Categories: Design Tips

Garden Design: Taking Cues From Nature

Garden Design: Taking Cues From Nature



Your landscape, with all of it’s endless possibilities, is your palette.  However, unlike many other forms of art, it doesn’t begin with a blank slate, but a living system.  Even if the intended garden is a potted garden, it still involves a multitude of environmental factors.

Garden design is also a process in which a series of logistical problems must be solved.  How is the garden to function?  What would you like to include?  What is your style?  Would you like a kitchen garden, a place to entertain, rest, play or all of the above and more?  If residential, how does the home and the architecture of the home interact with the site?  What is the scope of the project?  Are there issues with drainage, erosion, slope, fire, shade, sun, water, etc.?  What is the site ecology and the ecology of the region?  These considerations are almost as limitless as the creative options.  It can be overwhelming to the point of not knowing where to begin.

The practical response of where to begin is planning.  Yes.  Planning.

Map.  Sketch.  Observe.  Brainstorm.  Draw.  Draft.  Research.  Overwhelmed?

It’s a process that will bring you closer to the best solution and fit, for you and the site.  It’s the beginning of a relationship.  “The secret ingredient to which we respond… the essence of a good garden”, as John Brookes describes in The Book of Garden Design, comes from “the relationship of the garden to it’s setting, both physically and intellectually.”

There is more than one way to begin this process, but it may help to start by simply spending time on the property.  Get a feeling for it by being there.  This is where the Zen starts and the heart of the garden more clearly understood.

It may also help to do some mapping and take notes.  I like to use graph paper when completing initial, on-site maps.  If for no other reason than to help me draw a straight line, but it may also help convey proportion and placement a bit more accurately.  Your map may look like the one to the right or it may be freehand.

Consider the following when observing and evaluating your site:

Site Analysis

What is the climate of the area in question?  Microclimate?  High and low temperatures, rainfall averages and patterns, breeze direction?  Look for wind pruning on trees and use historic weather databases such as that found at Weather Underground.

Inventory Flora and Fauna

Know your critters.  Who is living on the property and who passes through?  Who would you like to invite to visit or stay?  Who do you need to fortify against?  Your garden is habitat.  (If you plant it, they will come.  Whether you like it or not.)

Take note of existing plants.  Weeds, natives, ornamentals?  Where are the plants located?  Are they healthy?  What can you learn from them?

Identify Soil Quality and Type

Understanding soil type, quality and structure is the beginning to protecting and fostering your most vital resource.  It will also help determine other factors such as plantings, drainage and erosion control.  Sand, silt and clay are the general components of soil, but it too has its own ecology and complexity.

Soil testing is a good idea.  If you go this route, ask for amendment recommendations in the form of compost and organic fertilizers.

The plants growing on the site can also shed light on soil attributes.  The book Weeds and What They Tell, written by Ehrenfried E. Pfeiffer, is a helpful resource.

Wind and Fire

Where are the possible fire and wind corridors?  How can wind be manipulated through vegetation, decreasing wind tunnels but not eliminating it all together?  How can fire damage be prevented?

Points to consider:

A bit of wind is essential for pollination and vectors like butterflies.

Fire is more likely to move up a slope than down, often moving with and aggravated by wind.

Water Flow

The goal is to manage storm water, moving it away from buildings but increase landscape contact, replenishing groundwater, improving infiltration and reducing run-off.  Topography, soil type, vegetation and mulch all affect water flow.

Guiding Engagement

Positively direct traffic, views and experience.  What areas need to be addressed, hidden, amplified or borrowed?  Where are natural paths and points of focus?

Mapping and Surveys

Ultimately a complete map of the site will be necessary.  This includes property boundaries, easements, topography, building footprints and infrastructure, roads, paths and existing trees.  It’s also critical to locate power lines, utility mains, gutters, downspouts and the like.  If using a civil engineer to perform the survey, ask for all trees with a 6″ dbh (diameter at breast height) to be included and get both electronic and paper copies.

Google maps is a fabulous tool for further understanding of the site.

Other Considerations

Talk to neighbors about the history of the area, their observations and experiences.  And if you’re really curious, dig up historical photos to see what the land looked like across time.

Take cues from nature.

Grow What You Love.

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About the Author: Emily Murphy

I’ve learned there’s something wonderfully powerful in the simple act of growing. Here, in our gardens, we can repair ourselves and our plots of earth with our own two hands. GROW WHAT YOU LOVE and GROW NOW!

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