For the Love of Gardening  

What works & What doesn't...

 Garden Designs

I thought I would jump right into some tips on designing a garden, but sometimes that whole design-thing is a bit - or a lot - overwhelming.

So I decided to put together a page of some steps you can take to get you in the mood.

Maybe  you just want to tidy up, or perhaps rescue a garden you have just acquired - or start from scratch. 

No matter where you start, here are Ten Steps to get your garden from Lousy to Lush.

Each step could take 10 days, 10 weeks, or even 10 years, depending on where they take you.  It is a process and gardeners - that is if you are like me - are never finished.

So start here if you wish and then come back to this page.

Take Your Garden from Lousy to Lush in Ten Steps.


So, let's continue. Mine is a bit of a long story but as I get to it, I am including some links that might tempt you to go to some other pages... no problem.. the story will still be here... 

So, read on as you like.

Garden Designs are more than bits of lines on a piece of paper. Even though we keep our notes, hen-scratches, photos and tags, it is ever more important that we save them in some sort of organized manner....

Look here for some ways to keep a garden journal...

Garden Designs are about the ideas we have for our street-side gardens 

-even a rose hedge on your boulevard ! 

 (or see how I changed my GRASS-TO-GARDEN)

Garden Designs also are for our private back-yard gardens.  It's all about what we need to build new gardens, rescue old gardens, add beds


...or just make what we have the best it can be.  

Even in Winter - see Months  and Outdoor Arrangements

Designs should be about how we want to feel in our garden, so we need to translate all that into sketches and notes with colours and flowers, ROSES, 

(yes, roses will grow in the shade !) plants and TREES- all the while making those spaces personal reflections of ourselves.

Sometimes we just need to fool the eye a little and make the viewers stop awhile so they don't see the whole garden all at once, even if the garden is small.  

See how we did that in another garden with an ARBOUR  and a REDBUD TREE.


Settle in dear gardener, and share it with me.

When we move and change our home to one that has no garden and sometimes even no sense there ever was one, it can be overwhelming to start from scratch.

In the book, ‘The Brain that Changes Itself” Norman Doidge says that when we make a ‘modest’ change, such as moving to a new house, we find that something as basic as our sense of space, (which we took for granted and seemed so natural before) - must be slowly altered while the brain rewires itself. ...Yuk…

If you’re like me, I don’t want to do the 'slow altering' thing… I want it to happen now… I want the house decorated now and I want my garden designs done and beds planted and growing … NOW….sigh...

Imagine then, having not only to adjust to a new house, but a new yard.. Perhaps it would help to see it as a blank canvas and start fresh with all new ideas.

Once in awhile, nature gives us a little help.

For me, it happened when a dead tree started to fall and had to be taken down. It opened up a whole new world for me as well as for my back yard. I say "yard", because there was no garden… just an ugly open space.

I had no idea how to design a garden – in fact, it never occurred to me that I would be planning spaces that could even be called a 'garden'.

So of course, what is the first thing we always think of? Yep, grass…. Thick green grass. Kind of like a canvas only soft and wonderful to walk on. So, grass it was…. And it was good.

Ugly Garden-before

..but how do we actually get to the design part of a garden ?

Oh, did I forget to say I had a big ol’ tin shed?

..not MY choice.  It was not pretty, but it was new ...and it would hold all the stuff that needed to be out of sight.

Someday when I re-design a garden, I have an idea for a great (and pretty) shed and I shall call it a garden-house... doesn’t that sound better?

In the meantime....

... back to the whole garden-design-idea. I had this rectangle with long straight sides and I wanted curves.

So I carved out some sinuous edges under a pair of huge Blue Spruce. Nothing was growing under those piles of needles, not even weeds…. and because I didn’t know any better… I planted a garden of sorts. I didn't really think about a design, I just kept filling up spaces with Hostas my neighbour didn't want. I liked how it looked. 

That isn't the way garden designers do it, though.  They think it all out by asking questions - like:

  1. How do you want to use this space?
  2. How do you want to feel in this space?
  3. What colours do you like?
  4. How much time do you have to do your own gardening?
  5. How much will you have to hire someone else to do?
  6. Etc.

Sigh, that's not how I did my own garden, but perhaps next time?

And a few weeks later… here is how it looked. Not much of a  garden yet, but my design-philosophy had more to do with an evolutionary idea than a formalized plan.

I believe that this was a yard with a garden in its heart - just waiting for some ideas to be set free… which is where I came in.

My garden designs were in my head...

The following year, I decided that tin shed, although shiny and new, and very practical, just didn't suit any garden designs  I had seen. I didn't exactly know what I wanted but sometimes the best things come from unexpected places.

First, I had to do something with that ugly piece of tin that called itself a shed.

I spent a month at a writer’s workshop in Provence a few years before, and those hills of lavender still haunted me… most likely because I brought back all the lavender soap I could carry and even planted some – lavender that is….

It seemed our summers were as hot as theirs, and the prevailing westerly wind in my yard… oops, garden… was more like the Mistral than a breeze, so instead,I brought a little of Provence to my garden shed and it set the tone for colour,  giving me even more ideas.

With a few small cans of leftover exterior paint and a photo I had taken, I painted a scene on the front doors of the tin shed.

I found a couple of old windows in the basement, painted them and hung them on lattice on either side of the doors… Voila ! my shed made me smile and felt like I had some of those Provencal hills closer to home.

