Best garden design tips for beginners.

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Best Garden Design Tips For Beginners. Small Garden Designs

Welcome to Grandpa’s Green Thumb, Best Garden Design Tips For Beginners.

Welcome to Grandpa’s green thumb gardening tips for beginners. In this blog I’ll be looking at some great, simple garden design ideas to help you begin your new adventure. We’ll need to recheck that you have the right tools. Also, we’ll look at various design types and simple layouts.

A Checklist for Garden Tools:

Okay, the first thing we need to do is have a quick check of the tools you will require. Just remember that these will be simple beginners tools.

A Good quality spade. Needs to be nice and sharp and preferably made of steel with a wooden handle. You may laugh and think, well that’s seems obvious, however I have seen spades made from hardened plastic. Stay away from these.

A Basic Shovel. It will need to have a long handle which is better for your back, and a wide, flat blade with steeply turned sides, a flat face and a short D-shaped handle.

  1. A Garden Fork. Just your basic four pronged, short handled type. Again, look for quality. There’s nothing worse than buying a tool that breaks within the first few weeks of purchase. The garden tool should be durable enough to last for many years.                                                                                                                                         I still have some hoes, shovels, spades and other garden tools that I bought over thirty years ago. Actually I still have garden tools that belonged to my father and are probably closer to sixty years old.
  2. A Garden Rake. This is the metal one with the long handle. You will need this for smoothing soil, removing stones and spreading fertilizer and soil.
  3. A Leaf rake. You may not need this when designing a garden, but it can be helpful if you need a tool to do some finer soil smoothing, or simply for raking the leaves that might fall from your neighbors garden.
  4. A Mattock or Pick Axe. I prefer the type with a digging blade on one side and a cutting one on the other. You never know when you might come across small tree roots. This tool will cut the easily and help you to remove any roots with little effort. The digging side will be great for trenching or building garden edges.
  5. Hoes. Again we are just looking for a basic hoe. One for drawing or pulling soil towards you. It comes with a curved blade. Hence, it’s given the name draw hoe (along with many other names that we won’t get into here). This ideal for cultivating the soil when preparing a garden bed for planting.
  6. String line or a long garden hose or chalk paint. Why these various options? They will help you set out your garden helping you to shape your garden bed.
  7. Wheel barrow. You have a definite need for one of these. Without one life would be unbearable. You can cart rocks, soil, manure, mulch, just about anything. Depending on your size and strength, I’d stick to one between 80 to 100 liters (liters) or 2 to 3 cubic mtrs. Again make sure it’s a good quality one.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Even the experts can be fooled. I purchased one recently that was fairly cheap but looked good, it had a plastic bowl. Not that a plastic bowl is bad necessarily, but this one turned out to be brittle. It’s better to purchase a good quality one designed for heavy work. If you are willing to pay a bit more then you will get one that will last for many years.
  8. Manure, blood and bone and dolomite and mulch. At this stage we will assume the soil is okay, however in some cases you may need to bring in a richer soil blend.
  9. ==>If you would like to know more about garden tools, click here<==

Some non Gardening items:

  1. A drawing pad or some A4 or A3 paper, color pencils, several lead pencils of various thickness and a ruler.
  2. A drawing of the block size with dimensions attached. For example, you will need front, sides and back boundaries and a rough drawing of the home on the block. These don’t need to be an exact scale but reasonably accurate would help.

Best Garden Design Tips For Beginners. Some Small Garden Designs:

So now we have an idea of the basic tools we will need. Let’s get into the exciting stuff. Garden design. Unfortunately this is never simple as there are dozens of different design types. Some of these include, formal, informal, cottage, courtyard, container gardens, natural, Japanese, structured, traditional, dry Desert, poetic, water wise, Mediterranean, and the list goes on. For the sake of sanity, we’ll just have a look at Four of the better known ones.

1. Formal:

As the name suggests, this type of garden is designed in a conventional and ordered design. You will often see trees and or hedges arranged in a symmetrical rows. This type of garden is often accompanied by geometrical designs. This isn’t an easy garden to construct for the beginner, but can be very satisfying when completed on a small scale.


