By Sam Burbach, Education & Programming Coordinator – 05/14/2020


We hope you were able to join us for Mark Dwyer’s program Cool Plants and Hot Garden Trends of 2020 on Monday evening, and if you were not able to join us you can check out the recording here. Mark shared some great new plants to incorporate into the landscape, and I think it is safe to say that everyone has at least a handful of new plants that they’ll be searching the garden centers for this spring!

Whether you saw Mark’s presentation or not, we are finally at the time of year where we can start putting more and more plants out in our gardens and landscapes. And with the reality of today’s global events, many of us are spending more time at home which gives us the opportunity to reimagine our landscapes or create new gardens altogether. The question many may have is, “Where do I start?”

I recently created a few new garden beds in my backyard so I’m going to walk through the process of how I created the landscape design for one of those beds.

Disclaimer: I am just covering some of the very basics and will just be talking about arranging plants into a nice landscape design. I will not be covering hardscapes at all.

Things to consider when choosing plants for the landscape:
  1. Light: Take note of where your garden is located and observe how much sun or shade the area gets. Is the area shaded by the house or trees? Does the area get mostly morning or afternoon sun? Make sure you choose plants that are well suited for the amount of sun the site receives. Remember these light requirements for plants:
    • Shade plants: less than 4 hours of sunlight per day
    • Part shade plants: between 4 and 6 hours of sunlight per day
    • Full sun plants: more than 6 hours of sunlight per day
  2. Water: Different plants have different water requirements and you want to make sure the plants you choose will fit with the moisture level in your garden bed. If your garden is in a low area of your yard that tends to hold moisture longer or near a source of water like a downspout, you don’t want to plant something that likes drier soil, such as lavender. If you have a garden in full sun that is not very close to a water source, you will want to choose some drought tolerant plants, such as lantana, so that you don’t have to be out there watering all the time.  
  3. Mature size: While plants might be the perfect size for your garden when you bring them home from the garden center, you need to plan for their mature size when coming up with a landscape design. This is especially true for shrubs and trees but also applies to annuals and perennials. You might find a lilac shrub at the garden center that is 2-feet tall and would look great as a foundation planting in front of your first floor bay window, but if you look at the plant tag and see that its mature size is 10-feet tall, this may not the best choice for this location. Accounting for mature size is important for the aesthetic of your landscape design and also the health of the plants.
  4. Hardiness zone: When choosing perennials, trees, and shrubs you want to make sure they’ll survive Midwestern winters so that they come back year after year. Using mostly perennials, trees, and shrubs in a landscape design means you don’t have to keep putting in new plants every year, so make sure you find plants that are hardy to zone 5 or lower for the Stateline area. 
    • This is not to say that annuals don’t have a place in the landscape! Annuals provide longer periods of flowering than perennials and come in a wider range of colors so incorporating annuals into a landscape is a great way to add extra color and extended interest. It also allows you to change up that portion of the garden year after year so you can experiment with new plants and not feel like you are stuck with the same garden every year.
Additional things to think about when coming up with your landscape design:
  1. Color scheme: This is the fun part! Consider your favorite colors and find plants to match, or think about plants you like and a color scheme that will  compliment that particular plant. Here are some basic color schemes to think about:
    • Monochromatic: different shades, tones, and tints of a single color (hue) (Ex: Magenta, medium pink and light pink)
    • Analogous: colors next to each other on the color wheel – generally one main color and the two colors on either side as accents (Ex: Purple with accents of blue-violet and red-violet)
    • Complementary: two colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel (Ex: purple and yellow)
  2. Texture: Plants with smaller flowers and thinner leaves are considered to have a “fine” texture while plants with large flowers and broad leaves are considered to have a “coarse” texture. Combining different textures creates a nice aesthetic that makes the eyes move throughout the entire landscape.
  3. Shape: Combine plants of varying shapes for more visual interest to your garden. Choose some linear plants with flowers in spikes and some rounded plants with more sphere-like flowers.
  4. Height: Choose plants of varying heights so you can appreciate each plant and add movement to the garden. Consider the location of your garden and from where it will be viewed when choosing where to set your plants. Generally, taller plants are placed towards the back of the garden and shorter plants are placed closer to the front so that you can see all the plants. If you have an island garden bed that can be viewed from all sides, the taller plants will go towards the center and then you’ll work out from the center adding in the next shortest plants as you get closer to the garden edge. This helps the garden look evenly graded all the way around. 
  5. Seasons of interest: Try to choose plants that will have interest through all four seasons of the year so that you can enjoy the garden longer. Include both spring and summer blooming flowers, as well as plants that have nice fall color or winter interest such as berries. 
  6. Maintenance: Consider how much maintenance you want to put into your garden. Some plants require more maintenance than others, such as roses which require regular pruning and deadheading. If you don’t feel like keeping up with that maintenance you might as well not put those plants in! There is no shame in wanting a care-free, low maintenance garden – just be sure to research the needs of your plants so you know what you’re getting into!

