“What advice would you give someone (who has gardening experience) when it comes to redesigning a back yard. My parents recently bought a house that needs a yard makeover. What’s the best advice you can give someone who has only a little bit of experience with garden design and planning?” Question from Cassie of Wilsonville, Oregon
Answer: Before redesigning your parent’s backyard, determine what they want from the space. Do they plan to entertain outdoors, do they want to grow vegetables, will they need a play area for children? Then ask them how much time they want to commit to the garden. Are they interested in low-care landscape plants, or do they want to garden as hobbyists? Their expectations and level of commitment should shape how the gardens and outdoor living areas are designed and what plants are chosen.
Once you know what they want, you can consider the basics about bed placement and design, siting and choosing plants, and creating “outdoor rooms,” or usable outdoor spaces delineated by plantings, hardscape, an/or outdoor structures. When planning new gardens, consider the creation of functional spaces and how plantings can enhance them.
Garden Design Articles
Here are several excellent articles that I think will help you answer some of these questions and review some design basics. Some are on the website of our sister brand, Fafard.
What you plant will be based on your yard’s soil type and drainage level, light, and your USDA Hardiness Zone, which is 8b (learn more here) or Sunset Zone, which is 6 (learn more here). Sometimes is helps to reach out to your local OSU extension service for planting ideas for your region. We also encourage you to read our many gardening articles by Mike Darcy, who is a revered Portland, Oregon horticulturist. He is an avid gardener, and his plant suggestions are ideal for where you live. (Click here to see Mike’s articles.)
We also have loads of gardening videos that might help, like the two below about basic garden edging and flowering shrubs that bloom all summer long. (Click here to view our youTube channel)
I hope that some of these resources provide you with the inspiration you need for your design project!
A well-designed butterfly garden should have flowers all season and contain plants that feed the caterpillars of butterflies as well as the adults. You’ll know if you’ve done well when monarchs (Danaus plexippus), painted ladies (Vanessa cardui), swallowtails (Papiliospp.), and other butterflies visit your garden frequently and even stay to grow and pupate.
There are two ways to maintain constant blooms for your butterflies. You can 1) strategically plant spring, summer, and fall-flowering perennials they like, and 2) be sure to also plant ever-blooming annuals for butterflies. So many garden flowers are favored by lepidopterans, the task is easy. Just a couple of visits to the garden center should do it.
Then there is designing your butterfly garden. I have created an example of an easy, beautiful butterfly border design (below) that contains common butterfly flowers. Use it as a guide for mingling perennials and annuals together to offer flowers and larval food for butterflies through the season.
What Makes a Butterfly Flower a Butterfly Flower?
The technical term for butterfly pollination is psychophily. Some flowers are primarily pollinated by butterflies because they have suites of traits that attract these insects. In general, butterflies have a poor sense of smell, long curled tongues (proboscises), good vision, and must perch to feed. To accommodate these traits, flowers most adapted for butterfly pollination are:
Not strongly scented
Tubular and filled with nectar
Shaped for butterfly perching with flat-topped or domed clusters or wide-petals
If you look for these traits, you don’t necessarily need to know the names of butterfly flowers. You can visually identify them.
Eight Favorite Butterfly Annual Flowers
If you are just starting out with butterfly gardening, the fastest, lowest-cost way to attract them is with ever-blooming annuals. These can be started from seed or purchased as starts from the garden center. Here are eight of the very best annuals for butterflies that will not disappoint. All should be planted in the ground after the threat of frost as passed. (Click here to determine your last frost date.)
Bloodflower (Asclepias curassavica): The beauty of this tropical milkweed is that its flower clusters of bright red, yellow, and orange just keep blooming throught the warm months. All butterflies love it, but the plants also feed monarch caterpillars. Often it will gently self-sow from year to year.
Purple Queen-Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota ‘Dara’): The lacy blooms of Dara Queen-Anne’s Lace are purplish-pink and loved by all butterflies. It is especially important to swallowtail caterpillars, which feed on the foliage.
Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus): Butterflies are attracted to this widely popular, low-cost bedding plant, which is easy, beautiful, and can be found at any garden center.
Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens): The violet-blue flower clusters of heliotrope are equally loved by butterflies and bees. Keep the old flower clusters pinched off to make way for new fragrant domes of blooms.
Lantana (Lantana camara): Gardeners living in hot, dry places should plant lantana for its multi-colored blooms of gold, orange, pink, and red, which are irresistible to butterflies. Those in the Bandana Series are compact and colorful.
