A Few Rules of Thumb for Planning and Planting a Garden

If you read enough gardening and garden design literature, a few rules of thumb will emerge – guidelines to follow for planning and planting. Keeping these in mind can help when you’re not sure where to start or when you’re feeling overwhelmed by the advice available.

For Planning:

Create a garden that is coherent and legible with elements of complexity and mystery
Design a coherent garden, with spaces that relate to one another through color or texture or form; a legible garden, with distinctive features that make it easy for visitors to find their way around; a garden with areas of complexity, intricate plantings or hardscape features that capture attention; and a garden that conveys a sense of mystery, revealing itself gradually as it pulls the visitor along. These four elements identified by environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan provide an organizing framework for the garden.1

Design with a mix of open views and secluded spaces
Geographer Jay Appleton developed the prospect-refuge theory to explain the human preference for landscapes that combine areas of visibility, where the viewer can see and be seen (prospect), and areas of safety that keep the viewer hidden from others (refuge).2 These preferences are a response to the wide-open spaces of our hunter-gatherer ancestry but carry over to garden plots of almost any size. Combining prospect and refuge can bring a soothing balance to the garden.

Incorporate negative space
Include areas with little visual activity – simple ground covers, gravel-filled beds, patches of lawn – to act as negative spaces that draw attention to plantings and other more stimulating sections of the garden. Wall-to-wall plants can be difficult to see as anything other than a mass. Adding negative space allows the eye to rest, the garden to breathe, and plantings, even dense and complicated perennial beds, to be appreciated. The negative space does not need to be large; a mown path of grass or strip of mulch will help.

Understand the importance of the hardscape
Walkways, patios, walls, and fences organize a garden and provide visual breaks that function as a kind of negative space. They can suggest control, allowing plantings to be wilder than one might expect in a landscape (imagine formal stone walls softened by grasses and wildflowers spilling over). And they are functional, providing areas to sit and view the garden, indicating perimeters, and marking paths from one area to the next. If you can, install the hardscape before the plants or at least have an idea of the overall hardscape design when you begin to plant.

Draw if you can, or if you can’t, try another approach
Being able to sketch your ideas helps with planning, but if drawing is not one of your skills, find an alternative. Take photos of the garden and use online markers to indicate hardscape features, planting bed boundaries, and plants. Obtain a digital property survey or satellite image of a property and lay out the design by adding digital photos of plants. Create models of the landscape using cardboard or foam board or thin sheets of basswood. Use hoses or garden paint or stakes to mark the location of garden beds and other features in the physical landscape and take photos to record their placement. Any means of capturing and communicating your ideas will work.

For Planting:

Select the right plant for the right place
It sounds so simple – know how much sun, how much water, and the kind of soil a plant needs, match the plants to your site, and enjoy the results. But cultural requirements can be particular (does the plant do well in morning sun but wilt in the intensity of afternoon sun?), environmental conditions can evolve (and will evolve as plants are added to create a community), and climate change can cause a happy Zone 7 plant to falter as conditions become more like Zone 8. Pay attention to the site, plant what fits, and expect that what fits will change over time. You may have to give up on a few dream plants, but when plants thrive, the effect is spectacular.

First choose the trees
Trees are a natural choice for creating the framework of a garden, marking the perimeter, serving as focal points or a kind of sculptural art, and providing shade and privacy for intimate areas within the larger space. The hardscape of a garden plays a similar role, outlining boundaries and creating interior lines with pathways and patios, walls and fences. But as living structures, trees add elements of change and surprise. If properly sited, they flourish as they pass through the seasons and influence the selection and health of surrounding shrubs and perennials. When planning a garden, first choose the trees.

Water, water, water
New plants need water, more than you might expect to become established and drought-tolerant. Water deeply (soak when needed rather than watering frequently and shallowly), water the roots, not the leaves, and for trees, water at the drip line (the circumference of the outer edge of the branches). These practices encourage roots to develop a structure that is strong enough to anchor the plant and effectively supply nutrients. Keep watering through fall and even early winter to prevent plants (especially broadleaf evergreens, such as hollies) from drying out when cold winds and freezing temperatures arrive. The first season or year or several years of a plant’s life are crucial. Thorough watering at the beginning is an investment in the future.

Prune to enhance the architecture of the plants
Most plants don’t grow naturally as spheres or cubes, yet these pruned shapes appear in many landscapes. Give your plants a little time for their structure to emerge, and prune to emphasize the uniqueness of that structure. Hand pruning instead of shearing – selecting individual stems to prune rather than evenly cutting off the outermost leaves of the plant – brings the plant’s natural shape into focus and can promote health by allowing light to reach interior branches. You can still keep the garden neat, but with plant edges that are soft and natural rather than artificially severe.

Let perennials overwinter
When the perennials have finished for the year and become dried stems and flower heads, don’t cut them down. Perennials in this state may not be at their most attractive, but they provide seed and protection for birds, nesting spaces for bees, and cover for the soil. If the look is too messy, try a bit of pruning or staking or tying back, but leave most of the plant material in place until spring. Enjoy the visual interest of perennials in winter, with their irregular shapes and surprisingly varied shades of brown.

Experiment with native plants
Native plants support native bees and other pollinators and usually have a good chance of surviving, once established, without a lot of maintenance. If you’re hesitant to try native plants, start small. Plant a few butterfly weed seedlings (Asclepias tuberosa, a kind of milkweed), wait for monarch butterflies to arrive and lay their eggs when the plants are flowering, keep an eye out for caterpillars as the eggs hatch, and when the caterpillars seem to have disappeared, look for a chrysalis hanging from a protected but sunny spot. Adult monarchs deposit their eggs only on milkweed, the caterpillars eat only milkweed, and watching a monarch transform from caterpillar to butterfly, emerge from a chrysalis, and dry its wings may be the only reason needed to incorporate native plants in the garden.

Monarch and chrysalis
Monarch and Chrysalis


  1. Mooney, Patrick. Planting Design: Connecting People and Place. New York: Routledge, 2020. p.13-18.
  2. Robinson, Nick. The Planting Design Handbook. Revised second edition. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011. p. 44.

If you’d like to read more . . .

Elsner, Gary H., and Richard C. Smardon, technical coordinators. 1979. Proceedings of our national landscape: a conference on applied techniques for analysis and management of the visual resource [Incline Village, Nev., April 23-25, 1979]. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-35. Berkeley, CA. Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Exp. Stn., Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture: p. 241-248. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.fs.usda.gov/treesearch/pubs/27585

“Why Include Native Plants in Your Garden?” University of Maryland Extension, College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, University of Maryland. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/topics/why-include-native-plants-your-garden

Note: The original draft of this post was written on October 11, 2020.

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