How To Design a Garden Step I: Identifying Goals

Food, beauty and habitat.

Garden design does not come naturally to me. I’ve made plenty of mistakes and continue to make them. One of the biggest of those mistakes is thinking of a garden as a collection of plants. Designing this way leads to lots of money wasted at the nursery and a garden that looks like a hoarder’s living room. Trust me, after years of misguided gardening design, your first step should be to identify goals.

Making a List of Goals

Sit down and think of what you want the garden to do. This applies to a residential space, a community garden plot, a school garden, anywhere. Include everyone who will use the space in the process. Kelly and I sat down a few months ago and came up with the following ideas about what our garden should provide:

  • solace and comfort
  • a place to meditate
  • food
  • habitat for insects and birds
  • beauty
  • a place to sit and hang out with friends
  • a place to sit and work with a laptop
  • space for our chickens
  • flowers for bees
  • space for native plants
  • areas that are semi-wild and not often visited¬†
  • space for the composting

Think and meditate on your goals before drawing up a plan.¬† And for those of us in the urban homesteading movement, I think it’s important to measure productivity in more ways than just the amount of food you get from your yard.¬† How will the garden provide peace and well being? Educational opportunities? Ways to commune with nature? Some goals aren’t obvious at first. As authors we have a lot of people who want to come over and take photos, something we have to consider as we re-do our backyard. And I’m definitely aiming for a garden that requires less maintenance!

So what are some of the goals you keep in mind for the gardens you tend? Share some comments . . .

Special thanks to Darren Butler and Scott Kleinrock for an amazing class on Urban Ecological Agriculture that I had the privilege of attending. In this class I learned many important design concepts including the one in this post. We’ll share a bunch more in the next couple of posts.

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  1. This is a really important thing to think about. I, too, am not naturally inclined to design, although I know what I like when I see it. Unfortunately, what has become my default method of garden design is to plant things and when they grow bigger or bushier than I expected, to dig them up and move them. All of which means I spend a spectacular amount of time rearranging perennials. (I don’t worry so much about the annuals).
    A friend of mine studied horticulture at university and has an absolutely gorgeous flower and vegetable garden. Never a weed, either. When she plans each year, she cuts out rectangles of colored paper to represent the color and size of the mature plants and lays them out on sheets of graph paper for each month of bloom time. In this way, she knows pretty well what her garden will look like in May, June, July, August and September: what and where the color will be, where there might be empty spots, etc. Someday I will be as organized as Dagmar and have my garden all figured out ahead of time. In the meanwhile, I’ll just keep moving plants around.

  2. Friends say I have a good eye for design. However, now that I need help with even simple things, it gets harder. People want to plant everything in one plot/place even when I know/think there are places that plants should go. It’s frustrating. One friend brought plants for me, flowers, and planted them while I was not watching. She alternated, pink flower–white flower-pink flower, etc. It looked spotty and drove me crazy. She replanted them the same day and never understood overall design or eventual size.

    I sit in my swing and decide from there what I need to see to make me happy. Then, I go inside and look out the kitchen window and decide what I need to see from there. That is the whole of my visual design for beauty…lol.

    This last year was pathetic as far as vegetables, so this summer will be even worse.

    Your list is a good thing to consider.

  3. We are just putting down our roots in a new house and tried to do it with the “Whats on Sale at ___?” method. Not a good one! I’m hoping for a great year this year with a bit more planning.

  4. I really, really like this list – thanks for sharing! I’ve found myself dissatisfied with our garden the past few years because it lacked intentionality. We planted way too many tomatoes, and allowed too many things (peppers, cauliflowe, and brussel sprouts) to flouder and die. I hope that things will be different this year by investing in some garden planning.

  5. Good thoughts to think about. I’ve had to re-think my garden because it was put in rather haphazardly because it was on a show for HGTV. I didn’t know anything about gardening then and left it up to the experts. One of my goals is to take out the unhappy trees and put in better trees for my climate.

  6. In addition to several items on your list, we’ve been thinking about these:

    Space for dogs (and visiting children) to run.
    Shade to sit under.
    A focal point to look at (from the garden and from inside the house).
    Overflow seating (that doesn’t look silly when not being sat upon).

    But probably low maintenance is the highest priority of all!

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