Gardening books, blogs and websites can provide information and inspiration. Nevertheless for new gardeners, in particular, it can seem a daunting task. To get started, here are ten steps outlining how to create a solid and sustainable garden bed design.


Stack of gardening books on graph paper.

Gardening books make great research tools.

Step 1: Select a Site

Be practical. Before you dig, contact utility companies to ensure there are no underground cables, pipes or wires buried onsite. Otherwise, your project may take an unexpected turn. Avoid planting near the road or driveway where snowfall accumulation and salt build-up in the soil can create a problem. Alternatively, select appropriate plants to grow in such conditions.

Tree roots can cause structural damage if you plant too close to the foundation of your house. Also, your roof overhang may impede rainfall from getting to plants. Take a look at the grade of the site as well to prevent erosion problems.

Finally, check local landscape bylaws to prevent any issues that could arise after your garden is done. In my city, for instance, no hard objects such as rocks, bricks or wooden planters are permitted near the street.


Step 2: Consider Maintenance

Be sensible. When the garden bed is finished, you’ll probably be the one to care for it. Unless you can afford a gardener, you’ll need to water, weed and enrich your soil regularly. Knowing your maintenance requirements will help you to determine the size of bed you are willing to care for. It makes sense to start small and expand the project later to avoid feeling overwhelmed. New gardeners sometimes say they want a no-maintenance garden but, truth be told, all gardens require a little maintenance, even if you’re a lazy gardener like me.


Step 3: Set a Budget

Be realistic. Regardless of the size of your garden bed, set a price limit. You can start your bed with seeds or small plants, called plugs, to save money. Seed starting also offers more diversity in plant choices. Trees, shrubs and some perennials in pots can be pricey, but including them in a design creates an established-looking garden. There are deals to be had later in the gardening season, or at local plant sales and by trading with friends.

Annuals need to be replaced every year, unless they self-seed. Incorporating hardscaping – building a retaining wall or adding pavers, for example – will significantly add to your costs, as will installing an underground watering system.


Step 4: Explore Your Community

Be inspired. I like to walk around the neighborhood to discover garden beds that work well and are in harmony with the architectural features of a house. Most gardeners enjoy talking about their plants, so it’s easy to chat, ask questions and learn how they planned and organized their bed. Taking photographs will help you to recollect details. Garden tours are also great ways to learn.


Digital photo of a bee on a blooming plant.

Photos are a good aid when creating your design.

Step 5: Get To Know Plants

Be knowledgeable. Most garden centers have well-informed, trained staff to assist with plant selection, but there are other ways to learn about plants. I check reputable horticultural websites, attend gardening talks, consult with master gardeners and buy or borrow books that include plants that grow in my zone. It’s important to know which plants are best for sun and those better suited for shade.

These days, more and more gardeners are mindful of giving back to nature by incorporating appropriate native plants, including trees and shrubs for pollinators and wild birds.


Plant labels on graph paper.

Old plant labels are also a useful resource for designing a garden bed.

Step 6: Keep It Simple

Be logical. Experienced gardeners think in terms of repetition – creating waves of color, shape and texture that are pleasing to the eye. Odd numbers, such as groupings of three of the same plant species, work best. In contrast, single plants randomly placed in a garden bed can seem jumbled.

The simplicity theory also works when it comes to color combinations. Too many colors in one bed can make it look like a crazy patchwork quilt by being wildly exuberant. Use a color wheel to select pleasing combinations that blend well, such as yellows and blues, pinks and purples or yellows and reds. Foliage, evergreen needles, tall grasses and even bark can also help to create visually pleasing effects.


Completed garden-bed design.

Completed garden-bed design.

Step 7: Think Three Dimensions

Think vertically, as well as horizontally. When designing a garden bed, sometimes it’s hard to imagine what it will look like years later. In order to plan properly, research the height and width of your plants at maturity. Safety considerations need to be factored into the design, too. For instance, you don’t want a prickly rose bush that might hurt someone near an entryway.

An interesting garden-bed-design plan incorporates plants of varying heights, sizes and dimensions, often with one strong focal point, which could be an unusual plant, a sculpture, an arbor, a trellis or an eye-catching plant grouping. Taller plants are generally placed at the back of a bed. If it’s an island bed visible from all sides, taller plants work best in the middle.


Small tree in center of garden bed.

A small tree with umbrella-shaped foliage makes a nice garden bed focal point.

Step 8: Share Spaces When Possible

Be cooperative. These days, especially with smaller front yards in many newer suburban communities, you may want to work with a neighbor who owns the adjoining property on a design plan. This helps to avoid further subdividing a small space with conflicting design plans.

