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Steps for Designing the Garden – Works Like a Charm

I’ve done landscape design for many years and developed a methodology for approaching the design.  Works every time:~)  Thought I’d share it.


Step 1 – BUDGET:  Have a budget in mind before starting.  It doesn’t mean you’ll be right on target, but at least you’ll be able to set the scope of project within a reasonable range.  Most people have a budget set aside for the garden.  If not, consider these possible guidelines.

  • Smart Money put the number at 4% of the cost of the sale price of the house. 
  • A Wall Street Journal article has all sorts of numbers to see
  • Think about cost per square foot for remodel.  The garden is an addition to the house.  How much would you spend on an interior remodel?    

Step 2 – GOALS & AESTHETIC:  Establish your goals for the project.  You can use a questionnaire such as this one.  To get a better sense of your own style, keep a folder of pictures from magazines and photos of gardens you like and even ones you dislike.   A pattern usually starts to emerge. 


Step 3 – SPACE PLANNING:  Set out the functional areas of the garden and how they flow together – the ‘rooms’ and the ‘hallways’ of the exterior space.  We’re not talking specific plants or materials just yet – this comes later. A few options in 2-d and photos help to illustrate the layout.  The goal is to create space flow that ties it all together.  This is the time to take stock of sun/shade patterns, noises/annoyances, privacy issues and other external pros and cons you want to address.


Step 4 – MATERIALS:  Choose your hardscape and softscape materials.  This phase is where you have all the flexibility in meeting budgets.   Hardscapes are always more expensive than you think.

  • That stone wall costs too much?  Swap it out for a less expensive stone and style of wall.  A ledgestone fitted wall runs 3-4x more expensive per square foot than a more casual fieldstone wall (Both labor to install and stone contribute to this differential).  Still too much?  Use a hedge for now, and swap it out for a wall when time and budget permits.  You have still achieved the design goal of separating the spaces.
  • The plants too expensive?  Downsize them to smaller containers.  There are some plants that grow fast and some that go slow – downsize the fast growers and your patience will reward you.
  • I can go on and on and on…

Step 5 – LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR:  Work with these people before you finalize a design.  Having rough estimates can help to avoid sticker shock and set expectations.  While most don’t possess design skills (hey, I don’t know how to build a wall), they can provide you with helpful ideas about options to achieve design goals.


While I know you’re in a hurry to get your garden installed, don’t rush this process.  Give yourself time to develop a point of view – I usually take 6-10 weeks with my clients for an optimal result.  Trust me, you’ll enjoy the result much more.


On the hunt for garden furnishing

I went to the San Francisco Design Center with my interior designer friend Jony Schwartz yesterday.  And did we see some wonderful furnishings for the garden.  My biggest ‘ooh, ah’ was the Chella fabric that looked and felt like chenille but is made for the outdoors.  My favorite colors were the Montecatini Foresta and the Montecatini Coco, yummy rich colors and a great texture for the garden.  Lightfast, resists mildew and stains, machine washable – do I sound like an ad?  That’s because that sentence is actually in their literature.

Next I fell in love with the concrete chair at Michael Taylor Designs.   They featured it with the green Chella chenille-like fabric I love.  And there you had it, perfection.  I envision this piece on a gravel patio that would really showcase its beauty.  Oh, and its fine to sit on it:~)  Furniture doubling as art, doubling as furniture.

Then there was Summit.  They were carrying these umbrella bases on wheels that were both practical and attractive – the wheels were somewhat tucked under the bases, reducing their visibility.  Apparently they won’t sell the bases separately from the umbrellas – we tried…

If you’re in the neighborhood, don’t forget to check out Janus and Cie.  While everyone and his brother has knocked off the Dedon collection, its still wonderful quality and a lovely design.  I have a client in a very exposed area that bought this collection a few years ago and the pieces have held up remarkably well.  I like the pieces paired with simple white cushions.

And of course, we visited Living Green, a cornucopia of all things Balinese/Burmese feeling for the garden. Interesting elements to purchase for the landscape such as lanterns, ladders, pots, fountains and more.

Great day for inspiration and new ideas for furnishing the garden.  And Jony was wonderful company:~)