Nine Things To Ask Yourself Before Designing A Garden

celeste in garden

One of the many things I love about being a garden designer is getting to know my clients’ story. By this I mean what role gardens have played in their lives, what plants, structures, and ornaments evoke certain memories, and what kind of garden makes them feel relaxed and most happy.

I call this my clients’ inner garden. And I believe we all have one, even those people who tell me they don’t garden, or that they have a ‘brown thumb.’ I find that when pressed, they can paint the most vivid and beautiful garden pictures.


Maybe it’s a story you grew up with that resonates. For me, it’s the children’s book, A Secret Garden. As a child, I spent hours rereading the chapter where they discovered the old door hidden in the ivy-covered wall. I pictured myself working alongside the children, nursing the garden back to life, while dreaming of a secret garden all my own. 

It will come as no surprise that one of my first gardens, a formal, enclosed rose garden, is based on my memories of this novel.

s. glen.entrance to rose garden

My Secret Garden

Gardening and gardens are personal. When planned with a person’s own narrative in mind, they tell the owner’s unique garden story. Of course a good design must also take into account soil, climate and what plants will work best where. But at the root, it’s a personal journey. A truly successful garden reflects our feelings about Nature, its rejuvenative powers and the role we would like it to play in our lives.


Sundials are a part of my garden story

Before you begin your next garden, start outlining your story. Your story will provide the framework for the design. Here are nine things to think about as you begin the process.

1. What gardens have inspired you during your lifetime?

What emotions do they bring out in you when they think of them and why? As many of you know from reading my blog, Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens continues to be one of my top inspirations.


The conservatory at Longwood Gardens

2. Are there particular scents that trigger memories?

Memory and scent are intertwined and they can heighten or alter your mood. Do you associate certain smells with certain seasons (ie, the sweet fragrance of spring flowers, the heavy scent of gardenias, the smell of new-mown grass?). Which scents are the most important to you?


The re-blooming iris ‘Immortality’

3. What are your favorite times to be outdoors?

For early risers, this may be the peaceful hours after dawn while for others, the soft light of the evening may be more enticing. It’s important to know, so you can plan for plants that bloom accordingly.

pool garden

Rain looks great in my Pool Garden

4. Which season do your prefer? When are you home?

If you travel for extended periods of time during the year, it makes sense to design a garden with shrubs and flowers that bloom when you’re home to enjoy them.


5. What is your definition of tranquility and relaxation?

Do you view the perfect garden as a group of well-tended plants in a tranquil setting? Are there meandering paths, quiet corners and secluded seating? Or is your definition more open and lawn-centric, a space built for entertaining, or a combination of both?

my garden.arbor

6. What color palettes appeal to you? 

Do your color tastes change with the seasons and the light? In my garden, soft blues, pinks and yellows look best in the spring followed by fiery reds, bright yellows and deep purples. I round out the season with dusty mauves, grey blues and shimmery silvers.


7. Do you prefer the sun or shade or a combination of both?

This garden on the Chesapeake Bay is resplendent in the spring as the flowers begin to emerge in dappled shade.


8. What kind of ‘lines’ make you feel most comfortable?

Do you like straight-edged beds with orderly plantings (what some refer to as ‘landscaper’s edge’) or do you prefer curvy beds with irregular plantings for a more casual look?

gingery parterre

9. Are you interested in hands-on maintenance or a landscaping crew?

Most importantly, are you willing to maintain the garden so that it retains the plan? (This is a big one for the garden designer.) All great gardens need to be understood and valued in order to survive.

Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.

— Rudyard Kipling

Happy planning and may we all create beautiful gardens this spring!

All photos/Here By Design


This entry was posted in Design, Garden Musings by carole funger. Bookmark the permalink.

About carole funger

I'm a landscape designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

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