2. Informal:

An informal garden is far more naturalistic and is usually designed in an asymmetrical way, that is, having shapes or arrangements that fail to correspond. In other words it lacks the symmetry of a formal garden. These types of gardens are probably the most common of all and the easiest to design.

Garden beds are usually curved and dotted with rustic-looking ornaments. Pathways are often curved and simple and often made of either peddles or gravel. You can make your garden colorful using either plants, flowers or both.

My wife and I have a garden that is based on informal design. We have many rustic ornaments placed throughout the garden. These items can be as simple as an old metal watering can suspended from an old swimming pool fence pole. Or old wrought iron bed heads strategically placed amongst the flowers.

Cottage Gardens:

Cottage gardens are probably the most popular, cutest and most colorful of all small garden designs. You will find an incredible array and variance of colored annuals and perennial flowers in one of these exquisite gardens.

A cottage garden is a design using informal styles and traditional materials. The plantings are usually dense and consist of a mixture of ornamental and edible plants. You will often find rose bushes throughout these gardens and climbing over trellises.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        This garden style originated in England and could be seen everywhere around Britain some several hundred years ago. They were often found on workers’ cottage plots and were really developed rapidly around this time in, almost, opposition to the grandiose gardens of the gentry, whose huge plots of land were based on far more formality.

The modern cottage garden is usually crammed with brilliant colorful annuals and adorned with simple ornaments such as gnomes or small statues. It is not uncommon to find a simple archway leading through to the front garden, with meandering pathways leading you eventually to the front door of the cottage.

You can place chairs, benches, swings or small tables in strategic places throughout the garden, where visitors can rest there weary feet and indulge, not only, in the beauty and color of these wondrous gardens, but stimulate the sense organs with a myriad of incredible aroma’s permeating from every direction. Narrow paths, with stepping stones scattered along them and planted with gorgeous scented ground herbs, such as citrus thyme, that release there fragrances when crushed by eager exploring feet meandering along to new exciting destinations.

Container Gardens:

I thought I’d add this particular garden type as many people don’t have a garden. If you live in a flat or town house you may not have much room for a garden, however you will have some room, somewhere for plants. If you have a balcony, or small outdoor area you could possible construct a container garden.

You could have as little as one or fifty plus plants in containers and or pots. This is a very simple garden style but can be both pleasant and satisfying. You could develop a cottage garden in miniature using aromatic and colorful plants. Herbs are very much at home in a container, if well looked after and planted using a good quality medium.

There are an incredible amount of annual and perennial flowering plants available that are ideally suited to containers. Plants such as Viola’s, Daisies, Pansies, lavender all give an incredible display for lengthy periods.

You could have a desert theme and use small cactus or succulent plants. Maybe colorful pigface or the rare Sempervivum which come in about forty different species. I particularly like the rosette types that can be purchased in many shapes and colors.

Maybe you prefer bulbs. Once again, these plants provide a huge variety of color, shape and aroma. Perhaps you could fill your containers with tulips, daffodils, freesia’s, crocus, liliums, gladiola, hippeastrum, calla lilies or sprekelia. The list is endless, there are bulbs available for every climatic condition. What a marvelous array of plants are available within the bulb world.

Plan your Design:

So by now you should have some idea on how you’d like to design your garden. Remember the pencils, paper, ruler and lead pencils you were meant to have in your kit? Take them outside, if it’s a comfortable sunny day, sit at a small table or bench in the garden and relax. Have a good look around at the slope of the garden and it’s potential flow. In other words, begin sizing it up.

Now take out your pencils and paper. Have a good look at some of the examples I’ve provided here so that you can come up with some ideas. Begin drawing trees, shrubs and flowers in appropriate places. For example, use a dark green pencil and a big circle for a tree. A light green pencil and smaller circles for shrubs and different colored smaller circles for flowers.

