The “bones” of your garden should be evergreen plants, so when you design your garden, plan for these first. Evergreens will ensure that you always have a garden no matter what the season.

Start by planting evergreens near your front door, so there is some color to greet you through the many months when nothing else is growing.

From there, plan for spring blooms and color to welcome in the new growing season, a multitude of blooming plants for summer, and colorful leaves and berries for fall.  That way, you are always looking forward to a new delight.

Don’t forget foliage, flower, attractive bark, and wonderful silhouettes – they are all important. Some of the best plants offer two or three seasons of interest giving you a great “bang for your buck.”



Contrast is what makes a design interesting and you can include contrast in several different ways.

  • Contrast in texture: fine and coarse, slick and rough, fuzzy and smooth.
  • Contrast in form: think tall and narrow like an exclamation point or billowing like a cloud, stiff and architectural, or cascading and soft.  The art is to arrange these elements in such a way that they play off of each other and don’t just fight.
  • Contrasting colors will also energize a design, but try using a majority of one color and its close relations with just a bit of a contrasting accent color for punch.



There are few things more important for your garden than picking the right colors.

For starters, shrubs, trees, perennials, and annuals often have a distinctly warm or cool undertone or color to them. Train yourself to notice this, and you’ll have much better luck creating pleasing plant combinations. Warm colors go best with warm and cool with cool.

It’s not black and white, though. For example, a yellow can be cool. Ex: ‘Moonbeam’ Coreopsis, or warm, Coreopsis ‘Sunburst.’ The same goes for pinks, reds, greens, and purples. They can usually be shown to have a cool (a blue or silver undertone) or warm (a yellow, orange, or yellowish-red undertone). You will also begin to notice upon closer inspection that there is often a distinct color in the leaves.

A terrific way to find pleasing combinations is to take a cart around your local nursery and find a plant with color that you particularly love, then, try to find others that have the same color or undertone in leaf or flower. Just make sure they have similar light and water requirements before you plant them together. As the final design touch, you might add a few plants with the opposite color here and there in your planting to create some interesting contrast.



Plant 1,3,5,7, etc. plants together unless you are flanking a door or other entrance. Even numbers can be formal and static, but odd numbers help a design flow. There is nothing inherently wrong with formal design but it’s a little more difficult to design and maintain without having it look stiff.



Repeating a shrub, perennial or flower helps the eye move across the page of your yard.  A perennial border with say, Lamb’s Ear at the front, repeated along the length of it helps tie the
other plants within the framework of the design.  My grandmother’s garden had boxwoods. Hostas work well in a shade border. You could repeat a plant grouping, color, or a certain texture or form.



Plant several trees, shrubs or perennials of the same type together in a swath (group). This way of planting is much more effective than planting one of each type of plant.

It’s fine to put a single specimen here and there, but it’s better to make that the exception rather than the rule.



Mix it up. Nothing is more boring than plants in a bed with leaves that are all the same size and form. Leaves can be shiny, fuzzy, coarse, stringy, fine, puckered, large, small, etc. On the other hand, don’t use them all at one time.



A focal point in a garden tells you to “look here!” so use focal points in spots to which you would like to draw attention. The entrance to your home and the entrance to your backyard are good places to start, but you can also try the sightline from a window with a nice view, a view from your deck, or the end of a path or a spot to pause as you walk through the garden.

To build a focal point, you can use specimen plants, fountains, ponds, plants in pots, statuary, benches, or anything of outstanding visual interest that you can see from a little distance, then, support the focal point with plants that enhance it.

For example, you might surround a statue with an interesting ground cover or give it a backdrop with a simple hedge. You don’t need focal points in your yard, but they will add charm and make it more interesting. You only need a few, and you shouldn’t be able to look from one to another without turning.



There’s no shortage of options: charming, whimsical statuary and signs; topiary spirals and pom poms; ornamental bird houses and bird baths; flags, wind spinners and whirly gigs; toad houses; fountains and ponds; Japanese lanterns; smiling Buddhas; rain chains; wind chimes; decorative stepping stones; tiki torches; chandeliers; sundials; garden globes; bird feeders; benches and decorative planters and trellises are all possible enhancements for your garden.

However, consider the difference between having three cats or twenty. Just sayin…..use them sparingly.



Planting taller plants at the ends of your house will help visually anchor it to the ground.



Instead of having a number of closely growing trees or shrubs, each with its own mulch ring, combine closely situated plants into one, larger mulched bed.

A unified bed will be easier to mow and maintain, it will help the look and flow of the design, and it will give you the opportunity to plant understory and shade loving plants.



Big spaces can handle bigger plants. Small spaces beg for a plant that is more intimate
in size, although a few good sized plants will keep the space from feeling like a dollhouse.
When planning what size plant works for a given space, consider the mature size of the plant. The nursery tag often lists the size after ten years of growth, but with a little research online you may discover you are about to plant a future monster.



Limit the number of tree species you plant in your yard. There is a “rightness” when the pallet of trees is limited to a few species. Nature doesn’t grow a forest chocked full of every kind of tree she’s got all at once; neither should you.



Always remember to layer plants so that you can see them.



In the front yard, try to stick with a garden style that is appropriate to the house and the neighborhood, and take more liberties in the back, where you likely have more secluded space.

For example, if you want a Japanese garden, and you have a traditional home in a neighborhood of traditional homes, it might be a good idea to confine the very strong Japanese elements to your backyard and utilize some of the Japanese inspired plants in the front yard in a more traditional way. Otherwise, you will create a jarring contrast in styles.

These are a few fundamental design elements and tips to help you create your garden. Keep them in mind when you design and plant and you will be well on your way to achieving a lovely outdoor space.


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