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Pro tips for a great garden design

Lush ground cover curves around a brick walkway while deciduous bushes, grasses, and evergreens frame a home.
Discover how to design a garden like a pro.
May 2, 2016

Working on a new garden this spring? Before you buy a bevy of plants, take a step back and look at the big picture. That’s what professional landscape designers do, according to Susan Jacobson, FASLA, landscape architect at The Morton Arboretum.

Here are some of her tips for designing a garden like a pro:

Decide on your goals. What is your garden for? A place for adults to relax? An area for kids to play? Is it to grow vegetables, or to let pets exercise? Do you want more shade or more privacy? Do you want to minimize yard work or do you enjoy gardening?

Visualize your space. How will you experience your garden? What will you see at eye level or from indoors? “Design for when you’re going to be out there,” Jacobson says. Do you want to sip your morning coffee in the garden, or will you mainly enjoy it in the evening after work?

Divide and conquer. “Really analyze how you want to use your space,” Jacobson says. Are there logical ways to separate areas for different purposes, such as vegetable gardening, dining, and children’s play?

Think vertically. “Your garden has layers that extend from the ground to the treetops,” Jacobson says. The top layer is whatever is overhead, such as shade trees, tall evergreens, or a large structure such as the house. The middle layer has shrubs and understory trees such as redbuds; it’s the eye-level layer. The lowest layer—the ground plane—is often what most gardeners focus on. It consists of perennials, groundcovers, annuals, and low shrubs; containers; the lawn; patios and paths—everything up to about knee-high. A professional designer aims for interest at all levels of the garden.

Start with trees. Trees are the major players in any landscape. If you’re planting a tree, research the full size it will reach and allow plenty of space. If you’re lucky enough to have large trees, plan your new beds so you can avoid damaging their roots by digging. Learn what trees will work well for your site with the Northern Illinois Tree Selector

Simplify. Try using fewer different types of plants but using them in larger masses. “A space that’s less chaotic is more serene and restful,” Jacobson says.
Create contrast. Place big leaves against small ones, smooth surfaces against rough ones, colorful flowers against a simple green backdrop of shrubs. Just don’t create too many competing contrasts.

Unify. You can repeat plants in different parts of the garden to create a sense of unity, or use clean lines and soft curves to carry the eye from one part of the yard to another.

Questions about plants or trees? Contact The Morton Arboretum's Plant Clinic