Garden Design 101: Where Do I Start?

Are you about to create a new garden (or “landscape”) for the very first time, or thinking of hiring a garden designer, landscape architect or other consultant?

It can feel daunting at times — all those questions!

  • What all do I need to decide to get started?
  • What questions should I ask myself?
  • What questions should I ask a potential designer?
  • What’s the difference between all these types of landscape professionals?*

Here is a starter checklist of such questions. This is certainly not “The Complete Guide to Garden Design,” and may overlap with other design references. But hopefully, it can help your initial thought and decision-making process. From there you can proceed to more detailed design decisions.

All along the way, Swansons has a trove of information resources to help you. Check out our care sheets and references:
• Design for Small Spaces
• Designing with Plants
• Containers for Year-round Interest
• Swansons’ weekend Seminars
• Swansons’ In-Home Container Design Service
• Landscape Services Referral List

Most designers begin with some form of site analysis: what do I like about my site? What don’t I like? What do I want?

What do I like? What features make this a great place for a garden? 

  • An amazing view?
  • My house, which I’m proud to display?
  • A lovely mature tree?
  • A bubbling stream running past the property?
  • That spot perfectly warmed by the morning sun in May (or even December)?

What don’t I like? What problems do I need to solve first?

  • Existing overgrown plants needing to be removed?
  • Poor drainage area?
  • Dense shade?
  • Hot, dry slope which erodes in rainstorms?
  • An ugly utility pole, or my neighbor’s unfortunate taste in architecture?

What do I want? How do I want to use my outdoor space(s)?

  • “Entrance lobby” for the house?
  • Peaceful, private escape?
  • Outdoor rooms for dining and entertaining?
  • Play area? For kids? For dogs?
  • Growing food?
  • Attracting and nurturing wildlife?
  • Space for projects (art, fix-it, cleaning)?

Remember, “design” is about solving problems in a functional and beautiful way. Otherwise it’s just decoration. Thinking through these challenges first will give you a framework within which to make your design effective.

Then, of course: What is my budget?

  • For the whole project?
  • For this year and each phase that I’m planning?
  • How much of the budget can I allocate toward design and consulting help (beyond materials)?

Consider your time budget as well.

  • How much time overall do I have to plant?
  • How much time during each season (some plants may not be available when you intend to purchase and plant)?
  • How much time do I have to maintain? Watering? Weeding? Pruning? Dealing with yard waste?

Note: maintenance is not necessarily a dirty word. You might find, once things start growing, that you actually enjoy spending more time in the garden doing these routine tasks!

Next, how long before I want it to look “mature?”

  • 3 years?
  • 5 years?
  • 10?
  • Legacy for future generations?

Once your plants reach that maturity, do you have a plan for pruning them or replacing them if needed?

If you work with a designer, consultant or landscape architect, you will want to consider all the questions above, but here are some additional questions to ask them:

  • What all do you provide for your fee?
  • Do you work with my kind of budget (basic or high-end)?
  • What visualization do you provide through the design process?
  • Can you estimate costs for the whole installation (even if I’m doing it myself)?
  • Do you have contractors and other services you typically work with?
  • Will my project require building permits?
  • What is your availability during the installation and beyond?
  • Describe your experience with plants and gardens?
  • Do you have experience with my site’s special challenges?
  • What professional organizations are you affiliated with?
  • Who among your past clients may I contact?

And don’t forget to ask yourself:

  • Do I “click” with the designer?
  • Do I sense that they understand my needs and vision?

Finally, every designer is happy to share some general advice when designing your garden for the first time. Here’s mine:

Consider the whole site and surrounding properties — what’s overhead, what’s below ground, what’s upstream and downstream from you. Consider every view, every season.

If you feel overwhelmed by your space, start small — focus on making one or two key areas dramatic and colorful. Plan the rest of it to be easy care (groundcovers, mulch, gravel?), until you have the time, money and commitment to expand. You’re not likely to achieve a replica of Butchart Gardens in one year. Sorry.

In creating a garden you are starting a process – a garden is constantly changing, flowing, not static like a building. Be patient, keep revisiting, changing, tweaking over time.

In your decision-making now, consider future maintenance needs. Anticipate the growth of plants, and the aging and weathering of other materials. Work with natural processes, rather than trying to resist them.

Avoid the temptation to fill all your spaces up with plants or structures, no matter how cool they look. Let your garden “breathe” visually. Some preserved open space of just lawn, groundcover or paving can give you an “outdoor room” rather than a claustrophobic “furniture warehouse” feel.

Use repetition and masses of certain plants, not one of everything.

Consider all your edges (as you would consider baseboard for your interior walls, or trim for a window).

Choose plants for structure, texture, foliage, not just flowers.

If you are doing the design yourself, consult local sources for information. National sources might not be familiar with our unique, local conditions.

Just like building or remodeling your house, designing your garden can be a complicated, but very rewarding adventure. But if you “plan your planning” you can avoid a lot of the stress and surprises and make it a great experience. Good luck!

* What is the difference between a landscape designer (or garden designer), a landscape architect and a consultant?

Landscape designers typically focus on planting design in residential settings, and are not required to be licensed or certified, although the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (apld.org) requires certification and continuing education for its members.

Landscape architects are required to be licensed by the State, and are often qualified to design parks and other public or commercial spaces requiring built structures, drainage and more complicated systems. Many (but not all) landscape architects design residential gardens as well.

Many landscape designers are trained as landscape architects, but not licensed (which does not necessarily imply lesser qualification, especially for residential design). Both can also be considered consultants, as are many other professionals with design or other horticultural experience.

Many designers do a consultation or initial site visit as a precursor to a complete design service. Consultations can also be done in lieu of a complete service and typically entail advice and guidance for a homeowner, but not a detailed design.