Egyptian Starcluster (Pentas lanceolata): Everyone who plants a butterfly garden should grow the effortless Egyptian starcluster. Varieties may have lavender, pink, purple, red, or white flowers. Those in the Starcluster Series have extra-large clusters.
Verbena (Verbena spp. and hybrids): There are so many fantastic garden verbenas and butterflies like them all. Superbenas are nonstop bloomers that come in many exciting colors, and the upright stems of Lollipop Brazilian vervain (Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’) are equally attractive and popular with pollinators.
Zinnias (Zinnia hybrids): Plant any zinnia. Butterflies like them all. My personal favorites are the classic, low, spreading Profusion Zinnias, with the deepest orange-red Profusion Fire being one of the finest colors.
Eight Favorite Butterfly Perennial Flowers
Aster (Aster species and hybrids): Fall is a time when migrating butterfly species are on the move, and asters are one of the best flowers to feed them at this time. Their purple, violet-blue, pink or white flowers are also a delight. The compact, pale violet-blue flowered aromatic aster ‘October Skies’ (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’, USDA Hardiness Zones 5-8) is a billowy beauty that flowers in mid to late fall.
Butterflyweed (Asclepias spp.): This is an essential larval plant for monarch caterpillars, and its clusters of brilliant orange flowers are long-blooming and bright. (Watch the video below to learn more about the many different kinds available.)
Butterflybush (Buddleia davidii): There are so many different Buddleia from which to choose, but new super dwarf varieties make them ideal for perennial borders. The 2-foot Pugster®Amethyst has especially large, pretty, violet flower clusters.
Bluestar (Amsonia species and hybrids): The late spring or early summer blooming bluestar is an early garden flower for butterflies. ‘Storm Cloud’ is a spectacular form that creates a bushy 2-foot mound covered with clusters of pale blue flowers.
Coneflowers (Echinacea species and hybrids): The large daisies of summer-blooming coneflowers come in lots of colors and feed many pollinators. Their dry seedheads even feed songbirds in fall and winter.
Blazing Star (Liatris spp.): With bold spikes of purple flowers, blazing stars make quite a statement in the summer garden. Butterflies can’t get enough of their nectar. Try the Midwest-native prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), which has massive flower spikes reaching 3-6 feet high from late summer to fall. The more manageable Kobold dense blazing star (Liatris spicata ‘Kobold’) is a spectacular bloomer with loads of rosy-purple flower spikes reaching skyward in midsummer.
Tall Phlox (Phloxpaniculata): Butterflies are drawn to all phlox flowers. Two favorite tall phlox varieties for summer butterflies are the heavy-flowering, pure white ‘David’ (4 feet) and the coral-pink flowered Garden Girls™Glamour Girl (3 feet). Both are mildew resistant when most others are susceptible.
Willow-Leaved Sunflower (Helianthus saliciflious): The natural form of this wildflower reaches a whopping 8 to 10 feet, but the heavy flowering variety ‘First Light’ reaches just 3 to 4 feet and becomes covered with yellow daisies in late summer to fall.
There are several designing rules of thumb when it comes to planting any flower border. Here are the five most important.
Plant taller perennials towards the back or center of a flower garden.
Leave space for colorful annuals towards the front of the beds. Everblooming annuals will extend the floral show.
Consider flower color: Dot the garden with flowers in complementary colors that are pleasing to you.
Consider bloom time: Choose a mix of flowers that bloom in spring, summer, fall, and all season. That way, your garden will never look dull and colorless.
Create a rendering of your garden beforehand to get a sense of what it will look like.
Spring is the time to plan your butterfly garden and procure plants for it. Flower gardens are so much nicer when they feed wildlife, and butterflies are like flowers in flight. The more you have in your garden, the better.
There are certain design and planting features that will greatly reduce summer heat in a garden, and they go way beyond just providing shade. By tapping into the power of the air, water, stones, shade, and cooling plants, you can create a pleasing outdoor garden space that will help temper the high heat of summer.
Here are some of the best tools in the design toolbox for creating cool (and cooling) garden spaces.
Keeping areas of your garden open, to facilitate airflow and catch prevailing winds, will not only cool your garden but dissuade flying insect pests, like mosquitoes. Allowing for some open spaces around your garden for welcome breezes is also pleasing to the senses. You can even plant a few fragrant plants, such as gardenias (Gardenia jasminoides), pots of sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), jasmine tobacco (Nicotiana alata), and fragrant roses, upwind for the additional pleasure of natural aroma.
Plantable green planter or pocket walls will also do the trick, and these can be filled with herbs and edibles for culinary gardeners. Water-permeable, felted wall pockets on a freestanding support make this very easy. Florafelt living wall systems are easy-care, quality options that help homeowners install plantable walls in no time. Tall, outdoor planter shelves or freestanding trellis walls are two other options. Both also facilitate airflow.
