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Design a Garden Layout: A Step by Step Guide to Planning Your Dream Landscape

woman drawing a garden plan with colored pencils

As a home gardener, it’s very tempting to go straight to picking plants for your landscape without giving much thought to designing a garden layout for your entire yard. But, choosing plants is usually the very LAST step when you lay out a garden plan.

In this article, I’ll take you through the steps to design a garden layout that will be functional, practical and beautiful. Learn how to plan AND plant for your peace and privacy with a landscape that compliments your style and beautifies your neighborhood.

Note: This article is just one section of my Plant Perfect Activity Book; an 8.5 x 11” spiral bound book loaded with fun activities that take you through all of the considerations for creating a “uniquely you” landscape… no expert degrees or professional drawing skills required. You can buy it here if you’re interested.

Plant Perfect Activity Book Cover

Let’s learn the 9 simple steps to design a garden layout that’s perfect for you!

1: Measure Your Property

If possible, it’s always best to take accurate measurements of your entire property. I know it’s tempting to skip this step, but it’s very important. I don’t know a single landscape designer who would skip it!

Use a tape measure and measure your property. 

measurements along a drawing of a house
Illustration by Pretty Purple Door.

You can also get many of these measurements from a site survey (if you have one). 

Or, try looking at your property on Google Maps in satellite view.

You’ll need measurements for the property lines and any existing structures that you intend to keep (like a garage or shed). 

Also take note of the dimensions of your home, including the location of gutters, utility boxes, spigots, doors and windows. 

Also measure each window’s distance from the ground so you don’t block it with oversized plants or structures.

2: Create a Site Inventory

Before you design a garden layout, you should have a really good handle on your garden’s conditions. 

Uncover this information by completing a site inventory.

A site inventory is just a fancy word for making notes about your yard and the surrounding spaces, including any unique conditions, features and flaws of your property.

And yes, I said flaws. But, don’t sweat it… nobody has a “perfect” property! 

A site inventory is important because a lot of the decisions you’ll make in your landscape will be determined by the notes you make! 

You can actually use your site inventory to solve problems! 

Pretty cool, isn’t it?

As you may know, different types of plants for different conditions (remember: right plant, right place). If you didn’t know this, this article about flower gardening for beginners will get you up to speed! 

What most people don’t realize is that other conditions (like sun, wind, noise, etc.) can also dictate where you’ll put a patio, plant a feature tree or even need a screening wall or fence.

Once you know these conditions, you can plan and plant for peace and privacy. This is how you’ll get that “dream garden” space that you’ve always wanted. Because, let’s face it… no one wants to have a garden sanctuary where all you hear is road noise and the dining table is sitting out in the baking sun.

And this is precisely what happens if you don’t analyze your space and plan around your conditions!

a site inventory drawing for a property
Illustration by Pretty Purple Door.

What to include in your site inventory:

  • Some designers will add their sun map to the site inventory. This indicates which parts of your property are in sun and shade and at what times. Full sun areas will get 6+ hours of sun per day, while full shade areas will get less than 3 hours of sun. 
  • Add a north arrow on your site inventory. This will tell you your garden’s “Aspect” or which direction it’s facing and can help you make decisions about your space.
  • Mark places where electrical wires cross over your property. That way, you’ll be able to avoid planting a tall tree right underneath the power lines.
  • Make a note of where underground utilities are positioned on your property so you don’t disrupt any buried electrical, water or sewer lines. In the U.S., you can call 811 and have utility providers come to your property and mark the locations for you.
  • Mark any permanent fixtures or access points on your house, such as air conditioning units, water spigots, electrical outlets, meters, etc. Don’t forget to mark doorways and common walking paths – you can indicate these with arrows.
  • Mark the direction the wind commonly blows. If you have observed your landscape and have noticed the common direction of wind you can mark that. If you aren’t sure, prevailing winds in the United States typically blow from west to east.
  • Make note of any changes in grade or slope on your property. This is also really helpful so you know where you may need to terrace your property. At the very least, it will help you to determine the areas where water may pool or settle. This can affect where you place certain plants and features.
  • Mark the views you want to highlight or disguise. If there’s a beautiful view of your neighbor’s old oak tree from your kitchen window, make note of that on your plan so you don’t forget to incorporate the view into your design. Similarly, if your neighbor has a garbage heap along the side of the house that you really hate looking at, make a note of it so you can block that view with your new landscaping.
  • Consider areas where you may need some extra privacy; like near your outdoor dining space or adjacent to your neighbor-with-seven-kid’s pool.

