I’ve been teaching garden design for a long time now and I’ve noticed that most homeowners can tell when something is “off” in their landscape.
But, they usually don’t know what is off… or why it feels off… or how to actually fix it.
It’s definitely a frustrating problem to deal with. You can’t improve your landscape because you don’t know what needs fixing.
Instead of learning more, I find that most gardeners will brainstorm a bunch of excuses as to why they don’t love their landscaping…
The truth is that these excuses are all symptoms of the actual problem… that no landscape exists in a vacuum. So, in order to improve your existing landscape, you need to
(1) figure out what’s causing the problem and
(2) develop solution(s) based on your climate, conditions, personal taste and a level of maintenance that suits you.
Yes… I know it feels like a lot.
You probably need a hug and a glass of wine. Hit me up… I’ll be right over! Then, we’ll get to work!
Let’s walk through some common scenarios and my simple process for seeing your garden with fresh, new eyes 👀 (spoiler alert: this is the KEY to everything).
Then, you’ll be able to troubleshoot problem areas and come up with a plan to make your garden beautiful. Sound good? Cool.
Common Landscaping “Problem Scenarios” Facing Home Gardeners
Most beginner DIY gardeners I talk to are dealing with one of these common scenarios. They’re likely what’s stopping you from having the beautiful 4-season landscape you’ve been dreaming of. Which one do you resonate with?
Scenario 1: You bought a new home and have to deal with an existing, sucky landscape.
Even if you purchase a new home there are likely already trees, shrubs and hardscaping in place that you have to work around. Or maybe all of it is ugly landscaping that you wish you could change. Or you simply have a different style than the previous home owner.
Scenario 2: Your landscape used to be nice but over time, things went really south. Now you hate it.
If you’ve been living in your home for some time, maybe your landscape used to be beautiful and harmonious… but it certainly isn’t now. Perhaps over the years some plants changed in size or shape, trees grew up, or the harsh winters killed some of your plants and left you with lots of empty spaces to fill.
You’re left wondering what happened to your beautiful landscape. And, although you don’t want to start from scratch, you’re not sure how to tie the new plants into your landscape with what’s already there.
This scenario can be a bit more difficult to deal with than that of a new home owner simply because you’re attached to your home and the nostalgic moments you may have had in your garden throughout the years. But… no worries… it’s certainly fixable.
Scenario 3: You have a brand new house or no existing landscaping and you don’t know how to get started.
If you are starting with a blank slate, this post isn’t for you. Hop over to my article about landscaping from scratch to get help with starting from ground zero.
Or, if you’re ready to get it done right, you can dive right into my Design Your 4-Season Garden course. This will give you my step-by-step approach to designing a beautiful landscape that looks great all year… without all of the trial and error and years of waiting for your landscape to “eventually” look great.
Some good news:
Regardless of whether you’re updating someone else’s landscaping or trying to tame your own unruly garden, the approach is the same!
So how do you fix and/or expand upon your landscaping when you really don’t know… anything… about landscaping? Just follow my simple 5-step process.
And, if you are still feeling overwhelmed, I’ll share some other ways that I can help you at the end of this article.
Step 1: Edit the Noise
My advice to all beginner landscapers as you tackle a new landscaping project that feels really daunting, is to EDIT. As E.E. Cummings said,
So, editing is the very first thing you are going to do.
You have to destroy that familiarity blindness that makes us not actually “see” what’s going on. Only then can you see your landscape the way that other people see it. So, take a walk around your landscape and remove anything you possibly can.
This means removing all of the noise.
All of the garden tchotchkes, wind spinners, gnomes, fountains, benches, planters.
Remove anything that’s distracting that you can physically pick up and move. Set these items aside so you look at just the plants and the hardscaping (like walls, paths, fences, trellis, etc.).
And, that’s it for step 1. Not so bad, right?
Step 2: Remove Unnecessary / Dying Plants
Removing ANY plants can be a difficult step for a lot of gardeners, including myself. That’s because gardeners (like us) are nurturers… caretakers.
And, I’m sure that with some extra TLC we can “save” our struggling plants and bring them back to life. Nurture is half the battle with gardening. But, trust me on this one and save yourself the headaches.
So, remove all of your unnecessary plants; i.e. plants that are half dead, plants that are struggling and even the plants you don’t really like.
I like to think that if you’re not killing plants, you’re not stretching yourself as a gardener.
It may be hard to “destroy” your landscape, but you will feel so much better when it’s done. It’s kind of like decluttering your closet or your dresser drawers. Once you get rid of all the crap you’ll be able to find the good stuff.
You don’t want to be on the next episode of “Garden Hoarders” do you?
I’m just kidding, that’s not really a show… yet 🙃.
Ok… we’ve gotten rid of all of our trouble plants… leaving lots of space for new plants and making things BEAUTIFUL!
Next, I’ll show you a trick for figuring out WHAT to improve.
Step 3: Take Pictures of Your Garden
Now that you’ve removed all of the garden accessories and the struggling and/or ugly plants, you need to take some pictures. This is a very fun and easy step.
From this day forward, your camera is your new best friend.
It doesn’t matter what type of camera you have. Whether it’s your camera phone, an old digital camera collecting dust in your drawer or even a polaroid.
Simply walk around your landscape and take photos of the parts in your garden that you feel could be improved.
If you’re trying to fix an existing landscape, the key is to break your landscape down into smaller pieces so its less overwhelming. Your camera will do this for you. So, don’t take pictures of your whole garden, or even an entire garden bed. Just take pictures of sections of your garden beds. Closeups… if you will.
