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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.