Making a garden can change your life. Learning to create a landscape is more than just trying to add curb appeal by digging holes, spreading mulch, and hoping it doesn’t all revert to weeds faster than you can. You can learn to take care of it. Adding a garden into your life is not so different than adding a child or a pet – a landscaping project takes time and care, and if you are going to do it right – lots of advice from people who have gone before you and figured a few things out. As a green thumb gardener for life and a professional landscape designer of nearly 25 years – these are my best landscaping tips for beginners.
Many beginner gardeners (and even advanced ones!) struggle with garden design. Gardening and garden design are two halves of a whole – one is primarily scientific, and the other is based on art.
This collection of simple tips (in no particular order) will help you learn to landscape and figure out for yourself how to design a successful and beautiful yard, 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. Learn to let nature do the hard work.
- Work from the center out – not the edges in.
- You can always fill awkward spaces with plants and flower beds, 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. (In other words – you probably don’t need another “focal point”)
- A hedge isn’t the only way to create privacy. Neither is a fence or a wall. (a well-placed large tree can do more than both of these options)
- 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 headaches and resolve to do it right from the start. (I.e., especially don’t scrimp on hardscaping of your exterior space)
- A planting bed or patio is infinitely easier to move on paper than after it is built. (i.e., drawing master plans is a hack to save your back – one of the easiest ways 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 and 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. (don’t cover the entire area in turf grass. A well-designed landscape features plenty of native plants, a variety of different plants, deciduous trees and fruit trees, the right plants, a water feature (or two), and lots of planting beds and features that will increase your home value, improve the eco-system, and provide you outdoor living space. Don’t be underserved and let down by high-maintenance turf grass.)
- 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. (There are countless more interesting ways to design a garden that celebrates your local climate and where you live.)
- The 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. Latin plant names contain hidden messages that will help you understand plants better.
- A bunch of things that are too similar will all blend together – contrast everything. (Learn how to work with Texture)
- New plants come last only after you have great structure, a plan, and a backbone. (It is a good idea to get ideas from the nursery – but put your pocketbook away until you know what you really need)
- Think of your favorite dance song (this is one of mine) – now apply that beat to your landscape. Your eye should dance like it’s 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 a jerk.
- 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. Align and scale features with dominant windows and primary architectural features (like the front door) of your home.
- Plant names change because science and our understanding of nature evolve — be flexible and always ready to learn (or re-learn) something new.
- It is nearly 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.
- Wood 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, use berms or a retaining wall or steps – these are a great way to alter 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 see the whole length of a fence. Fences are long, boring, straight lines that probably point to a dark, ugly corner. Break the line so your eye isn’t drawn to the worst.
- Plants are more than a pretty face (don’t choose them just for their flower type and color). They also have to have a good body, a nice personality, and be able to work well with others.
- Solve drainage problems with drainage solutions. Plants can’t fix drainage issues – the best you can hope is that they won’t drown too quickly.
- Find a signature plant – one that is special just to you and your garden and that you have become very good at growing. It will give you confidence, authority, and something to talk about. Plus, your garden will gain a bit of individual personality.
- The smaller your garden – the more evergreens you need.**
- Color will change your perceptions. (ex. Dark colors recede, white comes at you, and red is always the first thing you will see). Plan accordingly.
- Bonus: Make a wish list; there are lots of common features that are great additions to your plan. Consider a fire pit, water gardens, a side yard that isn’t just a weedy forgotten hallway, an exterior design that is a continuation of your interior design style, a nice seating area, outdoor lighting, and anything that you have always wanted. Don’t rule things out too early in the process – gardens can be built over time, and with good planning, you can build a beautiful landscape bit by bit.
**I don’t mean this as an exact number… more of a ratio.
If you aren’t sure how to get a good landscape – there are a couple of options. You can learn how to create a plan for yourself (I can help with that), or you can hire a landscape professional.
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.
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