Shaded stone walls or patio stones are also greatly cooling because they hold the lower temperature of the night and emanate it during the day, which effectively reduces the temperature of any shaded patio.
Pergolas, arbors, or arbored tunnels covered with vines will stave off the summer heat because they don’t absorb heat, and they release cooling moisture into the air. Grapes (Vitis spp.) are one of the best vines for the job. Not only do they produce fruit, but they are long vining, tolerant of a wide array of weather conditions, and have very large leaves that provide good cover. Other good long-vined candidates include brewer’s hops (Humulus lupulus), if you make your own homebrew, as well as native Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), which both turn brilliant hot colors in fall.
Large-Leaved Tropical Plants
Whether grown in pots or the garden, invite a few very large-leaved tropical plants into your outdoor space. The best are rainforest plants that take up and release moisture in high amounts, which makes them perfect for hot patios or deck sides. Tender varieties for large pots or garden spaces are elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta), giant elephant ear (Alocasia spp.), and false banana (Enseteventricosum ‘Maurelii’). The hardy to semi-hardy Sichuan hardy banana (Musa basjoo, USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10), which can reach 20 feet, is an in-ground option that will live from year to year in southern zones. For potted specimens, choose a potting soil that holds extra water, such as Black Gold® Moisture Supreme Container Mix and Black Gold® Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Mix.
UV Blocking Patio Umbrellas
Obvious cooling features in the garden are umbrellas and canopies that provide cooling shade, but they are even more effective if they block UV rays. Those designed for UV protection are more reflective. Light-colored canopies also absorb less heat, which increases their cooling ability.
Airy Green Borders
Some shrubs and tall, airy plants are less dense, allowing them to facilitate more airflow, while also providing pleasing garden borders. Low, airy shrubs, like the 4-foot Longwood Blue bluebeard (Caryopteris cladonensis ‘Longwood Blue’ (expect it to self-sow)) and Grand Cascade butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii ‘Grand Cascade’), with its 6-foot habit and large purple flowers that lure butterflies, are ideal.
Tall grassy garden borders are also pleasingly airy and attractive. Three excellent options include the plumy, 6-foot Cloud Nine switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Cloud Nine) with its blue-green foliage, or the 5-foot ‘Northwind’ with its large seedheads and olive-green blades. The impressive 6-foot Windwalker® Big Bluestem is another beauty with linear clumps of blue-grey foliage, maroon floral plumes, and maroon fall foliage. It’s a real showstopper that flows in the breeze.
Effective Tree Cover
High tree canopies make for breezier shaded spaces, but trees offer far more than just shade. They are also natural air conditioners because trees draw up water from the soil and release it from their leaves as fine mist. This process is called transpiration. Broad-leaved, deciduous trees with larger leaves transpire more for more cooling power. During a growing season, a leaf will transpire many times more water than its own weight. In fact, a large oak tree can transpire up to 40,000 gallons (151,000 liters) of water per year!
Moving water in the garden is pleasing to the senses and really cools garden spaces. Whether you install a small fountain, a bubbling pool, or a small fish pond, these serene features will improve your outdoor living space. One key consideration is to only install features with moving water or fish to avoid creating mosquito breeding ground.
Some of the cooling options mentioned can invite mosquitoes due to increased moisture and shade cover. Here are some solutions that can really help.
If you add a water feature to your garden, remember that still or stagnant water creates the perfect mosquito breeding ground. Moving water does not. Fish ponds, however, are acceptable because fish consume mosquito larvae. You also need to beware of birdbaths–refreshing their water every few days will wash away any developing mosquitoes.
Full sun is not favored by mosquitoes, but shaded gardens invite them. Several non-chemical means of keeping mosquitoes away include the use of citronella candles and burning tikis. Newer options include electronic mosquito repellers, which create a 15-foot deet-free cloud of repellent across an area. Several plants also help to repel mosquitoes. Those for more shaded locations include lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), which emits a lemony scent and will grow in partial shade. The equally citrusy lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora) will tolerate light shade. (Click here to discover more mosquito repelling plants.)
A mix of these garden design features will help naturally cool your favorite garden enclaves and outdoor spaces, even on the hottest days.
Well-chosen and placed succulents in picturesque rock gardens can have an underwater, seafloor appeal. The design key is selecting various dryland treasures with anemone-, coral-, and urchin-like forms and textures in shades of blue green, silver, gold and red. When arranged against a setting of bold rocks, lined with a ripple of pebbles and seashells, the effect is cool and inviting.
