5 Steps to Make a New Garden Layout

Are you starting a garden from nothing (or almost nothing)? We’ve got a five step plan for you to follow that will result in a beautiful garden view! This plan does take a decent amount of work ahead of time, but you’ll reap the benefits of a good plan for a lifetime. For this process you’ll likely want to have the following materials on hand:

  • measuring tape
  • camera (phone will do!)
  • pen and pencil
  • markers or colored pencils
  • printer or simple doodling program on a phone
  • graph paper

1 - Measure the Space

There are three measurements you’ll need to take of your space* to make sure you choose the right-sized plants and buy them in the right quantities.

  • the length of the garden bed, and if the bed is in front of a building, the length between windows and the windows themselves
  • the depth of the garden bed
  • the maximum height a plant can be in each space (ie. small plants under windows, large plants at the sides of a home)
*It’s useful to print a photo of your space to write the measurements directly on it. You’ll use this photo later on too.
An illustration of a house with an empty front yard that someone is planning to put a garden in. Arrows demonstrate that you have to measure the height of available space against the house, the length of the front of the house, considering gaps between the windows, and the proposed depth of the bed in order to start the landscape design.

2 - Learn the Main Plant Roles

Think of plants in layers. Both in height and depth. Each of these layers corresponds to a plant role. There are 7 common plant roles. They are divided into height sections below. In the examples below, we use FLUFFY® arborvitae as the large plant, ‘Miss Violet’ butterfly bush as the medium plant, and LET’S DANCE SKY VIEW® reblooming hydrangea as the small plant.

Visual Height Layers

Three plants in vastly different heights showing the importance of considering a garden's height layers.

Large

Medium

Small

Large plants are positioned in landscapes as specimens, hedges, or climbers.

A specimen is a plant with at least one striking feature that measures more than 5’/1.5m tall. They are usually planted as one-offs in a section of the garden. 

A hedge or screen is a grouping of dense plants that are more than 5’/1.5m tall.

Climbers are plants that naturally climb up or can be trained up a structure to provide interest at the back or middle of the border. Can be planted in groups or singles.

Medium-sized plants are used in the border role. They fill in the bulk of the middle part of the garden. Part of the border can also include a low hedge made with medium-height plants. 

Border (also called foundation) plants measure less than 5’/1.5m and more than 2’/.6m. They look great in odd groupings.

A low hedge is made up of a single type of plant that measures within the range of 2-5’/.6-1.5m tall. They are planted in a line that sits between the border plants and the non-garden space like grass or a path.

Small plants are positioned at the front of the border as low hedging, edging, and ground cover (which can also be within the garden between larger plants).

Edging plants measure less than 2’/.6m and are planted at the front of the garden, often in groups. Single plants can be dotted between groups to carry an aesthetic across a space or visually connect two groups.

Ground cover plants naturally have a wider-than-tall habit and are planted in between border plants or at the front of the bed.

Visual Depth Layers

A garden with depth, three different layers with tall, medium, and short plants.

Your garden will benefit from having layers, unless you are planting a standalone hedge. Layers make a space visually interesting, giving the eye a lot to take in. You’ll roughly position the plants in size order from tallest at the back and smallest at the front.

When you’re browsing plants, you’ll often see a mature height (and width) range. Plan for the plant to grow to the average of those two extremes. Take Puffer Fish® panicle hydrangea, for example. It grows 3-5’/.9-1.5m tall. You’d use it in the border position, as it will likely stay about 4’/1.2m tall.

3 - Take a Photo

Stand directly in front of your proposed garden space and take a photo. Either print a few copies of the picture or plan to doodle on the photo using your phone. 

Circle or make shapes in the spaces where you’d like plants to be. Emphasize nice features by framing them with tall or tall-ish plants. Extend the circles/shapes outward into the space where you’d like the garden bed to go. Make as many layouts as you can think of!

A zoomed in view of a garden layout someone drew with a marker over a photo of a home. It shows the puffy outline they used to indicate a large shrub, a smaller jagged ball to represent a shrub, a group of straight lines they used to represent an upright shrub, and horizontal lines to indicate groundcover.
A printed photo of a frontal view of a home with a drawn in garden layout someone drew with a marker. It shows a variety of jagged, puffy, and straight lined shapes to indicate where plants will be.
a phone screen showing a garden design layout with tall, medium, and short plants.
A phone screen with a photo of the front of a home with a drawn in garden over the top. It shows a variety of differently sized circles, some tall and narrow for plants at the back, mid-sized circles in the middle, and some squat ovals at the front.

