Starting from Scratch


I'm taking my time with crafting the layout of our new backyard garden and starting with lots of sketching, scribbling and coloring.
I'm taking my time with crafting the layout of our new backyard garden and starting with lots of sketching, scribbling and coloring.

The journey of designing a garden is different for every space, but I find that they all start off much in the same way. Since I'm designing Greenleaf Garden essentially from scratch I think it would be fun to share with you the steps I'm taking in developing it's design plan. I hope that this will not only illuminate my design process itself, but also inspire you to jump in and start creating or reimagining your own outdoor space.


Make a wishlist

Perhaps it's your own veggie garden, a new patio, built-in seating with storage, a wildflower meadow, a lawn for the kids + dogs to play on, a more inviting entryway, or maybe all of the above. Whatever you wish to be doing, experiencing, and seeing in your outdoor space is what you should put on your list. Be sure also to include any problems that need solving (i.e., drainage). Don't worry about what's feasible yet, just write it all down. Here's our wishlist for the backyard at Greenleaf Garden:

  • Open lawn for play

  • Veggie + cut flower garden

  • Storage shed

  • Compost bin

  • Screening + privacy from neighbors

  • Flagstone patio with fire pit

  • Stone pizza oven

  • Playhouse/swing set/sandbox zone

  • Enormous perennial-focused flower garden

  • Fragrant plantings near the deck

  • Pollinator/bird-attracting plantings

  • Cold frame

  • Maple tree


Follow the light

Getting to know how light enters and interacts with a space is a crucial early step in the design process. Not only will this big a significant factor in determining which plants can be used, but it maybe also inform the ways in which you'll want to use your space. Maybe you've got incredible sunset views and you'll want a seating area to best take them in, or perhaps you've got a spot that's absolutely baked by the sun which perhaps isn't ideal for a dining area, but is for a veggie garden. Become oriented with where the sun is throughout the day as well as how that changes season-to-season.


Our backyard at Greenleaf is south-facing with 5 limbed-up and mature trees throughout. That means that our space is very sunny but is given some shade by the trees when they've leafed out from spring through fall. Because they're limbed-up, their canopies a quite high and much less dense than if they had branches that went all the way down to their base, so they do not cast dense shade. In short, we have some areas of full sun and others that receive partial shade.


Map it out

Finally, it's time to start mapping out your space. I always start by drawing out everything that's there: fences and walls, paving, windows and doors, existing plants, hose faucets, etc. Jot down anything particularly notable such as a good or bad view, or a low spot that holds water, and be sure to include a north arrow to keep you oriented with the sun. Then plug in the measurements. What you've just crafted is your base plan and from this you can begin the creative process of introducing the new elements you'd like in your garden.


I like using trace paper, a pencil and some colored pencils for this step, but use whatever you have available. No rulers or straightedges yet – keep it loose and free-hand – the goal here is just to figure out a rough layout and massings. Do as many versions as you like and play around with the shapes and locations of things until you settle on something that feels right. Put on a little music, have patience and keep an eraser handy.

For me, the earliest stage in a design is figuring out the layout and massings. It's rough and a bit messy, but gives clarity to the vision.
For me, the earliest stage in a design is figuring out the layout and massings. It's rough and a bit messy, but gives clarity to the vision.