Gardening as Pilgrimage: 7 Steps to Great Garden Design

July 9, 2023

Landscaping can be the last thing we think about when settling into a home. Yet, like interior design, your landscape says a lot about you. Even so, the prospect of designing outdoor space may be intimidating. Let’s be game and dig in—whether that means installing plants yourself or hiring a professional—first, it’s important to understand features of your landscape to see like a gardener sees and learn some garden jargon. Here’s a journey that will show you the way to grow.

Don’t be a tourist on your land, be a pilgrim! You don’t even have to leave home for this journey, just follow these simple steps:

1. Get grounded

Take inventory of your grounds. If you have a septic or well, note required distance for plantings or construction. Look at trees— any danger to roof or dwellings? Are entryways well-designated? Is there curb appeal? Where are go-to spots for outdoor entertaining? Watch the sunlight. Do you need shade, or are you ready for a vegetable garden or meadow, which require six hours of full sun? Take samples of soil to your local nursery to determine if it’s wet, clayish or sandy. This know-how will help you with plant selection.

2. Start inside

Look at the views from indoors. Would trees help hide a neighbor or a busy road? What rooms—kitchen, dining area, bedrooms— have distinctive outdoor views that would benefit from landscaping?

3. Have a vision

Know your big picture for a master plan. Don’t forget to include your wish list of future outdoor projects and consider the amount of maintenance expected, irrigation and access needs. Consider the entryway, entertaining, furniture, fire pit, garden rooms, play area, vegetable beds, outbuildings, and/or pool site.

Remember the mantra: right plant, right place.

4. Make your paths

Determine all walkways. Before planting, figure out how to get to your gardens and how to access them for maintenance. Delineate the routes to get around your property. Garden beds become apparent when paths are designed first.

5. Establish your purpose 

Start beds with structural elements. Strong botanical or decorative features provide focal points during northeast winters, and are purposeful features to design around. Evergreens, woody shrubs or trees, or decor, such as an arbor, bird bath or bench provide structure and year-round interest.

6. Create community

Develop planting beds based on soil and sunlight conditions. Research ecosystems that relate to your conditions, such as meadow, wetland, or woodland. Remember the mantra: Right plant, right place. Choose plants adapted to their location.

7. Take good care 

Watch your plantings and maintain them. New gardens need regular irrigation until they are established. Devise a maintenance plan for your gardens to thrive.