Planning and Design

Vital First Principle -- Plan and Design

The first of the Basic Gardening Principles is effective planning and design. Without a plan and a good, well thought-out design, you won’t be as pleased with the final product, your garden. Save yourself a lot of time and money by spending a great deal of time formulating your plan and the design of your garden. The planning step takes the most time in the making of the garden.

One mistake some people make is to leave out imagination. Before you begin, close your eyes and imagine what you’d like to see at your home. Do you see color, line, texture, large bold foliage, or something smaller, more intimate, or formal? Do you want to retreat into a bit of nature, the tropics or wildness?

You don’t have to achieve this by creating a jungle. Small areas, beds, or garden rooms create the same effect. As I’ve landscaped my bit of the universe, I created xeristrips in bloom, a prairie, a tropical nook, a high desert community, a woodlands garden and of course, a vegetable garden and turf. All on one regular size city block. Not a good example of traditional design, but it is my garden and I like variety.

But balance your imagination with a realistic summation of your available time and inclination for maintenance. Gardeners don’t mind spending time in the garden tending to their plants. But we all have many calls on our time. You can garden the low maintenance way with a lot of different beds and borders, or just a few. Or you may choose a more control oriented gardening scheme and devote yourself to your ideal. I want the plants, the soil life, to be complimentary, rather than adversarial, to our weather. It all about matching our desires with the right choices.

Regardless of what kind of landscape you decide on, maintenance is required. This is gardening, not just letting nature take its course. Working with nature, rather than against it, leads to lower maintenance.

Planning -- Making Choices

Make a Statement

Whatever stage of gardening you are at, take out a sheet of paper or notebook and write down what kind of garden you desire. Write down as many facets of the garden you desire you can think of. Save yourself years of work and hundreds of dollars now. Don’t worry about style just yet. Look over what you’ve written and sum it up, make your gardening statement. Your Garden Statement should be your guide in not just the planning of your garden, but should state your intent and focus, the gardening philosophy you intend to implement in managing the landscape. If you hired someone to manage your landscape, this would be the set of guidelines you would direct them to follow.

I didn’t do this at the beginning. But, I did after two garden makeovers. After the second makeover, I finally knew how I wanted to manage my home landscape.

Now, my Gardening Management Statement reads:

  • To create a beautifully thriving,
  • Low water-use,
  • Low maintenance,
  • Ecologically friendly garden
  • Composed of long blooming plants and
  • Plants of interesting and unusual foliage.

Now nearly everything related to my garden gets run through my gardening statement. If any aspect falls outside my Gardening Management Statement, I consciously decide to deviate from it. I must give approval. For instance, I might desire a higher water-use, higher maintenance plant. It must be either of unusual or of interesting foliage or a long blooming nature to warrant the extra water and maintenance. These are limited exceptions. The gardener decides.

Not surprisingly, my Gardening Management Statement is what this whole website is all about. The Basic Gardening Principles are adjustable to your statement, climate and conditions, wherever you garden, whatever your design style. The principles are the same, just adjustable. Adjust these principles to your gardening statement.

You adjust the principles in a number of ways: the location of beds, the use of hardscape, the type of irrigation, the amount of turf, turf type or groundcover type, the amount and type of soil amending depending on your soil conditions, the type of plants you choose, the type of mulch you use, your choice of plants for the different beds, and of course, the degree of maintenance based on your climate and conditions.

Your statement doesn’t have to be the same. Maybe you just want foliage, even just ordinary foliage, as in lawn grass. This website can help you achieve an ecologically friendly, lower water-use and lower maintenance lawn. Want higher maintenance, but still beautifully thriving and ecologically friendly? Whatever your desires, the principles to achieve them are the same. Don’t want to be ecologically friendly? I may not be able to help you.

Your Desires

Engage your entire being in the garden. The visual aspect (eyes) is naturally the most important. Incorporate fragrance (nose), taste (mouth), texture (fingers, feet and skin), and sound (ears), tension and relief (emotions) elements in your desires. Break these aspects down. This applies to hardscape as well as to plants.

  • Visual: color, flowers, foliage, height, width, shape, arrangement or composition.
  • Fragrance: of foliage or flowers, most noticeable in morning or evening, when do you view your garden?
  • Taste: Fruit, vegetables or herbs?
  • Texture: Rough, smooth, spiky, serrated, mottled, hairy, glossy, sticky.
  • Sound: Of birds visiting, insects buzzing, water running, wind rustling?
  • Tension and relief: Bold, striking and stimulating, or contemplative, soothing and relaxing?
  • Duration: Four season garden? Three season? Day bloomers or nighttime?
  • Wildlife: The incorporation of wildlife in your garden can enhance all the senses (with the exception of browsing deer and certain burrowing rodents). I’m including this as a separate dimension. It includes bees, butterflies, dragonflies, bugs and beetles, birds and many mammals necessary for a thriving ecology.

Think about what you want, read about principles of design, look at gardens in books, magazines and in person. Take garden tours, visit botanic gardens and drive through neighborhoods, making notes of what you’d like your garden to look like. Do remember not every example is a good example. You must become gardening savvy if you are the landscape designer. You must become plant savvy when it comes time to choose plants (don’t start choosing just yet).

I’m not going to cover specific principles of design such as light (mood and emotion), line, form, size, space and form, color, texture, pattern, scale, perspective and balance. I will suggest different plants for particular purposes.

Plan for Function

How will you use your landscape?

  • Lawn for child and pet play area?
  • Patio area for entertaining and eating?
  • Swimming pool or hot tub?
  • Vegetable garden, herbs or fruit?
  • Putting green, badminton court, horseshoe, washer pitch or other game area?
  • Or do you need to screen out a view or recurring noise?
  • What degree of maintenance to you intend to commit to your garden?

Map It

Measure the landscape to scale, graph paper works best. Draw in buildings, structures. driveway, sidewalks and existing beds you will be keeping. Make note of shady, sunny, windy and exposed areas, as well as any areas that accumulate water or are drier than other areas. In other words, consider the various micro-niches in your landscape.

Based on the desires and functions that are most important to you, guided by your management guidelines, begin to place them on the diagram taking into account micro-niches. Don't set anything in stone just yet. Take some time to think about things.

Suggested Reading

  • Ann Lovejoy’s Organic Garden Design School, Ann Lovejoy, Rodale Organic Gardening Books, 2001
  • Natural by Design: Beauty and Balance in Southwest gardens, Judith Phillips, Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995
  • Gardening With Prairie Plants, Sally Wasowski, University of Minnesota Press, 1995
  • Passionate Gardening: Good Advice for Challenging Climates, Lauren Springer and Rob Proctor, Fulcrum Publishing, 2000