Nine Things To Ask Before Designing a Garden

Nine Things To Ask Before Designing a Garden

Understanding one’s “inner garden.”

Midst the colors of spring, Celeste Funger works in the garden.

Midst the colors of spring, Celeste Funger works in the garden. Photo by Carole Funger

Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade. — Rudyard Kipling

One of the many things I love about being a garden designer is getting to know my clients’ story. By this I mean what role gardens have played in their lives, what plants, structures, and ornaments evoke good memories and what kind of garden makes them feel most relaxed and happy. I call this the “inner garden” of my clients. And I believe we all have one: Even those people who tell me they don’t garden, or that they have a “brown thumb,” I find that when pressed, they can paint the most beautiful garden pictures.

Maybe it’s a story you grew up with that resonates. For me, it’s the children’s book, ”A Secret Garden.” As a child, I spent hours rereading the chapter where the children uncover the old garden door in the ivy-covered wall. I dreamt about a secret garden of my own and pictured myself working alongside the children, patiently nursing the old garden back to life. It comes as no surprise that one of my first gardens, a formal, enclosed rose garden, was based on my memories of this novel.


"My Secret Garden"

Gardening and gardens are personal. When properly planned with the client’s own narrative in mind, they tell the owner’s unique garden story. While a good garden design must also take into account soil, climate, sun exposure, available space and what plants will work best, at the root, it’s a highly personal journey. A truly successful garden reflects our feelings about Nature, its restorative powers and the role we would like it to play in our lives.

Before you begin your next garden, start outlining your story. Your story will provide the framework for the design. Here are nine things to think about as you begin the process.

• What gardens have inspired you during your lifetime? What emotions do they bring out in you and why?

Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens is one of my favorite destinations for seasonal garden inspiration. I’ve been visiting it every year since I was a child. It figures prominently in my own garden story.

• Are there particular scents that trigger good memories and emotions?

Smells can trigger strong memories and dramatically affect people’s moods. Do you associate certain smells like the sweet smell of lilac, the heavy scent of gardenias or the smell of newly mown grass with certain seasons or happy times in your life? Which scents are the most important to you?

• What are your favorite times to be outdoors?

For early risers, this may be the peaceful hours after dawn while for others; the soft light of the evening may be more enticing. It’s important to know, so you can plan for plants that bloom accordingly.

• Which season do your prefer? When are you home?

If you travel for extended periods of time during the year, it makes sense to design a garden with shrubs and flowers that bloom when you’re home.

• What is your definition of tranquility and relaxation?

Do you view the perfect garden as a group of well-tended plants in a tranquil setting? Are there meandering paths, quiet corners and secluded seating? Or is your definition more open and lawn-centric, a space built for entertaining, or a combination of both?

• What color palettes appeal to you? Pastels, bright colors or all white?

Do your color tastes change with the seasons and the light? In my garden, soft blues, pinks and yellows look best in the spring followed by fiery reds, bright yellows and deep purples in summer. I round out the season with dusty mauves, grey blues and shimmery silvers.

• Do you prefer sun, shade or a combination of both?

• Which kind of ‘lines’ make you feel most comfortable and fit with your vision of what a good landscape should be?

Do you like straight-edged beds with orderly plantings (what some refer to as “landscaper’s edge”) or do you prefer curvy beds with irregular plantings for a more casual look?

• Finally, are you interested in hands-on maintenance, or any version thereof, or do you intend to employ a landscaping crew to maintain the garden?

Are you willing to maintain the garden so that it retains the plan? (This is a big one for the garden designer.) All great gardens need to be understood and valued in order to survive.

Happy planning and may we all create beautiful gardens this spring!