Good garden design starts with thinking before digging.
Garden design takes time. It's too late to plan your garden when you are standing in the nursery eyeing every new plant that tempts you. Spend some time looking at your garden site, either during the offseason, when you can really view it objectively or during the growing season, when your successes and failures make themselves known.
Once you have an idea of how you are going to use your garden, come back to reality and take an objective look at the site before you come up with your garden design. This is of utmost importance in determining which plants and trees you use to achieve the desired effect.
Monitor it during different times of the day and year:
1. How many hours of sun does the site receive?
2. What times of day is it sunny?
3. Does sun exposure change with the seasons? Do trees allow sun in the spring and shade during summer?
4. How is the soil, as far as pH and texture?
5. Are there structures or large trees that will affect plant growth and selection?
6. Are there structures nearby that you would like to camouflage?
7. What plants are already growing there?
You know what you want to use your garden for, what you are working with and what resources you can devote to it. Now, what do you want it to look like?
Formal or informal? Wild?
Should it complement your house?
Do you want it to flow with the natural landscape?
Do you favor soft pastels or bold tropicals?
All these things might seem overwhelming, but you'll be saving yourself a lot of time and a considerable amount of money if you take this advice and you'll find that each step gets easier and more fun. Plant selection should be one of the last things you consider, or you may be overwhelmed trying to create a garden design to accommodate the dozens (or hundreds or even thousands) of plants you crave.
Know your planting zone
Before you buy that first plant, you have to know what your planting zone is. Without that knowledge, you can end up ordering all sorts of wonderful looking plants and shrubs only to find that they are not suitable for your planting zone and they will die. You will have spent time and money needlessly. If you're buying by catalog or online, every plant and seed catalog or online merchant should show a planting zone map and each plant depicted should have an indication of the zones in which that particular plant (or tree, etc.) will thrive. You can also contact your local garden clubs or your county's Agriculture Extension Bureau with your questions regarding the suitability and care of plants for your particular area. This knowledge is of critical importance, particularly if you have moved from one zone to another. Not only will you save money, but you will avoid countless hours of frustrating work in your garden.
Keep in mind what your garden will be used for and when. This is important in your plant consideration. If you plan to entertain a lot and don't want to spend all summer on chores, look for lower maintenance plants that don't require constant deadheading and staking to look good and, if you are planting for small children, choose plants that will bloom at their eye level, with interesting textures and scents and non-poisonous flowers and seeds.
Make a list of the plants you like and group them by color, texture, and form - the garden design triumvirate. Also, chart them by season of bloom and/or interest. Consider both flowers and foliage. There are more and more plants being bred with colorful foliage that will provide interest in the garden all season.
Be sure to include some large anchor plants that will look good all year. These are usually shrubs and often evergreens. Most small to average gardens can only accommodate 1 or 2 trees or shrubs, but they are important for providing the good bones of the garden and you want to choose wisely at the beginning. Trees and shrubs can be very difficult and heavy to move around.
Planting bulbs for added beauty
A wonderful way to use bulbs effectively is to naturalize daffodils in a wooded area or group them for colorful accent around evergreen shrubs. High-quality Dutch flower bulbs can be ordered online from reputable catalogers and merchants who will advise you as to what's appropriate for your zone.
Plan ahead when planting bulbs; i.e., for spring flowering you plant in the Fall. Follow directions accompanying your bulbs regarding depth (usually six inches) and fertilizer (there are special bulb fertilizers that should be put in the planting holes). An important reminder - again: Know your planting zone before ordering any bulbs. They all look so beautiful in the catalogs, but what grows well in the midwest, in most instances, will not grow in South Florida! Special tools for planting bulbs are also available online. They make digging holes so much easier than using a simple trowel. Check them out.