Design Your Dream Garden

Design Your Dream Garden

With all this rain, gardening in the warm sun seems like a bit of a distant possibility. However, the daffodils and pear tree blossoms are a sweet reminder that gardening season will indeed arrive this year, eventually, may it be with soggy boots and the need for a warm layer of compost to shake off the chill. While we patiently wait and thank the rain though, we can have a lot of fun designing and dreaming up our ideal gardens.  

I wanted to share a basic outline of how I go about designing a garden, in hopes of making the project a bit less intimidating for you. There are, of course, a never ending array of different types of gardens, but I want to focus on multi-functional, water-wise gardens in particular. That is, gardens that serve the functions of beauty, habitat, food, and medicine, while surviving our dry summers on limited irrigation.

There is much more to learn about this subject than can fit in one article, but this is a good starting place. Feel free to play and experiment. In the end, as long as you don’t release some killer invasive plant species, you won’t do any harm if you make some mistakes. 

You can also join Daily Acts for a very helpful and FREE Garden Design Workshop in Windsor, on Wednesday, March 22nd, 5:30-7:30pm. To sign up, and to find out what to bring, check out and click through to the Events page.

Observe. There is no overstating how important it is to spend ample time observing the sights, sounds, and patterns of your landscape before designing. Go outside when it’s raining and see where the water flows. Pay attention to what little corners get afternoon shade in the worst of the heat. See were the frost thaws first in the morning. Dig up a couple shovels full of soil. 

Create a base map. You’ll need a few sheets of grid paper, as well as a ruler, pencil, and eraser. Then it’s time to measure your yard. 

Make yourself some tea and sit down to translate your measurements into a scale drawing of your future garden space. Basically, that means assigning a certain distance in real-life to each square on your grid paper, so that you can shrink the garden down without losing the correct proportions. For a small yard, I usually say that every square on the grid paper represents one foot of real-life garden space. Google Maps Earth View is your friend.

You’ll want to mark which direction is north, where the sun rises and sets, and where the wind comes from. Also mark any views you want to screen or noises you want to block. From this point forward, start using tracing paper over your base map. Mistakes won’t hurt that way!

Choose and place a few Key Anchoring Features. Key Anchors are trees, sitting spaces, large evergreens, and other more permanent structures like pathways, fencing, arches, and retaining walls. 

If you want greywater, rainwater catchment tanks, swales, or rain gardens, they should be planned at this stage too. 

Choose your other plants. This is where things usually get a bit overwhelming for folks. The key is to think at a pattern scale, rather than about individual plants, at least at first. 

For instance, your plants need to be water-wise, but how do you tell? Some evolutionary strategies to conserve water are consistent across most water-wise plants. Plants with fuzzy, waxy, succulent, or very tiny leaves probably don’t need much water.

I use complimentary colors to make my favorite features pop, and analogous colors to create tranquility. 

Think about textures too. Many water-wise plants have small, sage-colored leaves. Where can you break that up with grasses and other unusually shaped leaves?  

As you start researching, you will probably find a lot of plants you like. Narrow your list by requiring that each plant serve multiple functions. Is it beautiful and great for pollinators? Fantastic! Can you eat its fruit and use its leaves for mulch/compost? Yummy. Does it have leaves that are great for tea and provide shade for your hottest window? Perfect!

Last but not least, just have fun. One trick is, if you see a plant that inspires you, take a close-up photo and then use the Google image search feature to find out what it may be. Keep inspiration photos together and weed out any that don’t seem to go with the others. Imagine what it will feel like to sit in your dream garden, and you can make it happen. Intuition and playfulness are your friends here. Have fun and hope to see you at the workshop!

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