Create your dream garden from scratch

Beckie Fox

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Wide planting beds are easier to design because they provide space for focal points, such as birdbaths or columnar trees.
Wide planting beds are easier to design because they provide space for focal points, such as birdbaths or columnar trees.
Wide planting beds are easier to design because they provide space for focal points, such as birdbaths or columnar trees.

If you’ve just moved into a newly built house, the scene that greets you out front may be an expanse of sod, a front walk and the street. Out back, perhaps you have a clear view into your neighbours’ gardens and their kitchen windows.

You’d be forgiven if you retreated indoors. Deciding what to do with a blank slate can be intimidating, even for experienced gardeners. For new gardeners, it’s doubly daunting. But there’s good news: this is your chance to build the garden of your dreams (budget and climate notwithstanding). And more good news: if you’re just beginning to plan your new landscape, winter is an ideal time to start. There are many decisions to be made before you hit the garden centres next spring, and you’ll need a few months to get organized, including establishing priorities, making a rough plan and working out a budget. The best news: we’re here to help. Here are ideas and questions to get you started.

Step 1. What are your goals?

An attractive landscape involves more than choosing the right plants. Gardens need to be functional, too. Think about how you’ll be using your outdoor space and how that will affect your garden plan.

  • If you frequently entertain friends and family, allow for a large enough patio or deck to hold the size of table and chairs you’ll need. If a big deck or patio isn’t in your budget, make sure you reserve enough level turf area for tables and chairs to be set up for large gatherings.
  • If you dream of a contemplative refuge, you may be more concerned with ways to create shade and privacy, whether with carefully placed plants or structures.
  • If you plan to grow a bounty of food for table and freezer, keep the sunniest portion of your garden shade-free for fruits and vegetables, most of which require full sun. Having a source for irrigation nearby is helpful, too.
  • If you’re a plant collector, you’ll want deep beds, easily accessible for maintenance, to display your treasures.

After establishing overall goals, think through the practical components of a garden, keeping the following in mind:

  • Storage: You may think your new garage is large enough, but will it hold a lawn mower, tools, bags of soil amendments, a wheelbarrow, toys, sporting equipment, garbage bins, snow tires? If you already know you’ll need a storage shed, plan for it now. It’s easier to pour a concrete pad and bring in lumber before hedges, perennial borders and an arbour get in the way.
  • Pets and children: In the case of pets, you may want space for a dog run; for young children, play areas should be near a seating area and windows so they can be easily observed. In either case, one of your first projects will be to install a fence with gates to make sure no one wanders off.
  • Compost area: Sun speeds up the composting process, but who wants to give up the sunny centre of their back garden to compost bins? Compromise by finding an area that’s at least in part sun, but not in direct line of sight. Landscape it with shrubs or trellis panels.
  • Grading: Observe where the water drains on your property. Now is the time to check to make sure water doesn’t sit near the house foundation after it rains. Correct any grading problems before installing perimeterbeds and foundation plantings. Also ensure any changes you make to the property’s topography won’t alter drainage patterns significantly; if they do, you’ll need to figure out how to accommodate any accumulated runoff.

Take a walk around outdoors

Your aim is to organize your outdoor space so it’s logical, fulfills the needs of your family, and is easily navigatable, offering a clear route to your front door, other doors, your garage, the street and wherever else you need to move about in your garden.

How and where you travel through the space will determine where paths should go. Picture where you’ll barbecue, dine or play. How will you get from the driveway to the front door? How will you get from the barbecue to the kitchen? How will you move the garbage bins to the street? Do you plan to build a pond or playground? Even if these space-eaters won’t be going in for a few years, you still need to set aside an appropriate spot for them in the initial planning stages.

Take a walk around indoors

We can’t spend every day outdoors enjoying our gardens, but we can enjoy the view of it from the indoors. It’s worthwhile, therefore, to take the time to look out into your garden from the rooms inside your house, especially through the windows in your key living areas and kitchen sink window, if you have one. That way, you can give plan to position pleasing features, such as a beautiful specimen tree, an attractive birdbath or a vine-covered arbour.

What’s your style?

Garden designs that include a substantial amount of hardscaping—the built parts of your landscape, not the plants—look more cohesive if the various components share similar materials or theme. For example:

  • A garden is a personal statement of what you like, but your house is the main focal point of a landscape, and it would be folly to ignore its style. If it’s traditional with wooden siding and shutters, curvy borders, a picket fence and an arbour would be compatible. Square-cut flagstone, a clipped hedge and straight beds with right angles, meanwhile, would complement a sleek, stucco contemporary house.
  • Keep the variety of building materials to a minimum. Using black wrought iron, white picket and split-rail fencing in a small area, for example, might look disjointed. The same could be said for mixing too many paving materials—concrete pavers in various sizes and colours, random flagstone, pea gravel—all in the same section of a garden.
  • Integrate your house and landscape by keeping the scale and proportions of both in mind when choosing trees and shrubs for a foundation planting. Broad, horizontally branched trees set off a bungalow; tall, two-storey homes benefit from a few narrow, vertical plants, especially at corners.