4 - Create an Overhead Layout

Pick your favorite plan from all of the sketches and map out a general overhead layout of the garden. Use the measurements that you took in step one. This will act as your planting map in the future!

Here are a few tips for literally making a cohesive looking garden layout:

  • Make odd-numbered groups when possible. They provide visual impact as well as a lush feeling.
  • Place one-off plants between groupings of plants with the same color to connect the entire space.
  • Use the same type of plant a few times across a the space. This creates a cohesive feeling. 
  • Don’t be afraid to plant a little closer than the suggested spacing dictates. 
  • Try to limit your plant palette. This provides a harmonious view right away and makes it easier to add plants to later.
An illustration of a home with foundation shrubs planted in front of it, above the home are the overhead views of the layout, showing specimen shrubs at the corners of the house, border shrubs in the middle, and edging at the front and by the sidewalk.

Here are a few tips for drawing the garden layout in a way that you can easily read later on:

  • Grid paper is very useful for this part of the process! It makes it easy to count the squares and have them correspond to feet. Having things laid out in proper proportions will really help the plan translate correctly to the real life garden.
  • Make the first draft in pencil. Make a copy of that finished layout in pen or marker so it won’t smudge when you go out to plant.
  • Determine the size you’ll make each plant on the overhead layout by looking at the position they’re in within the bed – back, middle, front. Use the general plant role size ranges to help guide you as you make the circles different widths. Large plants are above 5’/1.5m tall and wide. Medium plants are within 2-5’/.6-1.5m tall and wide. Small plants are less than 2’/.6m tall and wide. 
  • Distinguish each plant type by using the same line type, letter, or color for it. Each plant gets a different color, letter, or line. This will show you how many plants you need of each type. 
An illustration of an overhead garden layout with circles of different sizes and colors spread across the space to indicate different species of plants.
An overhead garden layout filled with specimen, border, edging, and groundcover plants highlighted with different plant symbols.

5 - Select Your Garden Plants

Use your layout to make a list of the sizes and numbers of plants you’re looking for. We have an entire article about picking the right plants for your hopes, aesthetics, and conditions, read it here. While you’re choosing specific plants, you may also keep two things in mind:

A handwritten list of plants to shop for at the garden center, with specimen, border plants, edging, and ground cover listed.
  1. Four season appeal. If you make a point to choose plants that will be interesting at different points throughout the year, you’ll always have something beautiful to look at. Here’s an article on how to build a four season garden.
  2. A color palette. Narrowing down the colors you’ll use makes it easier to choose plants and creates a consistent aesthetic for the space. Here’s an article about how to choose the right color palette.

Once you’ve shopped for the plants that make up the foundation of the garden, like we’ve created above, add to it with perennials, annuals, and bulbs (learn the difference between all the plant types here).

An illustration of a home with foundation shrubs, annuals, and perennials planted in front of it. Above the home are the overhead views of the layout, showing specimen shrubs at the corners of the house, border shrubs in the middle, and edging at the front and by the sidewalk, annuals in containers by the door, and perennials dotted throughout the border.

In this example we added the following plants to give more texture and interest to the space:

This step by step plan isn’t comprehensive by any means (landscapers literally go to school for years on end!), but it’s a great place to start if you want to design your own garden. To dig even deeper into the roles plants can play in a garden and all of the lovely shrub options we offer, check out the digital version of our DIY landscape guide, Gardening Simplified

If you have any garden planning tips to share with your fellow plant lovers, put them in the comments below.

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Picture of Kristina Howley

Kristina Howley

I am all in when it comes to gardening. Almost every part of the experience delights me – new leaves emerging in spring, pollinators buzzing in summer, birds devouring berries in fall, and the somber beauty of seed heads in winter. Thanks to a background in horticulture and gardening my own clay-filled, flowery USDA zone 5b plot, I’ve learned plenty of practical things as well. I like sharing these joys and lessons with my fellow gardeners and soon-to-be gardeners any way I can.

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