in the garden.

4. A little mystery

To intrigue and entertain visitors, gardens should have a sense of mystery or surprise. A path that disappears around a bend may make the visitor question where it leads. A door inserted in a hedge creates the illusion there may be a room behind it.

You can also use plants to create mystery. Try inter-planting dissimilar species, such as irises and ferns. From a distance, it can look as though the ferns are in bloom. You can also interplant similar-looking species to trick the eye. Tropical caladiums, with their heart-shaped leaves and variegated foliage, inter-planted with various hostas, with leaves that are similarly shaped, can leave visitors asking “Where did you get hostas like that?”

A brilliant yellow blooms adds color to the garden.

5. Time

When it comes to design, time is often not given enough consideration. Gardens unfold eventually, changing from season to season and from year to year.

It’s a good idea to learn all you can about your plants’ mature sizes and their growth rates in different soil types and moisture conditions. Ensure you leave enough space for them to reach their full potential.

Time also comes into play in the building of your garden. If your plan is overly ambitious and results in higher costs, you may have to do the work over a number of years. Know where you will get the best value for your dollar and establish priorities along the lines of must-have items, should-have items and would-be-nice-to-have-if-we-had-a-larger-budget items.

Above all, be patient.

A lush garden on display.

Designing a spectacular garden on your own is possible. I hope the suggestions in this article will help you achieve a dream garden that will age gracefully throughout the years.

Text by Frank Kershaw

Frank Kershaw is an award-winning horticulturist with more than forty years experience. He teaches garden design and horticultural courses at George Brown College in Toronto, Ontario, and at the Toronto Botanical Garden. He also presents gardening seminars at the Lee Valley stores in the Greater Toronto Area.

Photos by Marilyn Cornwell

Photographer Marilyn Cornwell lives and gardens in Toronto, Ontario. Her website is marilyncornwell.com.

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