DIY Garden Design

IN 8 STEPS 1. Assess Your Space: Consider the size of your property, lay of the land, architectural style of your home, proximity to neighbors,


1. Assess Your Space: Consider the size of your property, lay of the land, architectural style of your home, proximity to neighbors, and your design passions and preferences. For my half-acre backyard, I designed a free-flowing, casual country cottage garden featuring numerous organically-shaped borders and free-standing beds hugging the rolling terrain. This design complemented our colonial house on a farm cresting a hill in Bedford County. Yet, a more formal, symmetrical style may better suit other settings.

2. Face Unique Challenges and Opportunities First: My first challenge was to hide a honking metal utility barn from my landscape view. I planted a “green screen” as a buffer between the barn and the garden of my dreams, and in a couple of years that barn disappeared. My greatest design opportunity was views of Sharp Top and Flat Top mountains (and sunsets) to the west and Amherst County mountains beyond woods to the north. So, I made sure to take advantage of my borrowed landscape.

3. Budget $$, Time and Energy: Without an unlimited budget to spend on hiring professionals to design, plant, and maintain my garden, I developed it in incremental steps over 22 years, each year adding a new garden area and features. One year it was a rose garden. Another year it was building stone walls and paths. Yet another year it was a Crepe Myrtle allée up our driveway. With a full-time job many of those years, I had to budget my time and energy as well as money, so “slow and easy” was my motto.

4. Plan for Climate and Deer: Follow zone hardiness guidelines for planting. We’re in zone 7a, but we’ve experienced zone 6 conditions in recent winters. Plant material also needs to be suited to climate variances, or micro-climates, due to the lay of the land, sun or shade, windy or wind protected, and wet or dry. It’s frustrating and fruitless to plant a garden deer will eat, and I’ve not yet found a commercial product that keeps deer away permanently. Either stick to deer-resistant plants or build an adequate fence around your garden, as we did.

5. Select Plant Material: Decide on your garden “bones,” the hardscaping and foundation plants that set the shape and style of your garden. These include trees, shrubs, and other base landscape plants. Then select plants of different heights for vertical layering, with the tallest plants in the back of a border or center of a free-standing bed. Choose your plant preferences: exotics, natives, color, shape, size, and bloom time. Over time, add new plants as your taste and trends lead you.

6. Define Garden Areas and Prepare Your Soil: Mark the boundaries of your garden beds—whether they are a straight geometric pattern or a curving organic one. Then prepare the soil by removing undesirable plant material. As an environmentally sound option to using herbicides such as Roundup, cover the garden area with cardboard, black plastic, or other sun-blockers until the weeds are dead. Contact the Hill City Master Gardener Association
( for a soil sampling kit and advice on what amendments are needed.

7. Plant, Water, Fertilize, and Watch Them Grow: Consider your water source and irrigation methods when deciding on what to plant where. And don’t underestimate the growing potential of plants. Most commercial labels on plants do not accurately tell us how large the plant will grow. So, leave space between new plants and allow room for them to grow, knowing your garden will continue to change with every new season. Over time, my full-sun garden grew into a sun-and-shade garden as new trees and shrubs matured.

8. Reassess, Rearrange, Transplant…and Leave Room for Serendipity: The joys and challenges of designing a garden include endless exciting opportunities for discovery and creativity. Unwelcome surprises with weather, pests, and diseases are inevitable, but afford opportunities. When my roses died of rose rosette disease, I replaced them with native plants. My garden design was also flexible enough to accommodate any plant a family member or friend gave me. These are gifts that touch my heart, and I could never design a garden that didn’t make room for them.

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