15 Tips for Designing a Better Garden
A garden designer offers advice for creating enjoyable, livable garden spaces
I’ve always thought that the best gardens are those that make people happy and comfortable. Sure, great gardens look good, but they have to feel good too. The gardens I admire most are relaxing, easy to move through, and not too hard to maintain. Paths and structures must be simple to navigate, while the plants selected must provide interest and serve a function without being bullies or prima donnas. As a landscape architect, I tackle these issues of comfort and utility every day. Here are 15 practical tips that have helped me create enjoyable, livable gardens for myself and my clients.
Learn more: 10 Expert Tips for Designing a Garden
1. Give a wide berth
Make sure your pathways are wide enough for comfortable passage. Nobody enjoys squeezing through narrow spaces, indoors or out. Main thoroughfares should be wide enough for at least two people to walk side by side, no less than 5 feet. For secondary paths where people walk single file, the width should be at least 3 feet. Keep in mind that the taller the plantings or structures that flank your walkway, the wider the path needs to be. Tall boundaries make any space feel more restricted.
2. Watch your steps
Outdoor steps and stairways should ascend gently; otherwise, they are liable to seem daunting. Steps with a rise of 6 inches or less are the most comfortable. The run (or depth) of each step plus twice the rise (or height) should equal 26 inches. So steps with a 6-inch rise would require a run of 14 inches. If your garden stairways include more than 10 steps, consider landings after every fourth or fifth step to ease progress. Landings should be at least as deep as the stairs are wide. A generous landing is an absolute necessity wherever a stairway changes direction.
3. Provide plenty of elbow room
Patios and decks are perfect spaces for outdoor entertaining. Plan for enough room to accommodate dining and mingling. Consider how many guests you’re likely to host regularly, and then plan on at least 4 square feet of space per person. Outdoor dining means outdoor furniture, so try to leave a 3-foot-wide perimeter of open space around any furniture grouping to allow for comfortable circulation. See garden rooms for entertaining.
4. Stay steady on your feet
Be certain that any paving provides secure footing. Avoid slick surfaces or loosely set pavers that wobble. Paving materials like polished granite or smooth outdoor tile may not offer enough traction in rainy and wintery climates. Gravel walkways are fine—just use unsifted gravel. Unsifted gravel contains various-size aggregates, which compact firmly and provide a solid footing. (Sifted gravel is made up of similar-size aggregates, which do not compact well and remain loose underfoot.) Whatever your paving material, make sure your paved surfaces are slightly sloped (1 to 2 percent) to keep water from pooling on them.
5. Remember: Heads up!
Leave plenty of headroom under archways, arbors, and pergolas. I consider 7 feet to be the minimum, and I usually add at least another 18 inches if I know there will be plants growing over the structure. This may sound high, but outdoor structures tend to look smaller than they would if they were indoors. Plus, it’s better to be safe than sorry and to avoid butting heads with a climbing rose or wisteria. Posts for arches and pergolas should be set at least a few inches outside the pathways that run through them to allow adequate elbow room.
6. Plan for growth
Give your plants room to grow. If you must have a dense, full landscape right away, plant with the intent to relocate or remove some plants as they mature. You can also plant quick-growing, short-lived “filler” plants to temporarily bulk up your plantings. Some of my favorite fillers include delphiniums (Delphinium spp. and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 3–7), tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis, Zones 7–11), butterfly bush (Buddleia ‘Lochinch’, Zones 6–9), and golden tree mallow (Lavatera thuringiaca ‘Aurea’, Zones 7–9). Just keep track of which ones are prolific self-sowers, like tall verbena, to prevent fillers from taking over.
7. Keep your distance
Place any plants more than 30 to 36 inches tall at least 2 to 3 feet back from walkway and patio edges; otherwise, these spaces may feel unduly cramped and crowded. While you’re at it, try to keep thorny plants like roses (Rosa spp. and cvs., Zones 2–11) or pungent plants like crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis and cvs., Zones 5–9) away from high-traffic areas. If you want to plant a rose on an arch or pergola over a walkway, consider thornless, fragrant old garden roses such as ‘Reine des Violettes’ (Zones 5–9), ‘Mme. Legras de St. Germain’ (Zones 3–9), or ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’ (Zones 5–9).
8. Put turf in its place
A lawn can be costly and labor intensive to maintain, but no other surface is quite so yielding, so comfortable for lounging, or so resilient and forgiving for play. Nor can any planting take the kind of foot traffic that lawns regularly endure. Indeed, turf is a special garden feature, so use it wisely. Don’t waste the effort of keeping a lawn where low-maintenance paving or plants might serve just as well, but don’t skimp on the grass for areas where you’ll enjoy it. A sweep of green grass can also be the perfect counterbalance to bountiful beds and borders.
9. Look beyond the bloom
While flowers are a highly attractive attribute, many plants offer more than just blooms. Look past the flowers and use foliage, fruit, and bark for yearlong color, form, and texture. Spring and summer may be showtime for flowers, but autumn belongs to the turning leaves of oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia and cvs., Zones 5–9) and the fruiting branches of winterberries (Ilex verticillata and cvs., Zones 5–8). Likewise, winter raises the curtain on the stems of redtwig dogwoods (Cornus stolonifera and cvs., Zones 3–8) and the glorious bark of paperbark maple (Acer griseum, Zones 4–8). By choosing plants with multiple ornamental assets, you will extend your garden’s seasonal appeal.
