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Plans in Progress
by Dawn Seymour - November 2012

Planning a garden can seem like a daunting task. Depending on what you are attempting to accomplish, it may be something you prefer to leave to a professional. There are so many resources available now for helping the DIYer that unless monumental earth moving or retaining walls and serious engineering are involved, a simple consultation may be all the “professional” help you need.

There is a book for any question or direction you may choose to go.

The Big Decisions

What kind of garden are you planning? Perennial? Conifer? Vegetable? Herb? Rock garden? The list of garden types is as endless as the variety of books available to help you. Notice I said “books.” Technological advances have begun to replace the tangible, corner bent, worn binding, coffee-ring-imprinted hard copy instructions that are still available for purchase or loan. I have gained much from being able to take my notes to the garden with me or stick a leaf in a page to mark a variety.

Where are you planning to put this garden? This can be a huge challenge if you know you want a certain type of garden, but you want it to be somewhere besides up against your foundation.

Get a can of white spray paint or a length of rope and layout both the size and the shape of the garden you would like to install. Neither one is permanent and can be easily changed when you and anyone else living with you decides that perhaps this is not quite the right space.

  • Think about the view from the road to the house and from the house to the garden you want to install. Are you blocking windows? Can you see the garden from spots that you want to see it from? Will it change the view of the road for those traveling it (for instance, block the view of a driveway, overhang sidewalks, roads or impede the view at a stop sign)?
  • Will this garden create challenges with drainage or traffic around your house? Think about how you live. It is OK to create a new path of travel but make it something that makes sense otherwise the travelers will take the path of least resistance. Gardens with walls and rocks can cause challenges if they are created in the wrong spaces so that water cannot travel or drain where it needs to.

Sharpen Up     

Check out what ideas are out there and what advice others have to give when it comes to designing and installing your idea. Look to magazines, websites, blogs, books and other resources.

The Edible Italian Garden by Rosalind Creasy is one of my favorite books for Italian-style American gardens.

This edible Italian garden has wonderful pictures, great recipes and usable information.

Make a plan. It is easier to change a plan on paper than it is to change it once it is in the ground.

Sierra has a homeowner version of a 3-D design plan that is user friendly and cost effective.

Find some resources that have reliable information and quality merchandise to help you educate yourself. Don't forget that the best information you gain is the experience you gain from actually doing something.

Another favorite book on plant partners is “Roses Love Garlic,” by Louise Riotte.

Take a class or two to see if this is really what you want to do and if you are going about it the right way. There are master gardener classes, classes provided at the local extension offices, local garden centers, libraries and even home improvement stores like Lowe's and Home Depot. Learn about installing drainage, blocks, walkways, patios, plants, trees and learn about organic, ornamental or other types of gardens.

Draw a sketch of your plan on graph paper so you can have a basic scale. An easy “1-square equals 1-square-foot” scale allows you simple measurements and large enough spaces to draw what you want to plant.

There are wonderful 3-D programs you can purchase for home use that will allow you to see in real life detail what you are trying to accomplish. Some of the programs will allow you to change elevations, put in water features, colored mulches, stone textures and see plants at different stages of growth and in different seasons. They will often challenge you if they foresee a problem with the Zone of plants, or drainage issues, sun or shade issues and even spacing.

There are several apps for garden planning and even garden plans you can put on your smart phone, iPad, iPhone or other devices. Some of the garden planning web-based programs I found are, or

Dig In

Fall is a great time for planning and planting, but if you choose to wait until spring to install your master plan, you can prepare the space now. Take your weed eater and clean the grass down to nothing. If you are a fan of herbicides, you can spray the area and allow the grass to die off (though you may have a challenge with this at this time of year due to the cooler temperatures). Then, you can take a piece of plastic and cover the area and leave it on until you are ready to get to it in springtime.

Another plan is to strip the sod off the space either by hand or with a sod stripper and then till or turn the area over. If you are installing a vegetable garden, you will need a tiller. If you are doing a perennial bed, you can get away with improving the drainage and then top dressing the area with 6 inches or more of topsoil which you can then plant right in.

Plans Change

Of course, you know what they say about the best laid plans, right? A garden is a piece of art. Things are always changing and different things are beautiful to different people. Even the amount of time spent in a garden to maintain it is different to different people. If someone tells you they have a “low maintenance” garden, ask them what that means to them. The idea of being out there three times a month might be perfect for you, but their idea of low maintenance might be a couple times a week.

I hope you have found some useful and encouraging tips in this very basic outline for planning a garden space.


Photos courtesy of Dawn Seymour.


Dawn Seymour is a garden coach, garden designer, freelance photographer and freelance gardener in the Central Ohio area. Dawn has instructed, installed, and inspired gardens in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and North Carolina for almost 20 years.


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