Most gardeners just start digging holes and stuffing things in (such as the fastest growing maples and poplars they can find) and are perfectly happy for about three years.
Then it dawns on them the garden does not excite them much, and this revelation usually occurs about the first time they see pictures of a fine garden. Constructed on other principles.
"I could have that," they say, correctly. So today I shall mention a thing or two about designing a small (quarter-acre or less, and usually much less) garden.
First, keep the center open. This is not a rule and you will not necessarily go to the bad place if you break it, but when you do clutter up the center of the garden, be aware what you are doing and be willing to live with it.
Do not think in terms of small details. Your average gardener, and I am an authority on what the average gardener thinks, since I am he, begins by worrying about crocuses. Let's see, he says, where will I put the crocuses, and which are the best colors, and --
No. The crocuses will take care of themselves; you will have no problem fitting them in once you know what the garden is to be, and what its bones are, so to speak. But if you start with details and just keep going till there isn't any space left, you will not have the happiest result possible.
Start by drawing the garden on a piece of paper, not the crocuses, but a map of the land. There is such a thing as measuring it and finding it is 30 feet wide and 81 feet long. Get graph paper and allow one square per foot (or whatever scale suits you best).
Show the ugly concrete walk, as it exists. Show the garage or the garbage-can stand and all the lousy Norway maples and everything else that is too large to ignore and that already exists.
Don't worry about the walk. There will be time later to widen it, or crack it up and put the walk elsewhere, or whatever you have in mind. First show it on the map.
Then do a similar map showing what you would like if nothing existed. Show it without the wretched maple, for example.
It is just here that some gardeners falter and say gee, they don't know what they'd like, exactly.
Which brings us back to the first point of keeping the center open. Let it be a lawn, or (especially in tiny gardens) a pavement of cut stone or brick or concrete or whatever, and confine the plants to the edge of the property. Sometimes a lily pool will do well in the center, if the space is large enough, but usually it is a mistake to fill up the center with flowers.
Around the edges, where there is a fence or wall, you put your main plants, not necessarily your favorite ones. You may love peonies above all else, for example, but when you make the green walls of your garden you cannot use peonies. You use small hollies, yews, pink locusts, maybe a sassafras, maybe some large shrub roses -- whatever you like. The idea is to have enough bulk of plants to enclose the land, but not so many that you feel you're in an airtight box. You want (probably -- there is plenty of room here for your personal notions) enough winter green to look cheerful through the dismal months, but not enough yews and hollies and so on that you think you're at a Memorial of some sort.
If you have kids that need play space, allow for this from the beginning. If you have dogs, allow for them. Needless to say, I never actually knew of a gardener with dogs who did this. You do the garden and let the dogs out and wonder why they bed down on the sprouting irises or (in my case) gnaw the thorny rose bushes. So you should work it out.
In a small garden one walk is usually enough. Do not be afraid to make it six feet wide, if that looks right. Whether it looks right can be found by sticking stakes along the proposed route, or garden hoses, and then looking at it for a few days. Walks are usually too narrow. Four feet is about the minimum for wheelbarrows, humans, and other irksome necessities.
Having planted (in imagination) the perimeter with shrubs, and having left the center open for a lawn or pool or sitting place, decide where your other passions fit. Peonies, crocuses. Maybe in a large bed along and in front of the shrubs, maybe in a long wide border, maybe in front of the garage (decently clothed with climbers and exalted by an arbor with a bench).
Just here the center may collapse. Often that is the best place for the roses or peonies or whatever it is you are keen on. Then use part of the center for them, keeping your larger things still along the perimeter.
Do not be afraid to try things out, preferably in your mind and preferably with the aid of temporary sticks and poles moved around until you get the effect you like. For example, although you are admonished to keep the center open, do not hesitate to try temporary poles to see how you'd like a summer house in the center, maybe overlooking a pool in the center. Or see how it would work to cut the center up with a hedge or columns or posts with vines on them. Or a small copse of thorns and aralias and andromedas and azaleas.
If you wind up planting things in the center (which, you recall, we were going to leave for lawn or quiet sober pavement) then consider a swath through the middle of the copse, or the beds, to keep the view open and uncluttered all the way to the end of the garden. This is usually a garage or an alley gate, but much can be done to improve its impact.
Often if the garden is relatively long and narrow, it can give a happier effect if it is broken up by screens crossing it, or hedges, or grade changes with two steps. You do not do more than give the illusion of a barrier; you do not want the cross-hedges or screen to coop you up in a tiny space. But something you can see through or see over will often give a sense of spaciousness that will surprise you, so do not hesitate to experiment.
There are two big things: try never to do anything too grand. Avoid hints of pretentiousness, such as bronze urns in front of a modest wooden garage. Question yourself at every point, whether you are being silly. This is hard to do and critical.
And do not try to do too much. Every single inch may be planned to a fare-thee-well, and the garden may be complex beyond the dreams of a computer, but it should not look fussy. Avoid too many accents. If you use a piece of sculpture or a small pool or a magnificent oriental maple (it's a base canard that I dislike maples, just big ones in small gardens) then let it speak for itself and don't hem it in by a dozen other eye-catchers.
You cannot have everything. A bog garden should not adjoin a desert garden, and a paved and tiled courtyard garden cannot also be a wild stretch of sand-barren. Things should not contradict each other in the garden, and ingenuity or fertile imagination should be reined in sufficiently to avoid a restless and asinine clutter.
Avoid wiggles of line, avoid walks that do not go directly to their destination (if they have no destination, then have no walk to begin with) and avoid making things too small. If you have a lot of wonderful old jugs, you do not necessarily have to set them all over the garden. Trade them in on one big jug and set it on a serious-looking plinth and make it the focal point, and give up forever all the other little jugs. You get the point.