Monday Sep 25, 2023

How to design and plant a garden: Dan Gill’s guide, from assessing conditions to picking the plants | Home/Garden

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How to design and plant a garden: Dan Gill’s guide, from assessing conditions to picking the plants | Home/Garden. Now would be an excellent time create a landscape plan for a small area and do some designing and planting.

Small yards are common in urban areas. Older neighborhoods are typically divided into small lots with the house occupying most of the space. Even if your yard is large, there are often areas that need to be addressed on the small scale — such as a patio or courtyard.

Our cool season that runs from October to March is the best time for planting hardy trees, shrubs, ground covers or vines.

An important part of landscaping smaller spaces is the selection of plants. Once decisions and plans are made for the hardscape — walkways, patios, fences, arbors, etc. — the careful selection of plants completes the process.

EVALUATE THE SETTING: The first step in plant selection is to evaluate the growing conditions of the area. Light is of particular importance. You must choose plants that will thrive in the type of light the area receives.

We commonly use four terms to describe light conditions based on how many hours of direct sun an area receives and when direct sun occurs.

  • Full sun: eight hours or more of direct sun, a south-facing area
  • Part sun: four to six hours of direct afternoon sun, a west-facing area
  • Part shade: four hours of direct morning sun, an east-facing area
  • Shade: two hours or less of direct sun or dappled light through the day, a north-facing area or one shaded by large trees

SIZE MATTERS: It is also critical to consider the mature size of the plants you choose. How big plants are when you purchase them is irrelevant — you must know how big they can get over time.

Never purchase trees, shrubs, vines or even ground covers for small-space gardens unless you know, read on the tag, ask the nursery staff or have researched their mature size and how fast they grows or spreads. Typically, you should choose plants that are naturally small or compact or smaller-growing varieties of larger plants.

That said, you should understand what the word “dwarf” means. This term simply means that the plant is a selection that grows smaller than the original species. It does not necessarily mean the plant will be small. Even if a plant is a dwarf variety, it is still just as important to know what the mature size the plant will be.


pink and hedge

Matthew Ponseti adds texture to a Metairie yard by layering plants in front of a hedge — and he adds a graceful flow of color with pink flowers.



CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: There is less room to plant in small, intimate spaces. For many gardening enthusiasts, the inclination is to plant everything you can get your hands on — the more kinds of plants the better. But plants should generally be selected as part of an overall concept. Integrating plants into a design that carefully considers the shape, color and leaf form of neighboring plants in relationship to one another distinguishes a garden from a plant collection.

Creating a design

You can approach creating a planting design from a variety of ways. Here are some ideas I think work well in balancing what is done by design and what is allowed to develop more casually.

Consider the planting design on three levels.

  1. First, the structural level forms the basic framework of the garden.
  2. The second level provides the bulk of the garden planting and fills the space.
  3. The third level, the decorative plantings, provides colorful flowers or foliage and is set against the other two.

The first-level planting should establish the bones of the garden. The selection and placement of these plants should be done at the outset and should involve a carefully thought-out plan. Plants used in this stage include small trees, screens and hedges and prominent specimen plants. Pay careful attention to mature size as they are the largest plants that will go into the design, and in small-space situations these plants create major problems if they grow too large.

Planting at the second level should also be done with careful planning. These plants must fill in the spaces, creating bulk in the planted areas. Plants in this category should generally be used in masses or groups of several plants to keep the whole arrangement from getting too busy. This group includes compact shrubs, smaller growing perennial vines and ground covers that don’t spread too rapidly. (Asian jasmine is an example of a ground cover that grows vigorously and requires a lot of control efforts in a small area.) These plants give the garden its stability and should generally be evergreen, although the use of a few deciduous shrubs can add interest and indicate seasonal changes.

The third level of plants, the decorative level — which includes bedding plants, annual vines and perennials — lets you relax your adherence to a carefully thought-out plan. You can rely more on the natural development of the plantings.


Greenery 4 June 4,2021 (copy)

A trellis frames the entrance to a garden, while hanging plants expand the area by using the taller spaces.



Up and in

There are two interesting ways you can enrich your use of plant materials. When space at ground level is limited — go up. Use fences, arbors and trellises to grow colorful vines. Use hanging baskets and wall mounted planters and pots. You can greatly increase the plants you grow by utilizing the space above the ground.

Another great idea is to make use of container plants set at entrances and on porches, decks and patios. Growing plants in pots or containers gives them great versatility and mobility, and allows you to change the look of the landscape almost at a whim.

Whether you are creating a new landscape or improving an existing one, now is a great time to plant. But think things through and make well-considered decisions.

A well-planned small garden filled with plants appropriate in size and the growing conditions is a delight both for its beauty and in how well it provides for the needs of the family that uses it.

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Dan Gill is a retired consumer horticulture specialist with the LSU AgCenter. He hosts the “Garden Show” on WWL-AM Saturdays at 9 a.m. Email gardening questions to [email protected].


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