The other cool thing about “freezing your garden in time” is that it will eliminate all of the distractions around you. You know… the barking dog down the street, your neighbor popping over to chat… those weeds here and there that you will unconsciously begin to pull.
All of these distractions are preventing you from really seeing your garden. But, once you take some pictures, you can really focus on your landscape and see it in a new way.
You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to look at your garden through photos when you have a few peaceful moments to do so.
You may be wondering what, exactly, you’re “looking” for in these photos. Well, let me show you!
➡️ Quick Check In: Are you feeling a bit overwhelmed?
👋Hi there… I see you! And, I know that feeling. Sometimes binge reading articles and watching zillions of gardening videos can make things so much worse. So I’m just here to remind you that gardening is supposed to be FUN!
Honestly, I didn’t start seeing success in my gardening efforts until I stopped piecing together all of the wildly differing approaches I found in gardening books, online articles and YouTube videos.
As much as I love free resources (& create many of them myself), this hodgepodge learning didn’t get me ANY closer to realizing my dream garden.
So, if you’re tired of hearing different approaches and conflicting opinions and you just want to know the exact steps to take… please check out my online courses. I created them to cut through all of the online noise and give you a clear path forward so you can find success faster!
Step 4: Analyze Your Pictures
Next, you’ll need to print out the photos or pull them up on the computer so we you can take a good hard look at what you’re dealing with.
When I’m doing this step, I turn the photo to black and white. This sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Removing the color removes even MORE distractions. It will improve your focus. So, print (or photocopy) your photos so they are in black and white. Or, use a computer program or your phone to change them to black and white.
Then, just “go to town” and circle/highlight all of the parts of the photo that could use improvement.
Don’t overthink this.
And, I’m aware that you’re a beginner… so please don’t be worried about how you’re going to fix the areas you’re circling. Just circle anything that looks empty, drab, blobby or unappealing to you. This is more than half the battle!
Knowing exactly what areas to focus on is much less overwhelming than staring down an entire yard and trying to “guess” about what to do next!
Step 5 – Come up with a Plan
Now that you know what areas to focus on, you’ll need to come up with a plan of attack. As you’ve learned, turning photos to black and white make the problem areas of your garden abundantly clear.
Do you know why that is?
Because it shows you where you need CONTRAST. If you have too many plants of the same color, texture or form it blurs together and you lose the magic.
When you can’t distinguish shape and form in the garden, your eyes don’t have anything to focus on. It can be unsettling to look at a garden like this… and it’s likely why you don’t like your own landscape.
Choosing plants or structures that will contrast these “blobby” areas will bring more clarity to your garden. Here are a few ways you can use contrast in the garden:
- Color contrast: Combine plants with dark colors and light colors. This can be through blooms (good) or foliage (better)/
Note: color contrast can be effective (sometimes) but it definitely isn’t a fail-proof method as we learned with ‘black and white’ test.
- Size contrast: Please little leaves next to big leaves
- Texture contrast: Pair plants with fluffy foliage and spikey foliage
- Form contrast: Put a vertical plant form next to a horizontal one.
Quick Tip: If you want to learn more, check out my article on using texture in the garden.
The Secret to Beautiful Landscapes
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The key to a beautiful landscape is not actually plants. It’s not color, either. It’s not the hardscape. It’s all the things. It’s what we call “harmony” in the design world!
It’s the bumpy, knotted, old oak tree standing tall and proud, even in the most cold and desolate days of winter. It’s the sound of ornamental grasses rustling in the breeze, stirring up the lovely scents of nearby sage and rosemary. It’s the pops of hot pink poppies in a sea of pale yellow dailies, inviting you to come over and join their party. It’s discovering a beautiful stone sculpture nestled deep into the forest green foliage around the bend.
Ah, harmony in the garden is like an absolute dream come true. Can you see it?
When improving your garden, try to consider the whole space when you make every choice. How do different elements combine & contrast with others? Try to come up with ways to accentuate the positives and diminish the negatives. Try to tie different areas together. Remember: no garden exists in a vacuum! So, you have to consider your space as a whole with every decision you make!
Quick Tip: If you’re ready to start planning your dream landscape, check out my online gardening courses to get a head start.
Finding the Perfect Plant
Always remember that the perfect plant will not ‘cure’ your landscape. When you start to look at your yard as a whole design, instead of as individual plants, that’s when you’ll start to understand that garden design is a form of art and a way to express your creativity.
Gardens are always evolving. They are 3D in nature and can be seen from all different angles in all different seasons. Trees grow up and create shade where there was once sun. Plants sometimes struggle and all of them will eventually die. Your own likes and needs will change. So, you’ll have to work on your landscape over time. And, as these things change you may need to revisit this list, again.
And, that’s the beauty and magic of gardening… so don’t let its impermanent nature discourage you! Create a space that’s as unique as you are. One that makes you smile when you see it. One that changes with the seasons and brings you joy and peace.
Following the steps above, you’ll be able to uncover the “true” problem areas in your garden. Armed with a plan, you should be in a much better position to update your existing landscape!
Here are some articles that may help you, too:
- Flower Gardening 101 (The Things that No One Tells You!)
- How to Design a Lush & Beautiful Layered Landscape
- 3 Simple Ways to Arrange Plants in Your Garden
- 7 Steps to Landscape Your Yard from Scratch from scratch
- Monthly Gardening Calendar & Example Tasks (+PDF)
- Free Gardening Guides
What Blooms with What?
Never know what to plant together? Find out with this FREE Plant Pairing Guide and become a pro at combining plants for the best garden design possible!