When planning out the garden you will need to have an idea of what tree or shrub size you want in it. Remember that small gardens shouldn’t have massive trees. One large spreading tree could not only dominate the garden, but can cause dangers to the house. However, that’s a subject for a future blog.

Always place any small trees at a reasonable distance from each other and at the back of the garden beds, smaller bushes go to the middle and flowers to the front. Now all this will depend on which style of garden you pick. A cottage garden, for example, usually has very few, if any trees. You may place fruit trees of a smaller variety within this style of garden but usually it’s best to stick to some shrubs and many, many flowers.

Once you have plotted out the trees and shrubs, begin putting boundaries around your plants. This might be for marking out the areas between lawn and garden in formal or informal gardens. Or for placing paths in strategic spots within a cottage garden. In the case of a cottage garden, the paths must lead somewhere exciting. This could be through an arbor with roses growing over it, or to a small water feature, statue or a group of garden gnomes. This is entirely up to you. Use your imagination. The important thing is the path must hold interest to those traversing it.

You can use symbols or small diagrams for ornaments, garden furniture or arbors. For example, an arbor might consist of two long lines crossed by several short lines, as you would see if you were looking down from above. Make sure you keep them to scale.                                                                                                                                                                                 You could use a little bench picture to depict a swing, table or bench. I suggest you use you imagination for gnomes and other statues.

Once you have completed your drawing I suggest you do several more, have a drink, maybe a coffee, while pondering over the drawings, than decide which one you would like to use.


Decision time:

Finally, you need to make a decision. Which plan will I use? Once you have made up your mind, you will need to leave the comfort of your table and chair and commence some hard, but enjoying work. When you are happy with one of the plans, and believe this is the one for you than you are ready to begin the next step.

Make a list of the number of each type of plant you will require and take that list and your plan down to your local garden center. The experts at your local center will be able to help you to decide on tree, shrub and flower species, that will suit your garden style. They will be able to help you with heights and widths of various plants and the amount you will need for your specific plot.

When you are at the garden center make sure you order sufficient amounts of fertilizer. You will need animal manures to help build organic materials into your soil, dolomite, to help provide magnesium as well as calcium for your plants, and a slow release fertilizer to help your plants for the first six months of growth.                                                                                                                                                                        Just make sure you don’t spread too much dolomite in areas where you intend to plant acid loving plants.

Measure the area of your garden beds obtain approximately 50 pounds of well rotted manure for every 100 square feet of garden bed. Personally I like to use cow, horse or sheep manure, or a combination of all. I tend to stay away from chicken manure as this can burn your plants due to high levels of urea. The amount of manure you will need will also depend on your soil type, your garden center can also help you with this.

I will discuss manures and soil types in more depth in future posts.

Now that you are back at your future garden site you will need some of the items mentioned above in the Garden tools checklist. Maybe the garden hose, string, chalk dust or chalk paint. It is totally up to you if you wish to use some or all of these items. The important thing is that you will be mapping out your garden beds on the ground.

Down to Ground level:

For this lesson we will simply stick to chalk paint, and we won’t be using any landscaping material such as rocks or sleepers. The idea is to keep it fairly simple for you, the beginner gardener.

Take the plan you have constructed, and the paint, with you and begin to mark out the borders of your garden onto the ground. Once you have completed mapping out all the garden edges and are happy with your progress you can begin tackling the hard work.

Fetch the brand new, clean, sharp spade you bought and, starting from a designated spot next to the plot’s boundary, commence digging an edge all the along the painted line.                                                                                                                                                            You will most likely need to use a mattock to cut any tree roots that might come across during this process. This might take some time as you will most likely have to go over it once or twice until you achieve a fairly deep, well-defined, clean edge.

Now it’s time to make sure you spread the manure you purchased over the garden beds. BNe careful to do this evenly. For this job you will need your wheelbarrow, wide blade shovel and steel rake. Grub out any loose roots or rocks using your mattock

When you have completely spread the manures you can commence placing the trees, shrubs and flowers in their correct positions. This may take some time, as often what’s on paper is not necessarily the same as the real thing. You may need to move your plants around until you’re happy they’re in the correct position,trees and shrubs in particular.