My garden bed is brand new without any plants in it. It is a foundation planting along the south side of our house and goes around our egress window well and a drainage tile for our sump pump and gutter. It is in full sun and we have redirected excess water away from that area to keep water off the foundation so I want to use plants that do not need too much extra water.

I had an idea of what plants I wanted to use ahead of time so I created a list with the plant name, its requirements (all full sun), mature size (height and width), flower color, and blooming season. I did not use all the plants on my wish list but chose what would fit best in that area. 

Prior to putting in the bed we called JULIE to make sure it was safe to dig in this site. If you are putting in a new landscape bed or renovating a garden bed that you haven’t dug in before you should call JULIE before digging so they can locate any underground utility lines.

Here’s how you can create your own landscape design at home!

Tools you’ll need:
  • Tape measure or measuring wheel
  • Graph paper (you can print free graph paper from https://www.printablepaper.net/category/graph)
  • Pencil and eraser
  • Ruler (an architectural or engineering scaled ruler makes this much easier)
  • Scaled stencil (extremely helpful but optional; they are readily available online)
  • Trace paper and tape (optional)
  • Markers or colored pencils (optional)
  • Plant list
Begin by measuring out your garden space. Be sure to include any existing structures or plants that will not be moving.
Figure out what size scale you want to use. If you have an architect’s or engineer’s ruler, simply use the side with the correct scale to measure out your garden. If you do not have a scaled ruler, convert all of your measurements to your correct scale (Ex: The garden is 17 feet long, and you’re going to use a 1/2 inch scale. 17 feet x .5 inch scale = 8.5 inches in the drawing).
Draw the outline of your garden and any existing structures or plants that will not be moving. Make a key with the scale you are using and a directional arrow to indicate north.
Since this portion of the drawing will not change, either make a copy to keep as a master, or begin using trace paper over this drawing so that you can keep a clean copy if you want to start over or change up the garden in the future. 
If using trace paper, tape it down to keep it in place while you work. On the trace paper I traced over the garden outline and permanent structures with a pen since those will not be changing, and then began working with a pencil so I could make changes if needed without erasing the garden outline.
Begin drawing out plants, starting with focal plants. To draw out a plant, use its mature width and convert it to your scale (Example: My focal plants are three Dwarf Bloomerang Lilacs which mature to 3’ wide. At a ½ inch scale, each lilac in the drawing will be 1.5” in diameter).
If you’re using a circle stencil, choose the correct size circle. If you don’t have a stencil, draw a horizontal line and a vertical line at the appropriate length of the diameter and then draw a rough circle around it.
Label your plant with a letter and create a key so you know which plant is which.
Continue adding plants, remembering to vary the shapes, sizes and textures, until you’ve filled your design. Be sure to distribute your plants based on season of interest as well.
Once you’ve completed your design, you can add color with markers or colored pencils to better visualize the composition as a whole. I simply outlined each of the plants with its flower color to make sure the colors carried throughout the garden.

The next step is finding the plants in your landscape! Visit your local garden and nursery centers to find great quality and selection. Make sure to bring your plant list including at least quantity needed, sun requirement, and mature plant size, so that if you need to pick out a replacement you are able to find something with a similar size and similar needs. 

Enjoy the process and best of luck creating your very own landscape design!


  • If you are working with computer paper (8.5”x11”) and you have a large garden bed, use a ¼ inch : 1 foot scale or tape a few pieces of paper together. If you have a smaller garden bed, use a 1 inch : 1 foot or ½ inch : 1 foot scale so your drawing is a little bigger. I wanted to use a ½ inch scale for a larger drawing, but my garden bed was just barely too big to fit on one piece of computer paper, so I taped two pieces of graph paper together making sure to line them up correctly.

Downloadable Instructions:

For a downloadable version of the full instructions, click here.