Trying to Envision a Garden Change--Sketch your Idea!

Bee Better Naturally with Helen Yoest

Photo Credit by Helen Yoest

A garden is a place of wishes and wants. Often you imagine how something would look over in the corner or under the old oak tree. You wonder how a swing would look in that space. Or maybe you wonder about a bench, plantings, or a container or two.

When you plan your ideal garden, landscape designs are a valuable tool for placing plants. But you may decide to add much more than greenery or flowers. If you’re considering creating a structure or putting “hardscaping” (paved areas, patios, or walkways) in an existing location, it’s fun and easy to mark up your ideas on a photograph.

Confidence is born with pen and paper. Start by taking some photos of your garden from various angles. With several copies of a photograph, printed from your computer or scanned, begin to play with lines, seating, buildings, arbors, and so on. Something as simple as marking over an existing bed can bring life to the page, allowing you to better visualize your thoughts. This technique is an amazingly handy way to look at your garden and imagine change, and it is used by many experienced landscape designers, including myself, to help homeowners in visualizing their new gardens.

When I planned my garden, I needed to keep my children in mind. Their time at home would be about half the time I expected to live in the house, so my design needed to be adaptive. With black and white printed copies of photos of an overall view of my garden, I could mark up the photograph to see how my ideas would affect the space.

A long, flat area in the back garden serves as the kids’ soccer field, where all sorts of balls are hit and kicked about. At one end of this space is a gazebo, and at the other end the children’s play-set. While the kids enjoyed their space, I planned for my future space.

My dream came to life on the page as I sketched and crumpled one page after another until I got my thoughts down. I wanted to have a garden house. By sketching the garden house on the page, I could immediately see the scale I needed and the best position to place my new home away from home. I deemed it perfect. Today, the garden house sits in that area and brings many hours of enjoyment, whether I am alone or watching kids play in the yard.

Before I did my sketch, I measured out a footprint for my garden house. What the footprint said I could support with regards to space was at least 50% bigger than the space could visually hold. The scale would have been overpowering. If I had put in a garden house based solely on the footprint of available space, I would have made a very big and expensive mistake. A simple sketch gave me perspective–I could see my garden house would need to be smaller. This gave me a point from which I could move forward.

When sketching over photographs, I recommend using a sharpie because the bold lines show up better on the page. Mark up your ideas on the printed photo. You don’t even have to be good at drawing. (I’m certainly not.) Once the thick line is drawn, the existing lines fade away. Your new vision becomes clear and prominent. See the effect of widening the beds, changing the curve, adding a bench, an arbor, a gate. If you don’t like what you see, crumple up your page and toss it into the recycle bin. Begin again. It’s that simple.

Photo Credit by Helen Yoest

One of the best advantages of this technique is allowing you to see the scale at a glance. Even though you may not know the exact dimensions of your space, you should have a relative sense of the proportions. Try it. You may just surprise yourself!

With your sketch, you can shop for your needs with a better understanding of what you have to work with. Take it with you when you shop at the garden store. Showing the staff your sketch will help them put dimensions into perspective, too.


After 14 years in my garden, I began to evolve further. I started to move away from squiggles and curves in my front garden. My house was very linear, and I believed it would be more appropriate to follow those lines than trying to mimic something found in nature, when clearly my garden, although an important wildlife habitat, was man made.

I had trouble visualizing what the new bed lines would look like going from curved to straight. And I couldn’t grasp how much this change would add to (or take away from) current bed space. Within minutes, I printed a photo of the front beds, pulled out a Sharpie, and marked up a photo, then another, and another. I finally got it right. I could easily see on the paper where and how to change the existing lines into new edges. With this confidence, I took a can of blue marking paint and marked my new lines, stood back and said, “Yea, man; that’s it!” Now I can say that it’s hip to be square.

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Pollinator-friendly, sustainable, good design

Raleigh, NC

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