Good relationships – they’re not just important to your personal life. They’re vital to your garden. How your garden beds, sidewalks, patios and home relate is one of the most important elements to good design. Your garden needs to be proportionate to the architecture, and the plantings need to be in balance with each other. Unfortunately, there’s no universal formula for determining the ideal design. It just takes some trial and error to achieve the “right” effect. But I can offer some ideas to help you get your garden off to a good start.

Marking out new garden

On your marks…flags set…grow! This lovely garden bed came to life after careful planning right on the lawn.

Photo Credit: Tres Fromme

Surveyors flags outline garden design

Use surveyor’s flags to mark out the area where you imagine your garden beds will work.

Photo Credit: Tres Fromme

Finished garden bed

Connect the dots/flags for your garden bed with spray paint so you can “live with” your design to see how it works.

Photo Credit: Tres Fromme

My main tip: Take your time. Patience is a virtue when it comes to garden design. (And good things come to those who plan.) I’ve found one of the best ways to create a great garden design is to take some time to think things through, then use the “flag and paint” method. (I used this technique for my own garden in Dallas, in fact.) I spent several weeks just living in the space – viewing it from the house, walking through the yard and watching where the sun and shade went throughout the day. Once I had that that down, I skipped drawing my ideas on paper and went right to sketching a design directly on my lawn.

Here’s how I did it: I purchased some surveyor’s flags (those little plastic neon squares on wires) and outlined my first “draft” beds directly in the lawn. I simply walked along and stuck flags in the ground at 2- to 3-foot intervals to create an outline I thought would work. Then I walked around and took a look at my results from various locations in my yard – from the patio, the living room, second-floor windows, etc. I also checked to see if the paths between the beds were wide enough for comfortable strolling and service access. This preview let me evaluate the design in “real time.”

If I didn’t like the flow from one vantage point, I just rearranged the flags and reevaluated my design. Once I achieved a pleasing layout, I grabbed some neon-orange surveyor’s spray paint to connect the dots/flags for my future beds. The paint lasted long enough for me to live with my would-be garden beds and make sure I liked what I mapped out.

(Here’s a hint: When you’re putting down the flags for your design, try to relate the beds to existing elements on your property. For example, our pool is curvy, so the beds mimic the forms and carry the basic shapes into the garden. Now our pool looks integrated with the plantings rather than floating in a shapeless sea of lawn. What’s more – now we’ve got fantastic views of our flowers and foliage when we’re swimming!)

If you’re going to try this design technique, remember to be open to changing your mind. Really evaluate your design, keep all your options open, and test various ideas before you actually dig. Spend some time living in and around your “draft” garden. See how well you like the views and spaces you’ve created – and confirm where the sun and shade land, which will really help you choose the right plants.

One more tip: Make sure your beds are sufficiently large to look in scale with the size of your house. It’s all too easy to end up with plantings dwarfed by a building – not to mention that undersized beds prevent you from adding all the plants your gardener’s heart desires. (Of course, the good news is you can always extend beds later if they seem off the mark.)

So get out there and enjoy exploring the possibilities for your garden. Chances are you’ll end up with a wonderful outdoor living space – and your neighbors will definitely wonder what you and all those flags are up to!