Designing a garden can be intimidating. It’s enough of a challenge to learn how to successfully select, plant and care for landscape plants, but design is more than learning how to plant and water. 

One way to design a garden is by considering three levels. 

First, the structural level forms the basic framework of the garden, establishing trees, large shrubs, focal points, structures (such as pergolas, arbors and sheds) and outlines.

The second level is the plants, including massed shrubs and some larger herbaceous material.

Finally, the third level, is decorative planting.

A common error is to concentrate mainly on the decorative flowering plants, throw in the occasional shrubs and allow the bulk of the planting to emerge piecemeal. What worked best for me was to do just the opposite.

The first stage of planting should be to establish the bones of the garden, the foundation upon which the rest of the garden rests. Give the most care to the selection and placement of these plants.

Planting at the second level has the functional role of filling in or separating spaces, creating bulk in the planted areas as well as providing wind shelter and screening where necessary. It will form the major structure of the landscape and provide the background for the smaller decorative plants but also should be visually pleasing in itself.

Second-level plants give the garden stability and should mostly be evergreen, although the use of a few deciduous shrubs such as hydrangeas and flowering quince can add interest and indicate seasonal changes.

When it comes to the decorative level, that's where you can let your creative side shine. Because many of these plants will be annuals, you're not making a long-term commitment. So follow your whimsy and spur-of-the-moment inspirations.

I like a garden controlled by design just enough so that it doesn't become a garden riot.

Because the rest of the garden and landscape, including structures, walkways, patio fences, trees and shrubs, was carefully thought out, if I make a mistake at the decorative level, it is temporary or easily corrected. Putting a patio or major tree in the wrong spot, however, is not so easy to fix. 

When choosing plant material for your landscape, size is of the utmost importance — not just how big it is when you buy it but how big it will ultimately get and how fast.

Placing plants too close or overgrown plants can ruin the most carefully planned garden, so we need to keep scale in mind. Use plants and other features that are appropriately sized to fit comfortably into the garden and with each other. 

A well-planned landscape is a delight both for its beauty and in how well it provides for the needs of the family that uses it. Whether you are creating a new landscape or improving on an existing one, don’t forget that thinking things through and making well-considered decisions is far better than jumping into the water before you learn how to swim.

Got a question?

Email gardennews@agcenter.lsu.edu. Follow Lee Rouse on Instagram, @rouses_horticulture.