How to design your garden

Recently I was talking with garden designer David McMullin of New Moon Gardens about garden design. Knowing what to do and where to begin when you design your own garden can be a challenge and a complicated process but there are some basic steps to consider for designing any garden. And now is a good time to prepare for spring when, if you’re anything like me you’ll have plant lust and may end up with plants that you don’t have a home for. Sound familiar?

While I think it’s great (essential) to try new plants, David and I agree that the best money you can spend is to a hire a professional garden designer to create a plan for your garden. Not only will this save you from costly mistakes, it will provide you with a guide to refer to time and again over the years.

My own garden is about four years new and it continues to evolve and change as some plants mature, others die and my tastes change. But, it’s important to note that I did start with a plan and a list of plants I wanted to include. The most expensive parts of any garden are the permanent structures but these also provide a framework and act as the bones in every season. In my case a low granite wall defines the space and acts as a seating area too. I chose granite to complement my granite house.

What follows are some basic steps that David recommends and that I think are useful for you to consider when designing your garden.

1. Assess the site for what is possible and what is not.

The latter is most important here, as creativity is best exercised under limitations. Likewise, the least effective gardens are the ones where there is a lot of money, plenty of land and the owner wants everything.

When summing up a site, look for the light, look for the water, and for the ways in and out, and look in your checking account. Try to avoid expectations before you’ve gotten real about what’s possible.

2. Start applying the basic elements of design- balance, scale, symmetry.

The most common mistake is an improper use of scale. Skimpy features in a garden make it look cheap and wrong. A rule of thumb is the smaller the garden, the bigger the features. Think broad strokes. (I suggest that for structures like arbors, if you think it’s big enough it could probably be one size larger. While this is not a scientific approach it works.)

Think about the hard elements of your garden—the paths, the walls, the floor and the ceiling. They should all make sense, connect and guide the experience with a minimum of confusion.

The materials used should be closely allied to each other, the architecture of the house and the broader landscape.

3. Understand how nature works, particularly the nature of your own backyard.

Follow the weather, know its extremes, understand your seasons, and the patterns we experience, because they can be subtle but surprisingly consistent. Learn about where frost gathers in your garden, where the water flows, or where the breeze comes from.

Learn about what kind of rock is under your backyard as this will affect the success of the plants you grow. If a hot, humid landscape with limited air movement will stop you from spending time in your garden during the hot summer months, plant a garden for spring and fall.

4. Know something about plants.

Plants are an integral part of any garden and are the kind of furnishings that go into making a garden unique and personal and a joy through the evolving seasons. Select plants that will work for you and include those that:

  • will mature in place without an unacceptable amount of labor to keep them in check;
  • flower during the times of year when you will most appreciate their gifts; and
  • evoke a time or place or emotion that is important to you.

Rely on the best local and regional nurseries in your area for advice and as a source of plants.

5. Stay fresh and keep inspired.

There are many wonderful magazines and books to inspire you. Visit your local botanical garden and attend garden tours. Don’t be afraid to make changes in your garden.

And, remember that above all else your garden should please you. Go forth, plant and have fun.

There are many great garden designers in the Atlanta area. You can contact David McMullin at or call him at 404-635-9023. His website is

Erica Glasener is a horticulturist and host of "A Gardener's Diary" which is currently on hiatus. Fridays on HGTV. For questions, visit Erica Glasener's Web site.