I created such a garden at my Delaware home to complement a stone and pebble patio being built along the south-facing wall of my 1920s Cape Cod house. The bed was constructed in four steps, and the plants were selected for their seascape appearance.
Most of the hardy succulents I chose for the project were purchased from the online nursery, Mountain Crest Gardens. Not only do they sell lots of hardy hens & chicks (Sempervivum spp.) and stonecrops (Sedum spp.), but they also offer hardy cacti (my favorite for spectacular spring flowers). And their succulents arrive thriving and ready to plant.
Rock Garden Materials
My rock garden required the following materials:
Large plastic tub
Thick garden gloves
Large rocks (my garden is 4’ x 5’ and required 10 rocks)
Sod and Soil Removal: The first step to preparing my garden was to remove the sod. Thankfully, my soil is high in organic matter, so removing the top layer of grass was relatively easy. I then skimmed a 2-inch layer of natural soil from the new bed layer to use as fill. I put the sod in a wheelbarrow for removal and the fill dirt in a plastic tub to keep the area tidy.
Rock Placement: Then I placed my rocks. The natural dark grey and tan stones I chose are prevalent in my area, so they were a good fit for my yard. They also offered a pleasing color contrast to the plants and pebble. I set the largest rocks high against the concrete and stone base of my home for maximum visual appeal and gradually layered the smaller rocks down to patio level. I placed them close together at the top for a tight fit, so they would hold soil without erosion.
Filling: Once my stones were in place, I mixed a liberal amount of Black Gold Cactus Mix and Garden Compost Blend into my fill. The final fill was pebbly and organic for excellent drainage and good water-holding ability. Then I filled in all the gaps between rocks, leaving enough space for my plantings.
Plant Placement: Finally, I placed my plants, arranging them based on height, texture, and color, and prepared to plant.
Aside from making sure that my plant selections would survive Delaware winters (USDA Hardiness Zone 7), I made sure they met a suite of aesthetic requirements. I chose a few taller textural plants, several cascading stonecrops, and other selections that were mounding and prickly. All are remarkably drought tolerant and tough, able to take the high heat and sun of the garden. My plant picks included:
– Hybrid Prickly Pear (Opuntia ‘Coombe’s Winter Glow’, Zones 5-10). This hardy cactus has smooth paddles that lack the large spines of most, but beware those small spines! It has spectacular magenta blooms in late spring, and its paddles turn shades of rosy purple in winter.
– Rosularia(Rosularia platyphylla, Zones 5-10): This spreading succulent looks like a tiny hens & chicks and creates a mat of sea-green rosettes.
– Hens & Chicks(Sempervivum ‘Bronco’, Zones 5-10): This large hens & chicks has red and green rosettes that turn rich red in winter.
– Hens & Chicks(Sempervivum ‘Thunder‘, Zones 5-10): The summer rosettes of this larger hens & chicks are grey-green tinted with lavender. In winter, they turn shades of deep lavender and rose.
– Hybrid Stonecrop (Sedum SUNSPARKLER® Dazzleberry, Zones 4-9): Purplish leaves and summer-long flowers of deep rose make this a winning sedum.
– Hybrid Stonecrop (Sedum SUNSPARKLER® Jade Tuffet, Zones 4-9): This small, upright sedum has slender, dark green leaves and summer-long pink flowers.
– Chinese Stonecrop (Sedum tetractinum ‘Coral Reef’, Zones 5-9): This pretty sedum has yellow spring flowers and bright green leaves that turn pinkish with age.
– Adam’s Needle (Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’, Zones 5-10): The gold-striped leaves of this 18-inch yucca are bright and bold.
I put on my garden gloves and started planting the largest plants at the top, then moved down. During planting, I gently loosened the roots of any pot-bound plants, and dug a hole just big enough to ensure each plant’s roots were just at soil level. Then I sprinkled a small amount of slow-release fertilizer into each hole before planting. Once all of the plants were in the ground, I covered the soil with light pebbles and placed seashells here are there for a complete seascape look.
Within just a couple of months, my new garden started to take shape. The prickly pear put on new pads, the stonecrops and hens & chicks started to spread, and the SUNSPARKLERS began blooming beautifully. Come next summer, the full seascape effect should be in full sway, adding sunny, succulent interest to my new patio!
The good news is that your landscape is small. Less outdoor area to maintain means more free time for you and your family. You will save a lot of money on water and the cost of hardscaping. Your choice specimen plants will be noticed since they aren’t competing with swaths of other plants, and any decorative items you place in the garden will take center stage.
