How to Be Your Own Garden Designer: Think Like A Curator

October 10, 2017

Designing for yourself is hard – no matter what the project. It is especially hard for people (like me) who love all sorts of design styles and who can appreciate a huge variety of wildly different ideas.

Landscape design is a vast field.  There are millions of plants and permutations to put them together.  The architectural options of outdoor design aren’t limited by walls and a roof.  And most insanely, it doesn’t sit still – you put it together and then it takes off and grows and changes all on its own. It can be utterly overwhelming.

Your planting zone and your personal style and your ability to take care of things starts to narrow the field a little – but these eliminations are usually not enough.  You must narrow things down if you are going to give yourself the full joy of creating a garden that is uniquely and creatively yours.How to be your own garden designer - think like a curator

image: Private garden near Squam Lake, NH  where the owner curates a huge collection of rare daylilies. 

I find it helpful to change your role. Try to think of yourself not as homeowner or person in need of a design solution – but as a curator.  Putting your self into this role (mentally) will give you a certain level of abstraction that can be helpful when designing. It will help to remove emotion and other barriers to creative thinking.

How to think like a curator?

People who put together displays for museums have a big job too.  They must come up with an idea – and then build a narrative around it and execute it to (hopefully) tell a story or create an event that will educate and entertain people. There are a lot of similarities creating an enjoyable and exciting garden. You can use curatorial thinking to help you get started with making your own garden.

Tell a story.

A garden is a story.  Perhaps the narrative is about color or material, or maybe there is a more personal thread that runs through the collection. It can be about the history of the land, the plants, or the evolution of the place, or just about anything.  Aim to impart meaning in your project.


Don’t follow trends.

Collect only what you love, what gets you excited, or what you think is extraordinary.  Don’t do what everyone else is doing, that will never be interesting or special.

How to be your own garden designer - think like a curator


Be Picky.

Take pride in your garden; seek out the most prized pieces/ plants/ treasures or those that are closest to your ideal.  Gardens are like collections, they can quickly get out of hand.  Being picky will help keep things to a maintainable and manageable size.


Do your research

You do not need to know much about gardening to get started, but as you learn about a plant or a method, endeavor to get to know it well – really well.  If you have an idea – go deep on whatever the knowledge needed to do it right or in the most special way.  If you love hydrangeas (for example) and you want to make a hydrangea garden, get to know hydrangeas well.   Study the various varieties, talk to local nursery people about hydrangeas and how to grow them successfully, and experiment to gather your own expertise.  By having a depth of knowledge and become an expert on hydrangeas – it will help you see treasures in the hydrangea world where others can’t.  Whatever you are growing or making or creating – go deep – know it implicitly.


Display creatively.

Re-imagine uses for materials. Display art items or plants in a way that is outside of the expected.  Gather like with like to make a bigger impact, or use architecture to highlight something special.  Also, consider transforming elements with paint or other artistic manipulation.  This will help others appreciate how special the various elements of your garden are.


Images: Rochelle Greayer

Related Posts:

Garden Design Basics: Using Shapes to Inspire Your Design

Garden Design Basics:  Play With Scale

Garden Design Basics: Serpentine Walls


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