Just remember that each of your plants should come with a small tag. This tag informs you what width and height they are expected to grow to. This will help you to place them in their optimum positions.

Once you are happy with the positioning of the plants you will need to dig holes for each of them. This is a simple process if you stick to some basic rules. Make sure the hole is the same depth as the pot and twice as wide. Try never to place soil at a higher level than that which the plant has been living in while in the container. Many shrubs and trees hate soil too high up their trunks as this can cause collar rot.

Now that you have placed all the plants into their correct positions, you will need to spread some slow realize fertilizer around each plant. Once again the staff at the garden center can help you choose the correct types. You will most likely need different types for the trees, shrubs and flowers.

I like to soak my plants with a light mix of seaweed extract. This helps them to settle in to their new environment, as well as providing great food for the development of necessary soil microbes.


You can now give the whole garden a good soak of water. When this is completed, I would spread mulch all over the beds to a thickness of about two inches. In my opinion the best mulches to use are straw, sugar cane, lucerne or similar types.

These mulches not only protect the soil from evaporation and suppress weed growth, they also help feed the soil and encourage microbial growth and earthworms. In other words it will help your garden develop a healthy soil for your plants.

If you look after your garden, water it regularly in dry times, and fertilize the plants once a year with manures and twice a year with slow realize fertilizer, it should grow perfectly. Also remember to spread new mulch once a year, preferably in  spring.

I Have Discussed The Best garden Design Tips For Beginners. What now:

Now you will be able to sit back and watch your garden grow. Every now and then you will need to weed it. Maybe add a few plants, or replace some that haven’t worked out for you. But you will be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor for a long time.

In future posts I will be looking more at manures, mulches, path ways, garden edges, ornaments, garden furniture, Arbor types and a host of other interesting gardening topics. The tips given today are only meant to be a basic guide for small garden designs.

I hope you found this article useful, and if you enjoyed it, please leave some comments below.

==>If you would like to know more about garden tools, click here<==

Thank you and happy gardening. Jim

Jim Kulk


  1. Hi Jim, thanks for this fascinating post on Small Garden Designs, I’d never thought about how much goes into designing a garden, and when it comes time to revamp my garden I will be heading back here for some tips.

  2. What an excellent post! You provide detail to the max and don’t leave room for wondering. To be quite honest, I would hire a person with your knowledge to plan and construct my garden although doing it myself is probably a lot more satisfying. I will be visiting your site in the near future as I liked your “container garden” proposal for my balconies and have been pondering on various ideas to make them more attractive. Thank you for creating this extremely useful site.

  3. Great pictures Jim and what a great niche. I love gardening and even took a Master Gardener’s class here in Utah. I need to take an inventory of shed to see what tools I’m missing. I learned a lot from this post. Thank you!

  4. These are great looking tools. Any gardener will find that they will get their garden in good shape in no time.

  5. Loved your post
    You provided all the details needed that ypu make a beginner feels as an expert. If i ever have a gargen i will definitely refer to your site for info.

    Thank you for sharing this helpful post

  6. Hi Jim,

    Well, this is certainly one of the best garden design articles I have ever come across online. Very detailed and easy to follow. I have just bookmarked this site to come back to when I begin my own. I know I should of started sooner, but, better later than never I guess.

    I love the ideas you present as well and has me thinking of how I can augment to apply to my own average sized garden. These might be small garden designs but they are very aesthetic and I can easily imagine enjoying mine more once I do it up.

    Thanks again Jim.

    – Philip.

    • Hi Philip. Thank you for your kind words. I look forward to further comments from you on future posts. Thanks Jim

    • Hi Mariette. I will be bring out a post on container gardens for small places. It might help you start your garden. All the best Jim

  7. I never knew there were so many different styles of gardens to choose from. I would have a difficult time choosing just one! I love how detailed your article was, it was great for a beginner like me, now I just have to start collecting those tools that I will need.

