Questions to ask yourself when designing your dream garden

WHO AM I? WHAT DO I LOVE? Those are the questions you should be asking yourself when you contemplate designing and planting a garden, for you are tackling an artistic endeavor that will succeed or fail in large part based on how well you understand not just the how, but the why of its creation. Of course, you can skip the design challenge entirely by making your garden look like one you saw in a book or by hiring someone to design the garden for you. But much of the satisfaction of gardening lies in the opportunity for self-expression that reflects your vision of beauty.

So, who are you? What makes you happy? Is it coloring with the fattest crayons you can find or chalking hopscotch on the sidewalk? Do you contemplate, meditate, deliberate? Are you up in time to see the first worm crawl to the surface, long before the early bird awakes, or do you live for late night, when owls hoot and hummingbird moths make the rounds of the open-all-night floral diners? Each life calls for a different type of garden. If you’re never going to see a morning glory before it wilts because you sleep till noon, there’s no point in planting them. If conversation and contemplation rank first, you’ll be lost in a garden of riotous colors with no place to sit down and quietly think. If play’s the thing, that rainbow of color may be just what you need.

I garden in a wide-open pasture out in the country. Grand and elegant would look downright unnatural in such a setting, but more to the point, it isn’t my style. Lush and informal suits me best. No clipped hedges, though I have plenty of room for them, no concrete statuary—well, maybe, but only if I get to paint it purple first.

MEMORY SHAPES THE GARDENER I’m convinced that my childhood on the North Carolina coast has powerfully shaped my adult life as a gardener. With a wild and everchanging ocean just outside your door, it’s hard to take seriously the notion of calm, contemplative sites that barely flicker at the change of seasons. Serene green gardens based on evergreen hedges and formal hardscaping hardly seem like gardens at all to me, yet I know they are the essence of beauty to many.


But color? Did I ever grow up with color! The brightly painted rides and games at the beach’s boardwalk contributed to my taste for lively tones and combinations, I’m sure, but during one beach vacation with a claustrophobic friend who felt crowded by other sun worshippers, I just shrugged and said, “Don’t think of them as people; just think of them as colors, like I do.” And suddenly I understood where I acquired my love of a high-drama palette. When have bathing suits ever been tasteful? Even people who work in tailored dresses are likely to show up on the sand wearing a raging orange bikini with gaudy pink and purple flowers on it. No wonder I love tropical plants so much. Search your own memories, and see what you find that contributes to your gardening inclinations.

EXPLORING YOUR DREAM GARDEN Gardening tends to involve so many practical considerations—sun or shade, rich soil or poor, moist or dry—that we can get wrapped up in weeding and neglect the art part. Yet many gardeners admit that it is the act of creation, not maintenance, that thrills them most. When I teach garden classes, my first challenge is to get students to open up and fantasize. Forget for the moment that you live on a postage-stamp-size, shaded lot on a busy corner. What is the garden of your dreams? Consider the following questions to start your own fantasy list:

  • Do you favor enclosure or openness? I am partial to clear vistas and long views and tend to feel crowded in high-hedged garden rooms—another gift of my coastal heritage, I suspect. My partner grew up near Chicago. His ideal garden involves just the opposite of mine—high walls, a powerful sense of enclosure, and lots of stiff blue spruces.

  • Do you want a sense of movement or calm? Movement, remember, can be accomplished in a number of ways, including the use of flowing water, plants with twisted stems like Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’), busy-textured Japanese maples, or fine-bladed grasses that ripple and sway. Calmness is easily expressed with a still dark pool, a mossy bank, quiet colors, a strong tree of firm outline.

  • How dynamic do you want your garden to be? Do you need to see change and growth on a daily basis, best accomplished by using lots of herbaceous annuals and perennials, or do you prefer the steadfastness of slow-growing shrubs and evergreens?

  • How lush is your dream garden? Where in the spectrum from stark minimalism to rich abundance do you find yourself? Do you yearn for a desert garden, a Zen garden, a tropical paradise, the strong structure of shrubs and trees, the jumble and tumble of a cottage garden?

  • What features are must-haves? Consider structures, such as fountains, fences, gazebos, and trellises; particular types of gardens or plant collections, like those devoted to alpines, roses, herbs, or flowers for cutting; or particular specimen plants, like that favorite tree from your childhood.