You don’t have to be an artist to do this…. All it takes is an idea - You can copy someone else’s painting or photo – or – have a creative friend do something for you.

Painted Provence Shed

I think it looks better, don’t you? At any rate it pleased me.

Little by little, I kept making the original flowerbeds bigger because I kept finding more plants I liked and of course, the curves got deeper.

Then when the tree in my neighbour’s yard died, I had even less shade… just blistering sun and wind. Not a good combination for growing too much.

Although roses like the sun, they sometimes are blasted about and battered by the wind that swept down along the backs of the neighbouring yards.

I discovered a LILAC that was fast growing, had luscious scented blooms that blossomed later than the regular lilacs or Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) – it is called a “Preston Lilac” (Syringa Prestoniae-' Nellie Bean') and I planted it on the west side with the idea it would grow to block the wind. It is small here, but it is the largest plant next to the fence.

When you design your garden, think about dividing it into areas if you can…(the garden books call them "rooms" but I find that a bit far-fetched in most of our tiny pieces of property).

I pulled the edges of the west bed (windward side) out further - jutting away from the fence and into the garden.  I planted Pretty Miss Preston Lilac in it and put a bench around the corner. Now (below) you can just see the edge of the bench and it always made me want to go there and sit for awhile and to see what was going on in that nook. Like this….

Sure enough in less than 4 years, "Preston" was 8 feet tall…. With lovely large, heart-shaped leaves and beautiful grey stems that let me look through them to the back of the garden.

... the next year, how simply glorious…. No muss, no fuss, just glory !

Preston Lilac

Now it gives lovely shade to the Solomon Seal that popped up one Spring and the wood violets that did the same. Mind you, I did find a few violets here and there when I moved in and each Spring more came up and more and more… I kept moving them from shady place to shady place and those lovely green leaves keep the soil moist in the areas where there is little sun. They shield the roots of more delicate plants too. They are a lovely part of my Shade garden.

I do have to be ruthless, however as they would happily take over my entire garden-some of my gardener friends admit to "hating" them, but how could you not love those sweet little faces?

Wood Violets

The rest of the garden design grew bit by bit. For example, you saw how the Rose Garden grew from the stump of that old tree and each year, I kept adding another rosebush or two.

...again, no formal plan, but an idea or two can evolve until you are pleased with your garden. By this time, it really does begin to look like you had some garden design ideas.

You can see the progression when you look at the Rose Garden page, but hang in, I'll show you the desperate way it looked in the beginning and how it looked only 4 years later.

Make sure, if you like an informal look, that you make the edges curved. Don’t be afraid to exaggerate the curves… tiny curves will look rather ditsy…. Or amateurish. Undulating curves are pleasant to the eye, way more romantic and send your eye around your garden. 

Garden Designs with curved beds

Like these......

Garden designs with urns

Actually, you can do this garden design thing, a couple of ways…. You can get an idea of what you want by looking at other gardens or magazines, and then gradually carve out the shape and the look you like….the evolving-garden-design.

(Some folks lay down a hose and move it around until they get a shape they like... some others, use a spray paint and mark out the shape that way... whatever you are most comfortable with).

Or… jump right in and make the beds the shape and size you want, prepare the soil (see the dirt on soil here) or lay down sheets of newspaper, wet it well and cover with mulch. Then you can plan the flowers and plants you want to put into those spaces.. a few at a time, or as you can afford.

Personally, I like the first way, because as the years go by, my garden changes. When I add a statue or a new plant, sometimes I have to make the bed bigger to accommodate it.

Or I move it to another spot when I find something different. Rather like a new garden every year.

We should talk about plants, shouldn’t we?

Perennials? And annuals? How to choose?

And colour… we started to talk about colour in the beginning of the garden design and left it to talk about shape.

Remember the colour wheel on the page about Container Gardens ?

The same goes for flowerbeds. Think about how you want to feel in your garden.

Do you work all day indoors so that when you come home you want to spend time on your deck or in your garden?

Then your colours should reflect the gentle and relaxing shades of soft pinks, mauves and blues.

Different shades of green will do the same thing.

Bonica Rose
Blue Delphiniums

If you depend on your garden to give you a jolt of energy, then you might choose vibrant reds, yellows and oranges


When you find some garden designs you like, make room for lots of perennials… they come up every year, which saves planting them every Spring. However the down side of that is that if you only plant perennials, your garden will look much the same from year to year….Think also, about planting some trees in your garden.

So make room for annuals too. They will provide a lot of the colour in your garden and guess what? You can change the look of your flowerbeds from year to year by changing the colour of your annuals… win-win…. How great is that?

When all is said and done, your garden plan depends mostly on how you want to feel in your spaces – and if you plant for that feeling, the design will follow naturally. If you want order and symmetry, your garden will have straight lines and present with a calm and formal look.

If you want your eye to roam around your garden, stopping in nooks and hidden spots, then you will have lots of curves, focal points and winding paths to lure you into those spaces.

Your colours will follow your preferences… and when you go to the garden centres, you will fall in love, over and over and over again.

Follow your heart, let  your ideas flow, make a plan and plant what you love (and for your zone); take care of it and you will never (well, hardly ever) be disappointed.

Your garden design will reflect you and what you love about those spaces in your garden , whether private or public.