    • Hi Stephanie. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I hope you return to look at some of my other posts. All the best Jim

  8. Hi Jim,
    Thank you for this really well thought out and thorough post on Small Garden Design. There is so much to learn about gardening and all the tools required but it is a wonderful topic which should interest so many people.
    Have moved into a flat in a Retirement Centre but have a tiny allotment which I garden and also took on the responsibility of the main gardens of the Home.
    Although we have experienced the worst drought in the history of Cape Town we have managed to keep the gardens looking quite respectable if not as good as they were.
    The drought has meant very sadly losing all the roses so have now decided to go mostly indigenous.
    Will be watching your posts with great interest as I know will learn a lot.

    • Thank you Jill for your interesting comments. I hope your little garden at Cape Town thrives. Unfortunately roses can be difficult to grow in any condition. My wife had a beautiful rose garden years ago, we lived out in the arid parts of Australia for several years. Rainfall there was rare however she managed to have the most magnificent rose bushes I’ve ever seen. All the Best Jim

  9. Thank you for the information. I learned a lot about gardens and the different types. There sure is a lot of design and planning that goes into them to make them look great.

    • Hi Paul. Thank you for your comments. Don’t forget to come back for a look at the other posts. All the best Jim

  10. Wow, I never knew there were so many choices for gardens. My mom always had a large garden, but unfortunately I never learned much from hers. She did give my son a raised garden this year, and came and helped him plant it which was great, since she is now 86, unfortunately she bought seeds for many items she knows I don’t eat. But it is exciting watching everything grow, my my 10 year old loves that he owns the garden.

    • Hi Marla. Your son will learn many lessons from the garden he owns. I know I did as a child. All the best Jim

  11. Jim thanks for not only the list of garden tools but why we need each one! I have a very small courtyard garden so although I have some tools missing from your ‘kit’ at least I now know what is missing!

    For me, a cottage style garden suits my style and also the space I have to work with your article has motivated me to get creative and spend some time sitting down and lay out a possible design or 2 that I can discuss and negotiate with my son’s ideas too.

    Making a cup of tea to get creative!

    • Hi Fleur. I hope you enjoyed your cup of tea. Cottage gardens are definitely amongst the most beautiful. I remember working in one when I was a young man. The serenity, aroma’s and colour were simply soul satisfying. All the best Jim

  12. Jim what a great and informative article! It’s so detailed and a lot of information and tools that I wasn’t aware of. When I was younger I loved playing in the dirt and helping with the planting and weeding. Because it looked so good afterward. My favorite is the Cottage garden. When I lived up North that’s what I saw a lot of and love the beautiful colors.

    Thank s again for the great post 🙂

    • Thank you Sabrina. My wife is a great lover of cottage gardens. It’s not so easy to create one in our harsh climate and poor soils. All the best Jim

  13. Hi Jim,
    Wow, thank you so much for laying out this process in such an easy to follow pattern. My daughter and I have been wanting to start a garden but I honestly had no idea where to start.
    Thanks to this article now I have a plan. I will be looking forward to reading your post so I can learn more about gardening.
    Thank you,

    • Thanks you Franchesca. Planning is one of the most important steps in garden design. I hope you return for future blogs. All the best Jim

  14. Waw thank you for this truly amazing post. There is so much detail I’ve always been a keen gardener since a young boy. Unfortunatly I live in a block of flats in the heart of glasgow but I do have a large balcony which is full of potted plants. My fathers garden was always booming with colour and very well looked after. Last year we incorporated gardening designs into our business. I will be following your posts from now on your ideas are brilliant.

    Thanks again

  15. great article! so thorough – which I need… my thumb had more black than green LOL. I admire anyone who can create a beautiful garden as it is not my talent. I have started a few little projects but my gardening so far would sure not win any awards! I can see I need to add some more tools to my little collection and I need to read more of your articles and gain some more information from the wisdom you share!

  16. Hi Corey. Thanks for reading my article. Anyone can learn to build and maintain a garden. If you return to this site in the future you will find many articles here to help you. All the best Jim

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