 Consider your budget

Landscaping a new garden can be expensive, depending on your wish list. However, here are a couple of rough formulas.

  • A frugal plan is to use a ratio of $1,000 worth of development for each year you expect to be in the house. For example, if you expect to spend 10 years there, spending $10,000 gives you a decent return on your dollar.
  • A more costly, but probably more realistic budget, is to set aside between five and 10 per cent of the value of your house for landscaping, including labour and materials.

Budget for your time, too. If you go to a cottage on holidays and summer weekends, a large perennial garden may not be practical—shrub borders with groundcovers require less maintenace.

Once you’ve established a list of priorities, set up a one-, three- and five-year plan. Try to do as much of the hardscaping (paths, structures, grading, fencing, etc.) in the first year or two; heavy equipment and pallets of materials may be required for these projects, and easy access keeps labour costs down. If new trees are going in, plant these also in the first year or two, so they can begin to get established.

 Dream a little, research a lot

  • Browse through magazines, stroll the neighbourhood and peruse garden centres and catalogues for design and plant ideas that please you.
  • Do you like neat and tidy scenes or yearn for a more natural, informal look. This will have an impact on plant choices, path surfaces and so on.
  • Have reasonable expectations, but don’t be afraid to think boldly. Your garden should reflect your personality, not mirror your neighbours’ gardens.
  • What’s your existing soil like? If it’s excessively sandy, clayey or nutrient-poor, amending it should be your first priority. Plants need a good start to stay healthy and thrive; fertilizing plants growing in poor soil is usually a waste of money.
  • Know the sunny and shady sections of your garden before selecting plants.

 Step 2. Getting it down on paper

Draw a bird’s-eye view of your property, including your house, garage and driveway. Graph paper helps (a useful scale is one quarter-inch equals one foot). Don’t worry if it’s not accurate to the nth degree: this rough sketch is to provide you with the paramaters of your space. Make note of the following features:

  • Hose bibs, doors, windows (and height off the ground), electric and water meters, air-conditioning unit, clothes dryer vent, downspouts.
  • Where the ground slopes and any low points where water may accumulate.
  • North-south orientation.

 Make a rough plan

Get several sheets of tracing paper and place one over your sketch. Now, begin experimenting with placement of the features you’ve decided are important to have, such as patio/deck, veggie garden, foundation plantings, paths. Visualize how you’ll move around in the space.

Once you’ve made one plan, set it aside and take another sheet of tracing paper and try a different tact. It’s easier to experiment with placement on paper now, rather than later with a truckload of plants and a skid of pavers on site. Other considerations and key elements to mark out on your rough plan:

  • Plot out how you’ll move from the entrances of your house to other parts of the garden. Allow three feet (90 cm) for path widths.
  • Make sure turf areas are mower-accessible and turns aren’t too tight for the mower you use.
  • After estimating where paths are needed, rough in seating areas, play areas, compost bins, storage and other special features.
  • Make sure each element has a point and purpose. Paths need a destination, beds need to be visible and accessible for maintenance. Outdoor dining areas need to be near the kitchen, and possibly in the shade.
  • Double-check that the views from your windows will be interesting and pleasing.
  • Don’t be afraid to use the centre of your garden for flowerbeds or other features—not every design element needs to be anchored to your house or property line.

Front garden: Entrances and foundation plantings

The goal of a front garden design is to lead visitors to the front door. This seems self-evident, but some front landscapes get overgrown or overly complicated, making it difficult for visitors to know where to go. Think of your front garden as a big, green, living welcome mat. Make it special, but keep it simple.

  • Foundation plants serve to anchor the house to the landscape. However, you don’t want the house to look as if it’s sitting on top of a big green ruffle. Vary heights, forms and textures. Leave enough room to allow plants to reach maturity without excessive pruning. (Muffins and cupcakes belong in a bakery.)
  • Leave about an 18-inch (45-cm) gap between the back of foundation plantings and the house wall for access and to allow good air circulation for plants.

Back garden: Patios, decks and barbecues

  • Make the seating area large enough to accommodate a table and chairs—possibly a lounger or two—and allow safe navigation around everything so no one falls off the deck edge. Arrange furniture on a section of the lawn and measure how much space you’ll require. (Measure with the chairs pulled out.)
  • The griller in your family will want the barbecue beside the patio door, but you may not want it always on view. Better to position it away from windows and doors, and walk a few extra steps to the corner of the house to flip burgers.
  • One of your bigger design considerations will be choosing whether to have a ground-level or raised dining area. The elevation of your house will be a factor—if the patio door is above grade, a raised deck may be the easiest route. However, eating above ground level puts you more on view to your neighbours. Also, the base of a raised deck will require more landscaping to disguise its underpinnings and you’ll need sets of stairs for easy access to the back and side gardens.

Side garden: Found space

If you’re in a new house with more than a few feet between you and your neighbours’ lot line, lucky you. In addition to a path from the front to the back areas, there may be space for a quiet, shady spot with a bench. Or room for storage or recycling bins. Don’t rule out planting a long, relatively narrow side space: it may be an ideal microclimate to grow borderline-hardy plants.

