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The basics of garden design

Garden sketches overlay a photo of a home's front yard.
Courtesy of Ann Marie VanDerZanden.
Designing your garden can be as simple as taking a photo and dreaming up ideas. Once you have an idea in mind, you can start planning which seeds and plants you'll bring to your space.

This content originally appeared in IPR's Garden Variety newsletter, which brings together Iowa's gardening community for expert advice and timely tips for gardeners at all levels year-round. Download a printable version of this guide.

Whether you’re starting a new garden or refreshing your old one, a solid plan for your space is the key to success. We’ve compiled some tips from experts to help you get started.

First things first: Get inspired!

Take a look at magazines, pictures online, maybe your friend's backyard, and see what speaks to you. Ask yourself what you like about a certain design: Is it the color? The leaf size? The shape of the plants? Know what elements you want and then start pulling them together for your own garden.

With that inspiration in mind, you can get started on making plans for your physical space.

Take a picture of your space and start doodling

To help you visualize your end goal, take a picture of the garden bed or space you’re going to be filling with plants. Print that picture out or pull it up on a phone or tablet and draw plant shapes on top.

Sketches and garden planning notes overlaid on an image of a front yard.
Graphic by Sumner Wallace

You don't need to be detailed or hyper-realistic — experiment with different shapes in rough sketches and see what looks best with your space. For example, if you’re planting next to a curved path, you may find that rounded plants look more cohesive with the space than pyramidal ones. 

If you’ve got a large space, consider using this home landscaping planning worksheet to help you through the process.

Design tips

As you’re dreaming and scheming, keep some of these garden design tips in mind.

Layer your plants

Adding layers and rows of plants can give the space a more fully conceptualized look.

Take advantage of different plant heights: Plan to put larger plants toward the edge of your yard or the walls of your house and smaller plants farther away. It will make your space look lusher and more to-scale with the surroundings.

Note: If you’re planting a border along your driveway or sidewalk, it may be best to stick with one row of smaller plants.

Create a pattern

Making a simple pattern with your plants can help create a more cohesive feel to your garden or landscape.

Patterns are visually appealing and make spaces look planned, and can be helpful for filling in long borders. The final design can be as simple as alternating two plants.

Think about texture and color

Plant texture simply refers to the size of the leaves. For a more visually interesting garden, try mixing coarse-textured plants like hostas with finer textured plants like grasses.

Many new gardeners will jump to thinking about color first, but it’s the most fleeting element of a garden. Save color for the end of your planning and limit yourself to just a few color choices.

  • Try pinks and whites or complementary colors like purple and yellow or blue and orange. 
  • This narrowed focus will help keep your garden design cohesive and give you direction when selecting plants.

Planning and planting a home vegetable garden

If you plan to grow vegetables, there are some additional considerations you’ll want to make regarding your space. You’ll likely want to set aside dedicated space for a home vegetable garden so that you can more easily keep track of those plants and their growing, pruning and harvesting schedules.

Not sure how to organize your vegetable garden? For inspiration and tips, follow this guidance from ISU Extension.

Choosing your plants

When considering your plant options, don’t forget to think about what your plants will look like in the winter. Some people cut their gardens down in the wintertime. If that’s you, then this isn’t an important consideration. However, if you plan to leave your plants as they are, choose ones that will retain some shape in the cold.

Try mixing woody plants like shrubs with perennials like ornamental grasses. Perennials with interesting seed heads, such as coneflowers, could also look great in the winter.

Think about what shape plants take on when they’re mature and aim for variety in shape, texture and size for a well-rounded look.

You should also consider massing or grouping plants — planting one type of plant tightly together in a set space. This gives visual impact and works to balance and proportion the landscape.

Do’s and Don’t of planning your garden

Do: Ask an expert. 

With a plan in place, it’s time to decide what plants to buy.

If you’re an experienced gardener, it may be simple to find plants of your desired shape, texture and color. But if you’re new to this, experts can offer helpful guidance specific to your garden or space. Bring your ideas to a garden center — along with your drawing — and ask an employee which plants might be best for you and your garden.

Don’t: Overplant. 

When buying seeds or transplants, plan for your garden future, not your garden present.

It’s important to avoid overcrowding: If you plant too much too close together, your garden might look messy and there will be a lot more pruning work to do. You may also end up with disease problems, if the air can’t circulate around the plants, or competition problems, if more aggressive plants start asserting themselves.

Use photos or information on seed packets to help determine how far apart to put individual plants.

Whether you intricately plan every detail of your garden or not, don’t forget to experiment and have fun! Don’t stress about making your garden look perfect. Just plant what sparks joy and get ready to watch it grow!

Download a printable version of our garden design tips.

Gardening GardeningHorticulture
Sumner Wallace is an intern for IPR’s digital team. Sumner grew up in Iowa City, but now attends Oberlin College in Ohio, where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Rhetoric and Media Studies with a minor in Chemistry. She has also worked for Little Village Magazine and The Oberlin Review.
As the newsletter product manager, Madeleine (she/her) coordinates and writes for Iowa Public Radio’s newsletter portfolio, including The Daily Digest and Political Sense.