Making a garden can change your life. Learning to create a landscape is more than just digging holes and spreading mulch and hoping it doesn’t all revert to weeds faster than you can you can adjust to taking care of it. Adding a garden into your life is not so different than adding a child or a pet – it takes time and care and if you are going to do it right – lots of advice tips from people who have gone before you and figured a few things out. As a gardener for life and a professional designer of nearly 25 years – these are my best landscaping tips for beginners.
Lots of beginner gardeners (and even advanced ones!) struggle to get the design part right. Gardening and garden design are two halves to a whole – one is primarily science and the other is based in art.
This collection of concepts (in no particular order) will help you learn to landscape and figure out for yourself how to design a successful garden, embrace and enjoy the challenges that landscape design can present, and help you create an outdoor space that is vastly better than you can currently imagine. (And that makes your neighbors totally jealous).
40 Garden and Landscape Design Tips for Beginners
- Garden design is the only art practice that doesn’t stay as the artist made it – don’t fight this – embrace it.
- Work from the center out – not the edges in.
- You can always fill awkward spaces with plants and suddenly they aren’t awkward.
- Ninety degree and greater angles (right angles and obtuse angles) feel good. Less than ninety feels pinched, are hard to build and maintain, and are more likely to bug you forever. Scrutinize and eliminate acute angles.
- If everything is special then nothing is special.
- A hedge isn’t the only way to create privacy. Neither is a fence or a wall.
- Good garden design is the marriage of art (form, scale, etc) and science (gardening/ horticulture); you need both.
- All art is a form of storytelling – the more stories your garden tells, the more interesting it will be.
- Save yourself some headache and resolve to do it right from the start.(I.e especially don’t scrimp on hardscaping)
- A planting bed or patio is infinitely easier to move on paper than after it is built (i.e. drawing is a hack to save your back – to learn to landscape is to learn to draw).
- You will never regret more plants.
- Cut all spacing recommendations for bulbs, annuals and perennials in half – a densely planted garden will have fewer weeds, greater water retention and you won’t have to be so “patient”.
- Wall to wall carpeting is kinda gross and it isn’t fashionable in your house – neither is it in your garden.
- If there is no reason to go somewhere, then you won’t go there and it will languish.
- Discover and embrace your landscape’s limitations. Accept them as a gift that reduces the millions of choices and possibilities and makes decision-making easier. Step one in basic landscape design is always figuring out your constraints.
- England is a great gardening nation – admirable and beloved for good reason – but unless you live there, you shouldn’t be trying to design in that style.
- Same goes for France, Miami, Santa Fe and any other place. There is a unique vernacular that makes sense for where you live – find it and use it.
- Understand Genus Loci and how it applies to you.
- Don’t forget that you can only really see half your garden (the rest is underground).
- Just because your neighbor did it, doesn’t mean it is good.
- Botanical latin is universal (Common names are like local slang – we don’t all have the same words) and it carries hidden messages that will help you understand plants better.
- A bunch of things that are too similar will all blend together – contrast everything.
- Plants come last, only after you have great structure, a plan and a backbone.
- Think of your favorite dance song (this is one of mine) – now apply that beat to your landscape. Your eye should dance like its at a Flo Rida concert as it takes in your garden.
- You and your garden are not an island, your choices impact your neighbors and countless other creatures – try not to be an a**.
- Experimentation is key to learning – not all experiments are successful (but you still learn something from them).
- Build your garden off the leading lines of your house to make sure the design fits the architecture.
- Plant names change because science and our understanding of nature evolves — be flexible and always ready to learn (or re-learn) something new.
- It is near impossible to make a place feel natural if you use unnatural materials.
- If you can’t see the destination, that mystery will make the journey to get there more exciting.
- Mulch is a tool not a garden feature – the goal should always be more plants so you need less mulch.
- Don’t forget that you can change the levels of things. (Dig something lower, mound something higher, berms, retaining walls, steps are all options for altering space).
- Your garden is never “done” – thinking that it is will only lead to frustration and missed opportunities.
- When drawing plans, try to ignore the fences and boundaries. They are arbitrary and will dominate your thinking if you let them. (layer them in later if you are stuck with planning)
- Never let yourself be able to see a whole length of fence. A fence is long boring line that probably points to a dark ugly corner. Break the line so you aren’t pointing your eye at the worst things.
- Plants are more than a pretty face (Don’t choose them just for flower type and color). They have to have a good bod, a nice personality and be able to work well with others too.
- Solve drainage problems with drainage solutions. Plants can’t fix drainage issues – the best you can hope is that it won’t drown too quickly.
- Find a signature plant – one that is special just to you and your garden, and that have become very good at growing. It will give you confidence, authority, something to talk about and your garden a bit of individual personally.
- The smaller your garden – the more evergreens you need.**
- Color will change your perceptions. (ex. dark colors recede, white comes at you, red is the first thing you will see). Plan accordingly.
**I don’t mean this as an exact number… more of a ratio.
You can also watch this free masterclass that is full of landscaping tips for beginners as well as a framework for creating your first garden in a way that will avoid many of the most common garden catastrophes. It is a first step to learn more about what to do and what not to do in garden design.