Once your site inventory is complete, it’s time to explore different layouts for your landscape. We’re going to do this through a bubble drawing

bubble drawing with site inventory
Illustration by Pretty Purple Door.

Don’t worry, it’s not as scary or difficult as it sounds. I’ll walk you through it step by step.

I’d recommend that you make a few copies of your site inventory to practice on. I find it helpful to create several loose bubble drawings instead of trying to get things right the first time.

3: Mark Primary and Secondary Paths in Your Garden Layout 

Once you have your measurements and site inventory, you’ll need to add any primary and secondary paths into your drawing.

These can be main walkways or simply where you need a flow of traffic (like from the shed to the garden or from the back porch to a utility/garbage area). 

If you don’t know where you’ll need paths yet, you can always add them later. Or, use your best judgment (this is what I do). 

Remember, none of this is set in stone. We draw it first so it’s much easier (and less expensive) to make changes!

a drawing of a garden layout with red dots for paths
Illustration by Pretty Purple Door.

In these sketches, I didn’t know where to put the walkway leading to the front door.

Yes, it’s true that even designers sometimes don’t know! 

So, I drew a few different path ideas to give me a place to start from.

4: Place Features and Focal Points in Your Design

Next, mark any places on that map that you can place trees, features and focal points in your landscape. 

If you don’t know what features or focal points you’d like in your landscape… It’s time to take a step back from this process and make a wish list. What do you want to do in your space? How do you want your space to feel? 

Again, my Plant Perfect Activity Book will take you through all of these considerations so you’ll know exactly what features and focal points to use. 

We are just working on ideas at this stage. These circles/bubbles for your features and focal points don’t need to be a perfect size or shape. I try to make them the “general” size that they would be in real life. But, you can still change them as you go.

I usually mark these with an “F” in the center (for “Feature”).

garden layouts with features and paths
Illustration by Pretty Purple Door.

In the sketches above, my client wanted a water feature, so I incorporated that into each thumbnail sketch. I marked possible feature locations in orange with an “F” and water features in blue with a “W.”

If I didn’t know the client wanted a water feature, I would have marked every bubble with an “F.”

5: Incorporate Must-Haves

What else is on your garden wish list? 

bubble drawing with paths, features and patio placement
Illustration by Pretty Purple Door.

Draw “bubbles” the approximate size of those areas. I like to start with the most important ones, first. Then, keep rearranging the pieces like a game of Tetris. You can make as many bubble drawings as you’d like. 

Sometimes, I’ll make 20 bubble drawings for one single project!!!

When placing features, always review your site inventory and sun map. 

This client wanted a patio, so that’s the next thing I included.

Things to consider:

  • Will you need to create privacy near the patio?
  • Will the space need cover from the hot afternoon sun?
  • If you’ll be dining there, is it easy to bring food to the area from inside the home?

Note: Are any of your must-haves considered features or focal points? If so, you can start to write in these things where you previously marked the F’s on your drawing. 

6: Fill in Negative Space

So what do you do with the rest of the space? 

4 bubble drawings of garden layouts
Illustration by Pretty Purple Door.

I love to garden so I usually incorporate large garden beds around all the important/feature areas. 

But you don’t have to use garden beds like I do. You can also design a garden layout with open areas or other hardscape elements. The choice is really up to you.

