How to Design a Great Garden
The many considerations that garden designers think about to design the garden of your dreams:
1. What is the size of your property? The size of your space determines what trees, shrubs, perennials, and annual flowers you can plant. If you have a very small property, don’t opt for a very large tree, for example. It will give you grief over time; trees need lots of space to grow. The general rule with trees is that their root system is twice the size of their leaf canopy.
Here are recommendations for small trees.
2. What direction does your home face? This is called orientation. The direction your house faces (north, south, east, or west) determines the light (sunshine) pattern on your property. You can’t change light patterns, you can only work with them.
In gardening terms, houses facing NE are more suitable for shade or part-shade plants. Houses that face SW get more sun and more heat too, especially in July and August. So, you either have a sunny front yard, or a sunny backyard, but not both; there is always a shade pattern.
Vegetable, herb and rose gardens need lots of sun to produce energy for flowers and fruit, so a SW exposure is best. A vegetable garden that faces NE will produce minimal fruit.
Also take into consideration the surrounding houses: when they cast shade, where does it fall? Does it reduce the amount of light on your property further? Are your neighbour's trees getting mature and casting shade on a garden that was sunny 10 years ago?
3. What is the style of your house? The purpose of a front garden is to enhance the overall look or curb appeal of your home. You don’t want the style of the house to fight with the style of the garden.
A minimalist house would not be well served by a French- or English-inspired garden. Similarly, Tudor-style house would not be well served by a Japanese-inspired garden. Think about the style of your home and what garden style would enhance it the most.
See section on “Foundation Plantings," #10 below.
4. What needs hiding? Do your neighbours have too many cars they need to park, keep junk in the alley, or an unsightly shed on their property that affects your sight lines? Hydro, phone, and gas meters can be masked with shrubs and yet still be accessible. Frequently, but not always, a garden can be designed to hide eyesores.
5. What functions do you want or need in your garden? Do you want a seating area in your front garden, to watch the world go by? Or, do you want to create privacy in a front garden? Do you want a children’s play area in your backyard? A patio or deck? Do you want a vegetable garden? A swimming pool? A garden pond? Take care not to cram too many elements into a small property because the overall effect can look busy, or even overwhelming.
Collectively, these elements are known as hardscaping. It is best that hardscaping is done first, before the planting plan.
Contact us about our Landscape Partners who can assist you with hardscaping.
6. What type of soil do you have? There are three basic types of soil: clay, sand, and loam. Clay is not inherently bad; clay has a lot of nutrients for plants, which is good. The problem with clay is lack of organic matter and lack of drainage. In other words, rainwater pools up and many plants don’t like to have their roots soaking in water. So, it’s always a good idea to do soil remediation; if you have clay soil, keep adding compost and construction sand and dig it in.
Sandy soil is actually very poor and contains no nutrients. Equally bad, sandy soil does not retain water because it lacks organic matter, which acts as a sponge. Remediate sandy soil by adding compost. If you have sandy soil, you’ll need to spend money on fertilizers in order to have a lush garden. And you’ll be watering a lot, too. If you have sandy soil, drought-tolerant plants are a better option.
In designing a garden for either clay soil or sandy soil, you need to pick cultivars that thrive in the soil you have. You need to work with nature, not fight it. Good news for rose lovers: roses thrive in clay soil.
If you have loam—the ideal soil—you can plant whatever you like. Consider yourself lucky and thank the Gardening Gods.
7. Pick a garden style. Increasingly, there is a fusion of styles for gardens rather than one style such as French, English, Italian, Islamic, Japanese, Chinese, or Persian. You can isolate elements from each and incorporate them into your garden design. This approach works well in today’s housing subdivisions, where houses are situated very closely together and space is at a premium.
8. A bold idea is the "secret sauce" for your garden. For your front garden and your backyard, you need a bold idea for each. What do you want it to look like from the curb, to give it that curb appeal? What view do you want to create when you look out your windows, using live plant material? You can create a pleasing scene, using live trees, shrubs, and plants.
It is also helpful to link both your front garden and backyard visually, using some of the same plants and shrubs.
9. Create a focal point. Every successful garden has a focal point. A focal point is what draws the eye to it. This can be a garden pond, a special tree, a sculpture, or a birdbath.
10. Foundation plantings around the house. The purpose of foundation plantings—the area immediately outside the perimeter of your house—are to “set” the house on its property and help hide the concrete foundation your home sits on, which is not particularly attractive.
Spreading evergreens, slow growing species of evergreens, and evergreens intended for rock gardens are good choices for foundation plantings because they make your house look good all year round. Deciduous shrubs, because they lose their leaves, are not an optimal choice for foundation plantings because they make your house look bare in the fall and winter seasons.
With foundation plantings, don’t plant too close to the house (2 to 3 feet is minimum) and don’t block your windows. Remember, plants are not static and they will grow.
11. Draw your garden design. Using the measurements of your property and your big idea for your garden, draw a to-scale drawing of your front garden and your backyard. Draw in hardscaping (patios, decks, pools, etc.) focal points, foundation plantings, garden beds, and trees.
With garden beds, put taller plants in the back, mid-level plants in the middle, and groundcover plants at the front to create a layered look.
You may do several designs and put them aside for a while and think about them. You may incorporate elements from one design into another design; it takes a while to come up with the design that feels right for your front garden and backyard.
For ideas, click on:
Elements of Garden Design
Small Garden Design
Front Garden Design
12. Be honest about your garden maintenance. You can have a lush garden and enjoy gardening. You can have a lush garden and get a garden maintenance or landscaping company to keep it looking great all season long. But a great garden design that is high maintenance and then abandoned will not enhance your enjoyment of it, nor will it enhance your property’s resale value.
These days, busy homeowners want a low-maintenance garden. Evergreens are low maintenance, as they don’t shed leaves in the fall. Perennials are low maintenance, as you have to cut them back at the end of the growing season and that is all. Large boxwood hedges are high maintenance because they need regular clipping.
13. Select trees, shrubs and plants for your garden. Again, remember your light pattern and your soil type. Be courteous to your neighbours and don’t plant huge trees near the property line where leaves will fall into their pool, or will cast shade on their vegetable garden, for example. There are a number of small species trees that make good focal points; there are also shrubs that can be pruned to look like small trees. Think variety, texture and contrast in selecting your plants.
Click on our Favourite Plants Section to see ideas for small trees, shrubs, and perennials.
Click on Elements of Garden Design for more ideas.
Garden design and landscaping consulting in Oakville, Milton, Burlington, Mississauga, Etobicoke, and Toronto.