But, there are still two major issues facing your landscaping plans. The first is creating privacy and the second is effectively designing your small garden to make it feel more spacious.
Designing for Privacy
If designing for privacy, choose well when selected screening plantings for small garden spaces. Some trees grow quickly and seem ideal for hiding the neighbor’s neon swing set, but if the screening plants grow wide, then you’ve lost a large chunk of your own backyard. Look for evergreens that are narrow and tolerate shearing.
When a space is too small for large trees, vertical lines can be accomplished by erecting arbors, obelisks, pergolas, or other supports, for evergreen vines. Drawing the eye upward in the landscape takes away from the confines of modest space. Another advantage of placing an arbor covered with a vine along or over a deck is blocking the neighbor’s view when you want to sit outside. Privacy goes both ways.
Add Walls and Walkways
Try to tie all of the elements of the garden together to extend the space. If you have brick walls, use brick walkways. When grouping containerized plants by using one type of material (such as terracotta), the uniformity will create harmony. Continuity is soothing in a small space.
Many good landscapes lose their sense of balance because of the size of the plants, accents, or furniture placed within them. Large trees or oversized pots will dominate a diminutive garden. One dramatic statue becomes a focal point, but many become a crowd. Less can be more.
Search for scaled-down cultivars of the plants you love. Dwarf trees, miniature conifers, petite bulbs, and Lilliputian groundcovers can fill a limited space with delightfully contrasting texture and color. The only thing to remember when admiring an undersized plant with an innocent-sounding scientific name ending in ‘Nana’, is that depending on the plant, the smallest selection could still be pretty big.
Use plants that do double duty. A single daphne can perfume an entire landscape in late winter and is an attractive evergreen shrub fulfilling two jobs. Woody herbs make aromatic small shrubs and groundcovers. A hedge of blueberries gives seasonal interest with late-winter flowers, delicious summertime fruits, and add brilliant fall color. Small fruiting trees, strawberry groundcovers, and a trellis draped with raspberries or grapes will enable you to have your landscape and eat it, too.
Consider a Water Feature
If you want a water feature, a simple recycling fountain can add the white noise of splashing you need to drown out the drone of street sounds. A bowl of goldfish in a shady nook, a tub filled with hardy water lilies, or a narrow stream bubbling along a garden path are miniature projects that embellish your small landscape.
Utilize every square inch. Garden all the way to the front curb. If the only sunny spot for your bush tomatoes is at the mailbox, plant them there surrounded by purple basil, and then run a cucumber up the post for salads. Train decorative vines up the house or espalier small trees against the foundation. Fill your patio with containers. Hang baskets from the eaves. Window boxes and deck-railing planters give you even more room to grow. Ensure container and small-space gardening success with a mix that will save you watering time and worry, such as Black Gold® Waterhold Potting Soil (with Resilience™).
When your lot is long and narrow, try staggering your vertical lines from trees, structures, and statuary to create mystery. Your goal should be to screen parts of the landscape so that a visitor cannot see the entire garden upon first arrival. Curved walkways, prominent screens of evergreens, and sections of fencing increase the adventure of discovery of what awaits.
Depending on your neighborhood covenants, you may or may not be able to fence off your property. If you can fence, choose a style that will complement the house and still do what you need. As the old adage goes, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Consider the View
Do your neighbors have a spectacular specimen tree, water feature, or garden view that you would enjoy seeing every day? This principle of “borrowed view” will create the illusion of enlarging your property by extending the line of sight into the landscape beyond. In this situation, you would not want to totally screen your property. A break in the hedge or a window in the fence may be what you need.
A few tricks of perspective will allow the garden to appear larger than it really is. Make your walkways wider as you enter the garden, then narrow the path toward the end to create the illusion of depth. Use broad-leaved plants close to the entrance, then scale down foliage size through the landscape until your tiniest leaves are at the back of the property.
Placing a landscape on a diagonal line adds interest. Varied levels with a series of stairs in the landscape can create the feeling of greater distance traveled. Try a folly at the end of a path that looks like a doorway into another garden when it is really a mirror reflecting your own garden.
For depth, use colors that recede, like blues and purples, not only in your flowers, but also in your painted hardscaping and seating. To make an unsightly item disappear, paint it flat black or dark brown, if in a mulched bed, or deep forest green, if around evergreen plantings. On the other hand, if you want to brighten a dark corner of the garden, a wash of warm bright color or white paint will definitely draw attention to that area.
The advantage of gardening in a small space is that you will probably spend less money than landscaping a large property, but every decision will have a big impact. Each corner of the property will be closely examined. Your plants must be carefully chosen. Attention to detail is critical. Keep it simple.