Create your dream garden from scratch

If you’ve just moved into a newly built house, the scene that greets you out front may be an expanse of sod, a front walk and the street. Out back, perhaps you have a clear view into your neighbours’ gardens and their kitchen windows.

You’d be forgiven if you retreated indoors. Deciding what to do with a blank slate can be intimidating, even for experienced gardeners. For new gardeners, it’s doubly daunting. But there’s good news: this is your chance to build the garden of your dreams (budget and climate notwithstanding). And more good news: if you’re just beginning to plan your new landscape, winter is an ideal time to start. There are many decisions to be made before you hit the garden centres next spring, and you’ll need a few months to get organized, including establishing priorities, making a rough plan and working out a budget. The best news: we’re here to help. Here are ideas and questions to get you started.

An attractive landscape involves more than choosing the right plants. Gardens need to be functional, too. Think about how you’ll be using your outdoor space and how that will affect your garden plan.

  • If you frequently entertain friends and family, allow for a large enough patio or deck to hold the size of table and chairs you’ll need. If a big deck or patio isn’t in your budget, make sure you reserve enough level turf area for tables and chairs to be set up for large gatherings.
  • If you dream of a contemplative refuge, you may be more concerned with ways to create shade and privacy, whether with carefully placed plants or structures.
  • If you plan to grow a bounty of food for table and freezer, keep the sunniest portion of your garden shade-free for fruits and vegetables, most of which require full sun. Having a source for irrigation nearby is helpful, too.
  • If you’re a plant collector, you’ll want deep beds, easily accessible for maintenance, to display your treasures.
  • Storage: You may think your new garage is large enough, but will it hold a lawn mower, tools, bags of soil amendments, a wheelbarrow, toys, sporting equipment, garbage bins, snow tires? If you already know you’ll need a storage shed, plan for it now. It’s easier to pour a concrete pad and bring in lumber before hedges, perennial borders and an arbour get in the way.
  • Pets and children: In the case of pets, you may want space for a dog run; for young children, play areas should be near a seating area and windows so they can be easily observed. In either case, one of your first projects will be to install a fence with gates to make sure no one wanders off.
  • Compost area: Sun speeds up the composting process, but who wants to give up the sunny centre of their back garden to compost bins? Compromise by finding an area that’s at least in part sun, but not in direct line of sight. Landscape it with shrubs or trellis panels.
  • Grading: Observe where the water drains on your property. Now is the time to check to make sure water doesn’t sit near the house foundation after it rains. Correct any grading problems before installing perimeterbeds and foundation plantings. Also ensure any changes you make to the property’s topography won’t alter drainage patterns significantly; if they do, you’ll need to figure out how to accommodate any accumulated runoff.

Your aim is to organize your outdoor space so it’s logical, fulfills the needs of your family, and is easily navigatable, offering a clear route to your front door, other doors, your garage, the street and wherever else you need to move about in your garden.

How and where you travel through the space will determine where paths should go. Picture where you’ll barbecue, dine or play. How will you get from the driveway to the front door? How will you get from the barbecue to the kitchen? How will you move the garbage bins to the street? Do you plan to build a pond or playground? Even if these space-eaters won’t be going in for a few years, you still need to set aside an appropriate spot for them in the initial planning stages.

Garden designs that include a substantial amount of hardscaping—the built parts of your landscape, not the plants—look more cohesive if the various components share similar materials or theme. For example:

  • A garden is a personal statement of what you like, but your house is the main focal point of a landscape, and it would be folly to ignore its style. If it’s traditional with wooden siding and shutters, curvy borders, a picket fence and an arbour would be compatible. Square-cut flagstone, a clipped hedge and straight beds with right angles, meanwhile, would complement a sleek, stucco contemporary house.
  • Keep the variety of building materials to a minimum. Using black wrought iron, white picket and split-rail fencing in a small area, for example, might look disjointed. The same could be said for mixing too many paving materials—concrete pavers in various sizes and colours, random flagstone, pea gravel—all in the same section of a garden.
  • Integrate your house and landscape by keeping the scale and proportions of both in mind when choosing trees and shrubs for a foundation planting. Broad, horizontally branched trees set off a bungalow; tall, two-storey homes benefit from a few narrow, vertical plants, especially at corners.