Monday, November 8, 2010

Duke Gardens class: Planning Your Garden

Article & sample design by Jan Little

Your personal garden should be a dream come true. It should charm you and improve your everyday life.

But how do you get there?

For some people a garden just happens. They buy plants and put them in the ground. Some seasons, they may move the plants from space to space until they and the plants are happy. And that process itself may the dream come true, a place to putter with their hands in the dirt, getting to know each plant through the seasons.

For others, the blank areas outside their doorways are just too big and overwhelming. They can’t seem to get started. That is when a landscape plan can make a difference.

Designing a landscape follows a process. The steps are not completely linear. Sometimes a step will cause you to loop back and reconsider an earlier decision. But with some effort, you will be able to complete a design.

The first rule of designing a landscape is to release yourself from needing to know what the end result will look like. Almost all creative processes require you to delay seeking a solution. That delay gives you the time to develop a sophisticated understanding of the challenges, and to set aside your preconceived notions. It also makes the end result more satisfying.

You do know what is in your landscape and your view right now, and that is the place to begin. Make a list or a scaled drawing that shows everything about your house and landscape. Include window locations and heights, doorways, walkways, driveways, patios, decks, water sources, trees and fences. It is often convenient to use the land survey that you received when your house was purchased as your base plan. List and evaluate existing conditions. Which do you like and which would you prefer to screen?

Next, you will put together a wish list. Just what do you want in your garden? A vegetable garden, a perennial border, a swing set, an ornamental pool, a shade garden, cutting flowers, fruit trees, a play space, patio or deck? Do you prefer low maintenance? What are your plant preferences? Bright, colorful flowers? Soothing tones of green? Fragrance? Consider your time budget and your financial budget as two line items on your list.

Now take your wish list and begin considering sizes. Should you plan for a 20-by-20-foot vegetable garden, or only 5-by-10? The more detailed your wish lists, the closer you will be able to approximate the sizes of different garden elements. For patios or decks, list the furniture you would like and that will help you estimate size.

Once you have the basic sizes, you can begin to shape how the garden will look. Using tracing paper over your base plan, begin to place your requirements on the paper. Further develop your plan by using some geometric shapes. Maybe the built elements are rectangular and the plant beds curvilinear. What happens when you turn the rectangles on a 45 degree angle? Perhaps that is more interesting.

Working on paper and using tracing paper helps you consider varied solutions. Making mistakes on paper is much easier that making them in the landscape itself.

Have fun with it. And if you could use more guidance, consider signing up for our “Design Your Home Landscape” four-week course beginning Nov. 18 from 6 to 9 p.m.

For information about this and other classes, please see our full schedule online at or call 668-5309. You can see our full Nov.+Dec. schedule in this post.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Jan Little is a landscape architect and the Gardens’ director of education and public programs. She will teach “Design Your Home Landscape.”

This column first appeared in the Herald-Sun's Homes & Garden section on Nov. 6.

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