Skip to Main Content

LuEsther T. Mertz Library
Plant & Research Guides

Library Home Plant Help Research Support All Guides

Library Home Plant Help Research Support All Guides

Simple Garden Designs: Home

RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014; photo Courtesy of Flickr cc/ Karen Roe
A small garden at the Chelsea Flower Show demonstrates many of the principles of garden design; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/ Karen Roe


Our living spaces often extend beyond our homes to balconies, terraces and gardens. With a little bit of work and planning, these potentially barren and austere environments can be transformed into creative and inviting spaces. Below are some suggestions for successfully designing home gardens.

Design Constraints and Considerations

Design constraints come from your garden budget as well as the characteristics of your site. Basic and important site constraints that need to be addressed include existing topography, light conditions, soil type, drainage issues, the local climate, and the surrounding environment.

Some of these constraints can be changed or remedied; others need to be respected or worked with. Trees can be limbed up or judiciously pruned to let more light into shady areas, but there is often a limit to how great a change can be made to light levels in the garden. It is much better to work with what you have and plant a shade garden than to suffer the disappointment of planting sun-loving plants and watching them struggle and fail.

The size of your gardening space places a number of constraints on your design. Intricate, detailed design often fails in large open spaces, where bold colors and large masses or groupings of plants are effective. Small gardens and terraces often suffer from overcrowding and need simple, clean designs or themes that hold everything together.

The most important design consideration when beginning to organize your garden space is to decide how you would like to use the space. Delineate functional spaces--areas for gardening, recreation, sunbathing, eating, and so on. Other design considerations include blocking out noise from the street, creating shady areas for sitting or dining, incorporating beautiful surrounding views, or, conversely, blocking out unwanted sights.

Movement is used as an effective tool in the NYBG Seasonal Walk design; photo by Marlon Co
Movement used as an effective tool by the designer Piet Oudolf in the NYBG Seasonal Walk; photo by Marlon Co

Design Principles and Tools

  • Structure:

    Structure and architectural elements are extremely important when designing a garden. They form the parameters or foundation of the planting.  In our colorful seasonal walk, a yew hedge running the extent of the walkway plays an important role in adding structure and stability to the busy design.
  • Unity:

    Every good design needs to form a coherent whole, so it is important to make sure that the disparate elements in your design fit together. A theme or a concept can provide that unity. For example, design styles such as cottage gardens or woodland gardens conjure up images that can be used as the basis for a design. Visualizing these familiar natural settings is a good way to structure a garden.
  • Repetition:

    Repeating colors or forms in the garden is one of the best ways of creating a unified design.
  • Borrowed landscapes:

    Beautiful views can be incorporated into your garden by framing a view or by designing the garden so that the surrounding landscape appears to be an extension of your garden. Borrowing surrounding views gives the impression that your garden is much larger than its actual size.
  • Focal point:

    Points of focus in your garden can create a sense of space and movement, drawing the eye down paths or to particular areas. Garden art and structures, for example a bird bath or a well-placed garden urn, make good focal points.
  • Scale and proportion:

    Whether working with plants or structural and ornamental elements, it is important to pay attention to scale and proportion. One common design mistake is to buy cute ornamental grasses and then watch them grow to 10-foot monsters by your garden path. Another is to plant evergreen trees as foundation plants and watch them soar to new heights. Plants come in many sizes and shapes. Large and small (dwarf) cultivars are often available for a wide selection of plants.
  • Form and texture:

    If well executed, form and texture can carry a design. Shady sites can turn into a green tapestry of form and texture and look very beautiful. While color is usually a highly desirable quality, form and texture are the foundation of any good design. Once the flowers have faded, the foliage remains. Combining bold and fine textures adds interest, as do repeating forms.
  • Plant association:

    Vertical and mounding forms run through our perennial garden, creating a sense of unity and rhythm. By combining various shapes and forms--vertical, round, and horizontal--you can create interesting, sculptural groups of shrubs or perennials in your garden.
  • Color:

    Whether bold or subtle, color forms and important part of any design. Complementary colors, opposite one another on the color wheel, create strong contrast. Analogous colors, adjacent on the color wheel, produce harmonious and soothing combinations.
  • Contrast:

    Contrast in the garden can be achieved with both color and texture. Fine and bold foliage can be effectively paired together, for example large-leaved hostas together with feathery Japanese maples create the basis for a delightful part-shade design. Late-blooming perennial sunflowers (Helianthus) sizzle in a late-autumn landscape when paired with the muted tones of ornamental grasses and fiery chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum).
  • Movement:

    This is an important design consideration in your garden. It helps you travel through your garden space. Movement can be created through repetition, winding paths, focal points, borrowed views, and elegant, graceful plants (trees, shrubs and perennials) that dance in the wind.
  • Light:

    Both artificial and natural lighting can be used effectively in your garden. Plants can play an important role in capturing light in the garden, creating and ambiance. Ornamental grasses, with their graceful seed heads, are exceptional at catching light in the garden, as are translucent bold-leaved cannas.

Ask a Plant Expert

Contact Us

with your plant questions by email

Find a Plant at NYBG

Find a Plant at NYBG

Map of NYBG

Noteworthy Books on Garden Design

Useful Websites