10. Create a comfort zone
Beauty may be skin deep, but plants can do more in the garden than sit around and look pretty. The right plants, used the right way, can actually add comfort and utility to your garden. Conifers and broad-leaved evergreens can protect your garden from harsh winds. Large-scale perennials or ornamental grasses can make an “instant” privacy screen. A well-placed tree or tall shrub border can provide a shady oasis in the heat of a summer’s afternoon. Don’t think you have enough room for a tree? Think again. With so many compact ornamental trees available, there’s probably one to fit any property.
11. Keep an eye to the future
If you are installing or digging up your garden (or you just need something to add to your to-do list), consider laying down electrical conduit and irrigation piping 18 inches below ground along pathways and near bed edges—even if you have no current plans for lighting or irrigation. In a few years, you may be glad you did. Wiring and plumbing are easy to install later if the piping is already there, and you won’t have to disrupt established plantings or rip up your paving.
12. Look both ways before crossing
It’s hard to leave your driveway safely if plants or structures are blocking your view. Survey the visibility from your car in all directions before installing shrubs, walls, or fences. While you’re at it, make sure your plantings and structures don’t block the views from your neighbors’ driveways either.
13. Be neighborly
Check with your neighbors before making any major changes in your landscape. Why provoke years of rancor, when locating a tree just 5 feet to the left of your proposed site could save your neighbors’ best view? Your neighbors may not necessarily share your taste in design, but keep in mind that your landscape will have more impact on them than your interior décor will. After all, you’re not the only one who sees your yard and garden every day.
14. Be aware of electric, water, and gas
Few things in gardening are as annoying or inconvenient as driving a pick or trenching spade into a buried pipe or cable. Locate all pipes and underground utilities if you plan to change grades or to dig trenches more than 18 inches deep in your garden. Most municipalities or local utilities offer services for finding and marking underground lines, usually for no more than a nominal fee.
15. Know the code
Don’t dismiss building codes for outdoor structures as arbitrary inconveniences. They are devised for your safety and for the safety of your guests. Maximum allowable heights for walls and fences, setback requirements from property lines, and railing heights for decks, stairs, and terraces are regulated in many building codes. Specifications for electrical fixtures, conduit, and wiring may also be subject to regulation. The Taunton Press offers a handy code reference series called Code Check, but it’s a good idea to ask your zoning board and building official for local building-code information. Building codes can differ from state to state and town to town; it’s better to be safe than sorry.
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Great tips on designing a garden. Wide berths are definitely important; I can't tell you how many times I've had to squeeze through a narrow little passageway when walking through a garden. Very annoying. Speaking of garden designs, I stumbled on a program online that provides 7000+ landscape designs and plans for people to look through. On this page (https://carveyourcreation.com/ideas-4-landscaping-review) the guy talks about using it to build a "dream" Japanese garden. What do you think of this program?
We recently bought a house with a nice outdoor space, so we want to transform it into a stunning and relaxing place. We started talking with a garden paving Leicester supplier, an arborist, and other professionals to help with our plans. These tips will help us a lot as well, especially the ones about outdoor codes and making preparations for the future. Thanks!
Thanks a lot for the blog article.Really thank you! Awesome tips for gardening and landscape planning.
Ahh thank you - this is perfect! Myself and my husband are currently doing up our garden so we are in desperate need of advice like this, so thank you for this! Honestly I feel like we’ve been planning and sorting out our garden for years! It’s a mission and a half to say the least! It’s mostly because we have a very limited amount of space to work with if I’m honest, plus I spend far too much time on Pinterest and have so many ideas! Originally our design started out as just a quick tidy up but now it’s escalated to as deck, a gardening shed, fairy lights in the bushes, a patio area and even a little path up the garden! It’s definitely got out of hand but it will be ever so lovely once it’s all done and sorted! I just can’t wait for the first summer bbq! It will be so lovely to have all our friends over in the evening! Though I must admit - I think my husband is mainly just excited for his shed and his man space haha. I must admit though we are struggling in terms of spacing with that. Does anyone else have a shed? If so how did you lay the ground for it? Ours is relatively uneven and we’re having problems. My husband has been doing some research and found this company that creates shed bases (these ones: https://www.buildersemporium.co.uk/categories/hawklok-shed-base/) and he thinks we should get one. Has anyone else used these or something similar? Just really looking for some feedback really before we take the plunge and all. Any bits of advice? We’d really appreciate any as we’re very new to the renovation side of things! Many thanks! And my apologies for waffling on! x
Awesome! Came across this whilst searching for garden maintenance in Hastings! Great tips for maintenance. Thanks again
Thanks for sharing such great tips on garden design!
Also remember to plant a tree or two if you have the space as this will also add to the aesthetics of the garden.
Depending on how big your garden is you may want to plant a cherry or apple tree, and if it's really big an oak or ash tree would make a lovely addition.
Love it! Thanks so much for taking the time to write this very informative article. I love your view on using turf for special ares as yes maintaining a lawn can be a huge effort! I will defiantly be sharing this to lawn care Guildford for more insight. Thanks again, good job.
These were lovely tips, thank you for sharing! Don't forget to take regular care of the growth by pruning the trees. We provide regular and professional tree care in Richmond and know from experience it's the best way to prevent overgrowth and making sure you keep enough headroom as per your point 5. Clients often forget to plan for growth and see the clearance diminish over time. Thanks again for the article!
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Thank you for sharing this. We started to built our garden and looking for tips and found site. I got lots of ideas. We're started buying pebbles, soil and other materials. I hope this come out beautiful. BTW, most of our garden supplies are from https://rocknsoil.com.au/.
I really enjoyed reading this post. I just started a landscaping business and it has been great to see so many helpful resources on the internet! This blog was particularly interesting because you broke everything down into small details that are easy for me as an inexperienced entrepreneur to understand.
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