Garden Design Tips for beginners – How to Think about Your First Garden

December 24, 2023

Here is some garden design advice for beginners: Great gardens are adventures. As a garden visitor, a great garden will intrigue you from afar and beckon you closer. Once inside, it will feel like an exciting series of moments where you notice something new here, something exciting over there, and there will continue to be something drawing you in deeper, closer.

They’re filled with discovery and exploration not just for the visitor – but most especially for the garden maker. They are literally the story of a human figuring it out – laid out in the form of plants and rooms and paths and whatever else the garden encompasses. They are like a book telling the story of someone deciding to make something beautiful, hand in hand with nature. Your garden design education and garden-making journey will also play out as any good adventure does. With ups and downs, drama, surprise, and things that go unexpectedly, go wrong (or right!), these moments will teach you how to keep going. Don’t cut it short by racing to some mythical finish line that doesn’t even exist.

Making a garden should never be less than a deeply fulfilling experience.

There is no need to feel overwhelmed by landscaping plans and plant choices. The task can be approached in much the same way you might a kitchen update.  First, figure out the options and limitations, then working within the constraints, decide on a layout. With the layout settled, you can begin to pick finishes and colors, and in the end, you move in with all your things that make it really your space.

As a garden design teacher, my goal is to share with you ways to create outdoor areas that, like our interior rooms, charm our design sensibilities.

The garden needs to be comfortable, appealing to our personal tastes, and reflective of our individuality.  I hope to fill you with endless inspiration.

Plants are the soul of a garden – but they are also just one small part of making a garden.

I want to give you an understanding of plants, what makes them grow and look beautiful together, and some context about why the nature that surrounds us matters.

But I also need you to understand that beginners always fall into the same trap – they start their garden design dreams with thoughts about plants. It’s like planning that kitchen and being obsessed with the copper pots you want to hang from the ceiling. It’s fine to love copper pots and have that vision for that one element of the eventual kitchen – and you should build your kitchen to accommodate your love of copper pots – but there are a whole lot of decisions and designs that need to happen before you get to hang those pots from the ceiling.

My garden design advice – don’t skip the design process and jump straight to the plants. It ALWAYS causes problems.

Garden design Advice for beginners Lespedeza thunbergii
“Wait, turn the car around; what is that plant?”

You must look at the garden as an opportunity to transcend the ordinary. 

Don’t be afraid to express yourself and do whatever crazy thing you might always have thought wonderful.

A great garden welcomes you in the same way that a wonderful hotel envelops you and sweeps you away to another place.

To create a garden that is a perfect reflection of you (and whoever else lives in it with you), you must insert yourself into the experiment. 

“its not what you look at, it is what you see”.

Henry David Thoreau
Get your head in the Garden Game - Advice for starting Lespedeza thunbergii
“OMG, it is gorgeous! I’ve never seen this fall-blooming beauty before; what the heck is it?”

Create a garden based on your past and the future you want to see

Supposedly, smell is the most powerful sense for drawing us back to a particular place and time. But I think gardens and plants have remarkable time-machine powers.

Gardens and landscapes regularly take me back to when I was a kid.

Building grasshopper graveyards with little stones in the dirt. Counting the shades of green on my grandmother’s Montana ranch. Sniffing nettle (thinking it was mint) only to learn of its powerfully painful effects on my nose.  

These adventures that start with plants are so valuable for us as adults and even more important to build into our children’s lives. As our children mature into full-grown people, they need a foundation to not only embrace the responsibility of cherishing our environment but also to maintain their own happiness.

We go outside to grow things, breathe fresh air, regenerate, and relax. 

Trying to conquer forces, such as storms and pests, that will act against all our best garden design intentions is counter to what we seek in nature. 

My best garden design advice for beginners:

It is much wiser to recognize that you are just one part of the design. And no matter what your initial vision may be, the final outcome will never be just as you intended. 

But if you learn to work as a team in the garden, it will be better.

Get your head in the Garden Game - Advice for starting Lespedeza thunbergii
Lespedeza thunbergii (ID courtesy of an instagram friend – garden makers are the nicest, most helpful people)

Garden design is an art – like painting – but where the paints have a mind of their own.

I want a garden to live in. One that reflects my character and tastes as much as the things I wear and the rest of my home.  

But a garden is a specific kind of challenge, it changes, and has a life of its own and that presents challenges in a way that no other design or artistic practice does.  

A garden has to weather, well, the weather. It has no roof and walls – though you can define them if you want to – and the confines, arguably, don’t even stop at the property lines.   

Stuff lives in a garden.

Things move and change all on their own, and they evolve intricate relationships with the other things around them. (Whether you, the garden-maker, like it or not)

When you think about a garden’s ecosystem in this way, garden design resembles some sort of Frankensteinian experiment in evolving beauty. 

Which is, of course, exactly what it is. 

Garden design for beginners - discovering Lespedeza thunbergii
And that is a short story about how I discovered my new favorite plant. What will you discover and learn, and what new stories will you tell as you design your garden?

Embrace being a beginner garden designer – enjoy learning all the things

If I achieve one thing while you are my garden design student, it will hopefully inspire you to imagine something more.

More for your garden. And more for the way it can feed your desires and provide an extraordinarily satisfying place for you to live, play, and relax.

But also more for all of us and the world we live in.

See you soon,

P.S. If you joined one of my courses – you have made it to the end of my little virtual scavenger hunt. By now, you should, for sure, have your login details and course confirmation in your inbox. If not, check your spam folder or promotions folder. But if you still don’t have it, email me at, and I’ll help you sort things out ASAP.

Get all my garden design tips! Learn more about my two signature courses – The Garden Design Lab and the Planting Design Boot Camp. (The planting design course is a subset of the bigger full Design Lab course).

P.P.S. You might also enjoy this post that also has some great garden design tips for beginners and anyone who is just getting started – The Books You Need to be a Successful Garden Maker

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  1. Daphne says:

    Interesting plant with nice color. I assume that picture isn’t from the American Midwest, as Lespedeza thunbergii is listed as an invasive plant by the Missouri Botanical Garden website. Not going to be planting it in my garden here in Indiana.

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