A good ratio to consider is to have about 1/3 of your landscape as softscape (like planting beds) while the other 2/3 remains “open” spaces, like lawn, patios and pathways.

This is just a rule of thumb and not a hard and fast rule that you can never break. 

Don’t be afraid to try lots of different ideas! I often find that my best ideas don’t come until I’ve drawn at LEAST 5 bubble diagrams. As I said earlier, it’s not uncommon for me to make 20 bubble diagrams for one single project.

These don’t have to be masterpieces or singular works of art. Just try different ideas and draw different configurations without judgment. Let your brain explore lots of different ideas.

7: Create Paths & Flow

Make sure that you’re including paths so people can get from one area to another in your landscape. You don’t want someone to get stuck in a corner with no way out! 

A bubble drawing of a landscape with arrows for path flow
Illustration by Pretty Purple Door.

When you’re working on a simple space, you may have already included every path/walkway you’ll need. But, for a more complex design, you may need to add more paths so that you can get from one area of your garden to another. 

I add these “extra” paths using arrows. This helps me to visualize how someone would move through the space.

8: Refine the Drawing

You don’t need to go ANY further in this process. A simple bubble drawing is sufficient for most homeowners. But, here’s a peek at what happens next if you work with a landscape designer. The designer will refine the bubble drawing into a working layout with suggested materials, features and a planting plan.

sketches of garden layouts over the bubble drawings
Illustration by Pretty Purple Door.

In this illustration, the red and gray “dots” were my original pathways. As the design evolved, it became clear that I’d need to include more paths to create flow in the space.

When adding paths, you may need to draw right over a garden bed or other feature — and that’s ok! This is part of the process. It’s common to change and adjust your drawing!

For example, in the top right corner (near Patio 2), I drew an arrow right through a feature! That feature may need to be removed. Or, maybe it can become an arbor that someone can walk under/through. It’s ok to change your mind.

9: Select Your Plants

If you’re completely new to gardening, you may have a bit of studying to do before you can select the right plants for your space. I’d highly recommend reading my Beginner’s Guide to Flower Gardening before you choose your plants.

Once you understand the basics, it’s time to design the garden beds. 

Designing your garden bed layout is often called planting design or garden design.

If you’re ready to choose your plants, this article shares some of my favorite ways to arrange plants in your garden beds.

3 Simple Ways To Arrange Plants in Your Garden Beds
Arranging plants in your garden… many beginner gardeners really struggle with it. Learn 3 three simple ways to arrange plants and lay out garden beds that beautiful layered landscape that you want. Use these planting design tips to create a more professional and organic looking garden at home. Learn how planting in drifts, design plantings around focal points and creating organic rows of plants can be simple with illustrated examples. Illustrations by Pretty Purple Door.

I also have a course called Design Your 4-Season Garden that will provide you with the steps to create a garden plan that will look great in every single season. 

Plus, my Design Your 4-Season Garden students get personal feedback and coaching from me! This is the only way to work with me at this time. 

Wrapping Up

Now you have all the steps you need to design a garden layout, just like the professional’s do. When you break it down into simple steps, it’s a lot less overwhelming.

Before you do anything else, you’ll need to measure your property. Then make notes on your drawing to indicate where it’s sunny/shady, where water may pool and where you need some privacy from neighbors or noise. After that you’ll put in your paths, then place features, focal points and anything on your must-have list. Finally, you’ll need to fill in the negative space of your plan and make sure that there is a flow and that someone can get to all of the different areas and rooms you’ve made.

Of course you now know that you’ll have to do all of this BEFORE you choose a single plant for your landscape. That comes last!

If you want to go through the entire process of designing your garden layout from start to finish, you’ll love my Plant Perfect Activity Book. This is a physical book that I’ll mail to you. You can go through all of the activities to determine your garden style, analyze your property, draw up your layouts and create gorgeous plant arrangements. 

Once you’re done with that, you’ll be more than ready for my Design Your 4-Season Garden course!

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How to design a garden layout image of bubble drawing with site inventory
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