How to Design Your Dream Garden
by Laurie Keit
July 2012— This article is dedicated to the memory of Surrey Blackburn, who passed away from cancer on May 19, 2012. May her memory, like her garden, continue to grow. She was beloved by many and will be sorely missed.
I first met Surrey through a former client. A professional photographer, Surrey excelled at outdoor wedding and portrait photography. She was looking to develop the garden into a space where she could photograph clients, while doubling as a backyard vacation spot.
Successful design is collaboration between the client and designer, in this case you and you! Begin by compiling basic facts; then dig deeper into self-discovery to create the garden of your dreams.
The Base Plan
Start by getting a copy of your site plans and guidelines from your city’s planning department. Within this set of plans, find the one that shows the house and parcel. You may have received them when you purchased the property. If the plans are unavailable, hand measure and draft your own. Basic drafting supplies are available at office supply stores.
Mark the compass direction, utilities, access points and permanent features on the plan. Note your home’s architecture and features — archways, columns, etc. — and materials used in your home’s construction and incorporate them into the design.
Design Tip: Coastal garden design must generally take into consideration salt-laden winds, low heat and generally poor soils.
Next, consider what style or theme garden appeals to you. Surrey’s garden is sub-tropical, with a vacation paradise theme.
Ask yourself: “What is motivating me to redesign the garden? Am I designing for myself or are there others whose needs I must consider? Do I need to take into account physical limitations or allergies? How do I want to use the space? What amenities do I want: an outdoor living room and kitchen, water feature, something else? How much can I afford?”
National studies agree that 10 percent of the property’s value is a reasonable landscaping investment. Maintenance-free is a myth. So as you set the budget for the work to create the garden, also determine your maintenance budget and design the garden accordingly.
If you have trouble visualizing, start with what you don’t want. If you are water conscious and hate mowing the lawn, but like the look of a lawn, consider an herbal groundcover or no-mow ornamental grass.
Your role as the client is to define what you would like the garden to become: how you would like to use it and how much you can afford to spend in time and money to create and maintain it.
Your role as the designer is to analyze the site conditions to determine what is feasible; visualize the possibilities using the client’s criteria and troubleshoot each option over a 5-10 year period to determine the final design and plant list.
Heavier materials such as stone are more costly than lightweight materials, generally need professional installation, and last longer. Lightweight resin materials are inexpensive and easier for a do-it-yourself weekend warrior, but they won’t last and, in my opinion, they tend to look cheap.
A redwood deck is less costly than one built with synthetic materials, yet both require pressure-treated framing. The redwood deck boards and railing will cost less, but will require more maintenance and have a shorter lifespan. If choosing redwood, consider investing in a hardware kit that will fasten the boards from the sides or bottom so there are no exposed nail holes and water access, which will shorten its life even more. The synthetic materials will require a higher capital investment, but it is virtually maintenance-free and long-lasting. It is more difficult to work with and may require professional installation.
Similar scenarios apply to retaining walls, pathways, raised beds and garden structure materials and should be carefully considered for budgeting purposes.
If you have pets or young children, it is imperative that you identify and remove any existing toxic plants from your garden. Plants have been used as medicine since time immemorial; some are even deadly. Please use the plant list in the resources section of this article when choosing plant materials.
Lighting and Heating
If you want a well-designed garden, factor in light and heat. Lighting the corners will make to make the space look bigger, and it will be more physically comfortable to be in at night. If you are cold, the fog is rolling in and the wind is up, you will not want to be in the garden if you are physically uncomfortable. As these cool conditions exist during most of our summer months, consider a built-in heat source. Be sure to check with the planning department for flame fire regulations. A favorite of mine is infrared heaters that can be wired to a switch and mounted to the eaves. After seeing my favorite propane heater take off from our deck like a flying saucer, I am no longer a fan of those. Infrared is “instant on” heat; it’s low cost to operate and is generally not dissipated by wind like propane is. Hard mounting to the eaves or sinking a post mount into concrete provides a permanent, worry-free source of heat.
“Garden art,” when used with restraint, can create the mood and set the tone for the garden. Surrey personalized her garden with items that were meaningful to her.
Master Concept Plan
In Surrey’s yard, the end result had a gazebo, waterfall, observation deck, main deck, and multiple seating areas, but none of that is what made it special. What made it special was what Surrey did to infuse her warmth and personality into the garden.
Resources on the Web:
Call 811 before you dig! A free service for homeowners and required by law:
List of toxic plants, with photographs:
Laurie Keit is a master composter, designer and owner of Seasonal Celebrations – A Garden, Flower and Event Design Company. Visit her website at www.seasonalcelebrations.com.