A couple years ago, I asked my next-door neighbor if I could remove a narrow strip of turf grass on his adjoining property and extend my butterfly garden. We agreed on a plan and that strip of land is now beautiful. At his request, a few years earlier, I removed a large Norway maple near his property line. Working with neighbors can be win-win.


Step 9: Sketch a Plan

Professional landscape designers always measure to scale and create a detailed plan using graph paper or a landscaping software program. A simple garden-bed design can easily be made on plain paper with a pencil or pen, or using colored pencils. Your plan will guide you, even though it may change over time. Often, I find the best idea for a design is not my first one. It evolves, sometimes slowly, and may require consultation with others. Ideally it should include a plant list with descriptions of their height, width and future care needs.


Hand-sketched design plan for pollinator garden.

Design plan for a pollinator garden.

Step 10: Create Your Own Garden

The best part of any garden should be to please yourself, especially if you are the one tending to it. Each garden reflects the personality of the gardener. Just remember that the best garden bed is a healthy one with the right plants in the right place. If your plants are happy, then you probably will be, too.


Potted plants positioned in newly dug garden bed.

A new garden bed starts to take shape.


Text and photos by Julianne Labreche

Julianne Labreche is a freelance writer and garden enthusiast who volunteers as a Master Gardener and Master Naturalist in Ottawa.

Build a Garden Bed

PD210 - Lee Valley Sod Lifter

This image has not been loaded. To print the images, close the print view and scroll to the bottom of the article. Once all of the images have loaded, select the print option again.

Lee Valley Sod Lifter

$97.50

AA211 - Soil Test Kit

This image has not been loaded. To print the images, close the print view and scroll to the bottom of the article. Once all of the images have loaded, select the print option again.

Soil Test Kit

$24.90

AB691 - Lee Valley Perennial Fork

This image has not been loaded. To print the images, close the print view and scroll to the bottom of the article. Once all of the images have loaded, select the print option again.

Lee Valley Perennial Fork

$48.90

PG118 - Radius Root-Cutter Lawn Edger

This image has not been loaded. To print the images, close the print view and scroll to the bottom of the article. Once all of the images have loaded, select the print option again.

Radius Root-Cutter Lawn Edger

$74.50

Women’s Work Gloves

This image has not been loaded. To print the images, close the print view and scroll to the bottom of the article. Once all of the images have loaded, select the print option again.

Women’s Work Gloves

$37.50

PG455 - Lee Valley Narrow Rake

This image has not been loaded. To print the images, close the print view and scroll to the bottom of the article. Once all of the images have loaded, select the print option again.

Lee Valley Narrow Rake

$67.50

ES106 - Cooling Towel

This image has not been loaded. To print the images, close the print view and scroll to the bottom of the article. Once all of the images have loaded, select the print option again.

Cooling Towel

$14.95

XB135 - Hozelock Pico Reel

This image has not been loaded. To print the images, close the print view and scroll to the bottom of the article. Once all of the images have loaded, select the print option again.

Hozelock Pico Reel

$68.50

Classic Travel Hat, Cream

This image has not been loaded. To print the images, close the print view and scroll to the bottom of the article. Once all of the images have loaded, select the print option again.

Classic Travel Hat

$69.00

BL128 - Set of 2 Garden Knives

This image has not been loaded. To print the images, close the print view and scroll to the bottom of the article. Once all of the images have loaded, select the print option again.

Lee Valley Garden Knives

From: $34.50

AA616 - Set of 3 Children’s Garden Tools

This image has not been loaded. To print the images, close the print view and scroll to the bottom of the article. Once all of the images have loaded, select the print option again.

Children's Garden Tools Set

$19.90

PG119 - Root-Cutter Trenching Spade

This image has not been loaded. To print the images, close the print view and scroll to the bottom of the article. Once all of the images have loaded, select the print option again.

Radius Root-Cutter Trenching Spade

$84.50

AD834 - Radius Ergonomic Weeder, 9" x 1"

This image has not been loaded. To print the images, close the print view and scroll to the bottom of the article. Once all of the images have loaded, select the print option again.

Radius Ergonomic Hand Weeder

$16.30


Share On Facebook Share via Email

NAME YOUR WISH LIST

Sign In

User Name is a required field.

Password is a required field.

Forgot password? Forgot Username?

Benefits of creating an account:

Create an account

Please enter the username associated with your Lee Valley account and we will send you an email to reset your password.

Please enter the email address associated with your Lee Valley account and we will send you an email with your username.