OTHER SOURCES OF INSPIRATION The process of learning to create beautiful gardens is not limited to your own landscape. Where can you turn for additional help in understanding design? Certainly visiting other gardens can give clues to your preferences. Garden books are helpful, too, but if you really want to invent your own style, it helps to look farther afield.


I found early in my career that I could learn amazing amounts about color, texture, and placement right from my living room sofa. With a lapful of library books, I spent hours poring over gigantic tomes on painting. The Impressionists, who worked outdoors, proved most instructive. I studied Maurice Prendergast’s use of red to lead the eye through his watercolors, a technique readily applied to the garden; Monet’s soft focus, romantic touch, where texture is as important as color; the lush palettes of Renoir and Gauguin, who often combined colors traditional gardeners swear cannot be used together. Regardless of the time period you prefer, paintings can teach you a great deal about the blending and contrasting of colors, their effects on your perception of closeness or distance, and the use of color, line, and form to evoke certain emotions. (See the box on this page for suggestions about specific books to study.)

The creative gardeners at Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden in Columbia, South Carolina, took this idea even further one year, by selecting a painting and then basing their plantings of annuals on its color scheme. Think of the advantages of having one question in your garden equation—color—defined as you start. That only leaves texture, placement, and compatible growing conditions to worry about in your plant selection! In another year the same gardeners chose fabrics as the basis of their color scheme. Look around your own house—perhaps your tablecloth can serve as a starting point for designing a border. Wardrobes are another handy source of inspiration. I used to take half my closet to class with me, to demonstrate color echo and contrast to students in a way with which they were already comfortable.


Use your camera. Viewing your site through photographs can tell you a great deal about details that your eye excludes when working in the garden. Just the process of framing your view through the camera’s lens will help you discover unexplored possibilities. You may spot vistas that just need framing to form a spectacular view; eyesores that need removing; gaps that could be easily filled. Areas to highlight (the view leading to a lovely tree or shrub perhaps) and areas to downplay (the power pole in the front corner of the yard) leap into prominence in photographs. Get two sets of prints, so that you can draw right onto one set of pictures if a design idea presents itself. Sketching in shapes that are missing from the view is a quick way to make notes you won’t forget. Later, you’ll have the intriguing homework assignment of finding plants that fit the size and texture you’ve drawn. Also, try comparing shots of your own plant combinations with similar groupings in magazines. If yours don’t work, ask yourself why the other photographs do. Perhaps in the groupings you prefer there are more interesting contrasts of color, texture, or shape.


For further inspiration, take a walk through a neighborhood you enjoy, and while you’re walking, conjure gardens to fit each setting. Not only is this good practice, but sometimes it is easier to see what could work at a site with which you are not so involved as your own. My own rambles through a nearby historic town have proven highly valuable. I schemed a romantic, low-growing perennial border to front one curved hedge of heirloom boxwood. For a flat-faced house with no front porch, I envisioned a long, curved metal arbor draped in climbing vines leading to the front door. Occasionally I spot a home whose garden seems perfect as it is, and I stop and examine why I think that’s the case. Somehow, I can’t help coming up with great ideas for my own garden from my visits—a double benefit of this design exercise.

Last, avoid harshly criticizing your first efforts at design. Evaluate them in terms of whether they express what you had intended, but be kind lest you discourage yourself from further attempts. I’ve seen far too many beginning gardeners who somehow felt that design should come easily to them, even though they had no prior training or experience. It is a way of seeing that you are trying to cultivate, a coaxing forth of the artist within, and while the process may seem slow, if you pay attention, you will enjoy every step of the journey.

Looking for inspiration?

The following books about art and artists will provide you with dozens of ideas for color schemes, both bold and soothing. —P.B.

American Impressionism, 2nd edition by William H. Gerdts (Abbeville Press, 2001)

Claude Monet: The Color of Time by Virginia Hudson (Thames and Hudson, 1992)

Maurice Prendergast by Richard J. Wattenmaker (Library of American Art) (Harry N. Abrams, 1994)

O’Keeffe’s O’Keeffes: The Artist’s Collection by Barbara Buhler Lynes with Russell Bowman (Thames and Hudson, 2001)

Vasily Kandinsky: A Colorful Life by Vivian Endicott Barnett and Helmut Friedel (Harry N. Abrams, 1995)

Vincent [van Gogh] by Himself edited by Bruce Bernard (Chartwell Books, 1985)

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