Finally — the plants

Plants are the reason we love to garden, but they should be among the last decisions you make when designing a new garden. Choosing what to plant in the beds and borders you’ve mapped out requires another few sessions of planning and research (See 6 steps for a beautiful perennial border for help planning a perennial border). Here are further general points to consider:

  • Allow for a balance of evergreen and deciduous plants to ensure an attractive winter landscape. Many designers aim for a 60:40 ratio, but it’s entirely a matter of personal preference.
  • Think of how Mother Nature populates her gardens—a canopy of trees, shorter trees and shrubs sheltered beneath, herbaceous plants spreading out from these, a tapestry of low-growing plants covering any bare soil—and emulate that in your own cultivated spaces.
  • A variety of plant shapes and sizes—tall and narrow, wide and spreading, dense and loose—contrast with each other and add visual interest year-round.
  • Always keep a plant’s mature size in mind. There’s nothing sadder than seeing a shrub pruned to within an inch of its life because it outgrew its alloted space. And you may think trees are slow growing, but you’ll be surprised at how quickly they’ll grow to overhang a roof or tangle with utility wires if sited inappropriately.
  • Turfgrass is made up of hundreds of individual grass plants all vying for attention, too: fertilizing, irrigating, mowing, weeding, aerating, dethatching. Visually, a lawn is a good foil for planting beds, but consider how much you really need or want to maintain.

More tips

When to call in an architect, designer or builder

Outbuildings, such as sheds, pool houses, and attached decks and pergolas; serious drainage issues; grade changes; terraces and retaining walls; and other complicated hardscaping projects may need building permits and/or detailed plans from a landscape architect. These may not be reasonable do-it-yourself projects, either, and it may be wiser to hire experienced builders or stonemasons.

If you need help choosing plants or simply deciding how to allocate the space in your garden, consider having a landscape designer make a planting plan and installing it yourself over time.

Ordering materials in bulk

If you’re buying mulch, manure, soil or other good things in bulk, here’s a handy formula to calculate how many cubic yards you’ll need. Most of the cost will be for delivery, not the materials, so make sure you have enough to finish the job without needing a second truckload.

  1. Measure the length and width of the area to be covered.
  2. Decide on how deep a layer you want (say, 3 inches/8 centimetres of mulch or 10 inches/25 centimetres of topsoil).
  3. Multiply the length (in feet) X the width (in feet) X the depth (in inches) and divide by 324 to get the cubic yards. If you’re working in metric, multiple the length (metres) X the width (metres) X the depth (centimetres) and divide by 100 to get cubic metres.

What’s your long-term scenario?

If you plan to move in three or four years, this may influence your landscaping decisions. Be careful to make choices that improve the resale value of your home. For example, a multi-level pond with a waterfall or 10-foot-deep perennial borders may suit you just fine, but you may not recoup the cost of them. They could even discourage potential buyers who may not want to take on their upkeep.

Also be conscious of curb appeal, and finish landscaping the front before starting the back. You may want to spend a greater portion of your landscaping budget on this area, too.

Tree talk

If you’re tempted to plant a fast-growing shade tree—a silver maple or Norway maple, or a fast-growing spruce or pine—to make your garden look more mature, think carefully. Many fast-growing trees come with baggage: wide-ranging, shallow root systems that hog soil moisture and nutrients, making it difficult to grow other plants nearby; prolific seed production, adding to your weed woes; or brittle branches that are hazardous in wind or ice storms. Gardening is an act of faith and patience. Take the time to select the right trees for your site and wait for them to mature gradually.

Buying large trees is tempting, but they have a huge impact on your budget and may require hiring someone to install them. Younger, smaller trees take to transplanting more easily, and grow more steadily from the start, catching up to similar, larger specimens in just a few years.

Picks for privacy

New gardens generally lack privacy, unless your house is located on acreage or surrounded by woods. Basically, there are two ways to create privacy: a hedge or a fence—or a combination of both. A hedge can comprise one type of shrub or be made up of several kinds. An evergreen hedge offers year-round privacy, while a deciduous one is less expensive. Depending on the plants used, a hedge might require shearing or pruning. Alternatively, a fence has a smaller footprint, but also requires maintenance, depending on materials. It’s usually more secure for pets, as well.

Try this – If you’re trying to decide where a focal point, such as a specimen tree, arbour or bench, is to be sited, enlist your spouse or kids to stand where you think it might look good and study its placement from all directions, as well as from inside the house. A large garbage can works, too.

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6 thoughts on “Create your dream garden from scratch”

  1. Thanks for the steps to planning a new garden from scratch. I have just had a new septic system and tile bed put in so the yard is just dirt so far.
    One new thing with the septic is that I have 3 round green discs on the surface in the middle of the yard that I’d like to hide. Any suggestions would be GREATLY appreciated.

  2. Great article – I am coming into my 4th summer in a new build ‘blank slate’, but it still feels very new & things are still getting added & adjusted each year. As we know, gardens are never ‘finished’ – each year brings something new.

  3. Very good article; lots of ideas for those with established gardens to think about when planning changes or upkeep.


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