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 Home>News Archive>2014>January>Get It Growing>

Plan carefully when designing small gardens

For Release On Or After 01/17/14

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

Small, intimate gardens are typical in most landscapes. Even when yards are relatively large, small-scale plantings close to the house and around outdoor living areas are common.

Although creating small-scale gardens may seem easier to deal with than larger ones, careful planning is just as, or even more, critical. The choice and use of building materials, the choice and placement of plants, the positioning and flow of traffic, textures, shapes and colors and the appropriateness of the planting area to its surroundings – all of these are matters of concern. When every square inch counts, a well-thought-out plan is essential because less space is available to provide for your needs. In addition, the viewer is going to be closer to the landscape and so more aware of every detail.

The concept of good design can mean different things to different people, and no single, absolutely right design works for a given situation. To get started in the right direction, however, certain design considerations are worth bearing in mind when you are pondering how to go about laying out a small-scale landscape.

Because small-scale gardens often are located adjacent to or in close proximity to the home, it is important to consider the style of your garden. It should reflect the location and style of surrounding buildings. Look for established neighborhood features (neighborhood buildings, parks, old gardens, etc.), and take inspiration from them. The building materials used in the garden should also relate to and harmonize with the building materials used in the house.

For instance, stucco, Spanish revival homes might incorporate formal Spanish elements into their landscape style, while homes with a relaxed, Acadian-style architecture would be complemented by a more informal landscape design. You can learn more about styles of landscapes and their characteristics from any good landscaping book.

When I lived in New Orleans, my home was a turn-of-the-century Victorian Eastlake style house. The Victorian period generally favored formal elements in the landscape –symmetry, geometric layouts of beds, straight lines, etc. – and the exuberant use of color. This was the style I adopted for my garden. The style selected has a great influence on the way the garden is laid out, and the plants and the building materials used.

My selection of building materials was also influenced by my home and neighborhood. After looking around, I chose such elements as laid brick, lattice, wrought iron, clapboard, French doors with stained glass and terracotta pots. Remember, your landscape will not exist in a vacuum, and you should feel free to draw on existing surroundings for inspiration.

One last comment on style and materials – remember that the style and décor of rooms that have a view of the garden also should be considered because the garden will visually become a part of those rooms and should harmonize with them.

Once the fundamental style of your garden has emerged, the actual form and layout of the garden will be largely dictated by how it will be used. Each individual garden is unique and based on the tastes and needs of the gardener and the family.

The first step in the actual drawing of the landscape plan is to list your family's needs that can be fulfilled by the garden. Do you need privacy, a patio for outdoor entertainment or shade? Are you an avid gardener, or do you need to minimize maintenance? How about vegetables, flowers, pets, children's play areas and hobby work areas? This is the time to consider what you actually have room for.

After you have determined the general style, how the landscape will be used and what it needs to provide, it’s time to begin drawing a plan. You can carefully measure the area and produce a scale drawing to work with, or simple sketches might suffice.

The desired features of the garden, based on the chosen style and needs, are arranged and re-arranged on paper until you are satisfied with the results. If existing features will be retained, make sure you include them in the plan.

When it comes time for choosing plant materials, keep in mind the smaller scale and generally select plants that are more compact, dwarf or slow growing.

In my small New Orleans garden I was highly restricted for space. But I still managed to include an outdoor living area, privacy, shade, a greenhouse to shelter tropicals during winter, a work area, tool storage, water features, flowers and even some herbs and vegetables. This was possible because I carefully thought out what I wanted or needed and then planned a landscape that provided as many of those needs as possible.

Landscape design tends to be intimidating, even to experienced gardeners. But just as we create comfortable, functional and attractive rooms inside our homes, I believe most gardeners can do the same in exterior spaces. We just need to take the time to think things through and make plans to accomplish the results we want.

Remember, professional help is always available. If you are unsure of your final plan, consult with a licensed landscape architect to iron out the rough spots. Just like an interior designer, they can help you take your general concepts and specific needs and create something attractive and functional for you and your family.

Rick Bogren

Last Updated: 12/23/2013 9:11:13 AM


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