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Introduction to Garden Design

Learn basic garden design techniques and how to create a healthy and attractive garden.

Garden Design is one of nine online courses we offer in our Horticulture Distance Learning Program.

Next course: October 7 to December 2, 2024

About the course

This 6-week online course (8, including the introductory week and break week) provides an opportunity for you to design your own ornamental landscape. It is a garden design course for the beginner.

Upon completion of this course, you will:

  • Understand garden site analysis and apply the concepts to your personal space.
  • Gain some proficiency in basic garden design principals.
  • Articulate a personal aesthetic that appeals to you, and what you enjoy.
  • Layout a rough site plan overview of your garden design.

This online course teaches the basics of preliminary site analysis and ornamental garden design techniques. Participants learn how right plant right place principles provide the foundation for a healthy and attractive garden design.

This class is asynchronous and self-paced in its design, where single topics are opened each week, and build upon each other. Participants complete assigned lessons and readings, participate in online group discussions, do hands-on activities, and submit design work and reflective journals Most students spend approximately 10-15 hours each week with the content, however more time may be needed to explore additional resources added each week.

The course is non-credit, and we present a certificate of completion to all students who successfully complete the whole course and its assignments. 

Introductory Week: Welcome and Introduction

  • Week 1: Site Assessment Part 1
  • Week 2: Site Assessment Part 2; Basic Design Principles: Personal Style, Garden Unity and Maintenance
  • Break week 
  • Week 3: Basic Design Principles: Scale and Proportion, Balance & Symmetry, Repetition, Movement
  • Week 4: Basic Design Principles: Color, Form and Texture
  • Week 5: Designing Your Garden: Choosing Plants
  • Week 6: Designing Your Garden: Final Project

You will not be able to access the material after the last week of class.

Instructor: Donna Alese Cooke: dmc72 [at] cornell.edu (dmc72[at]cornell[dot]edu)

Purpose

This online course teaches the necessary steps to create a healthy & attractive garden. Participants study and experiment with basic design techniques and procedures and discover garden designs that will suit their personal needs and gardening goals.

Course Objectives

Upon completion of this course, you will:

  • Understand garden site analysis and apply the concepts to your personal space.
  • Gain some proficiency in basic garden design principals.
  • Articulate a personal aesthetic that appeals to you, and what you enjoy.
  • Layout a rough site plan overview of your garden design.

Course Philosophy

This course focuses on exploration of basic garden design techniques that will encourage self-expression through hands-on activities, design work, group discussion, and reflective writing.

Approach

This course presents the proper steps of site assessment, with hands-on activities that demonstrate a property’s ecosystem, characteristics, and existing elements. Participants use real-world design techniques and strategies of proper plant selection and placement.

Expectations

Participants are expected to keep up with the weekly assignments and activities as they purposely build on and refer to previous lessons. Assigned lessons with readings and exercises are required, with participation in online discussions, hands-on activities, and submission of design work and reflective journals. Most students spend approximately 10-15 hours each week with the content, however more time may be needed to explore additional resources added each week.

Lessons

Each week’s topic will open on a Monday, with lessons that contain the following components:

  • A series of lessons that present each weekly topic.
  • Readings to reinforce or expand upon the material presented.
  • Exercises and assignments that help you develop your proposed site.
  • Reflective writing that cultivates a thoughtful perspective and dialogue with the course instructor.
  • Whole class forum with topics and questions for discussion, and a place to share ideas with others.
  • Additional and optional readings, activities, and resources.

There are site assessment exercises at the beginning of the course that take place outdoors and require some time and planning to complete. Students who begin and complete these exercises in a timely manner will experienced success in this course. Once your site assessment is completed, most of the work can be accomplished indoors and does not require planning around weather and outdoor accessibility.

The final project is a completed garden plan which will reflect your evolving experience and information that you have learned throughout the course. The specific design, style, as well as the mode of executing the final plan will be a matter of your choice and preference.

Due Dates

It is important that you work through each lesson assigned for a particular week. Weekly topics begin on a Monday, and required assignments are generally due on or before the following Monday. Late assignments will be accepted, but instructor feedback may be delayed, and satisfactory completion of the course may be compromised. Consider optional activities only after completing and submitting required assignments.

Required Textbook

Our main text is the 2023 edition of the Encyclopedia of Landscape Design: Planning, Building and Planting Your Perfect Outdoor Space by Chris Young (published by DK). There will be chapters assigned with lessons as we move through the course. During the first few weeks we will use The Site Assessment Workbook, by Charles Mazza, which is provided as a .pdf in the Moodle course.

Materials and Supplies

  • Tracing paper that is no more than 8 1/2 inches on one end, unless you plan on doing very large drawings.
  • Drawing Paper, or sketch paper. Paper size depends on the size of your garden area. You will be using a scale of 1" = 4', so an 11" x 14" paper will accommodate a garden of approximately 44' x 56'.
  • Grid Lined Paper Pad (letter or legal size). This will help drawing your site plans to scale.
  • A designated garden notebook as a place to store ideas, plant lists, budget items, prices, and observations.
  • A circle template with a good variety of sizes, one with extremely large circles may not be needed, and you can use a drawing compass for very large circles. This will be crucial when you when you draw plants on your plan. 
  • A Basic Set of Colored Pencils or Markers. Any brand or type you prefer, high quality such as Prismacolors have their merits but for our purposes anything you have around the house will be just fine.
  • Black Sharpies, one thin and one thick will usually cover all your needs.
  • A computer with reliable high-speed Internet access (to view videos, view readings, submit assignments, and participate regularly in discussion forums).

What students say:

This design course has given me validation that it is okay to trust your soul and give authentic voice to your garden space. Thank you.

The only change I would make to this fine course is the moniker. A humble phrase, Introduction to Garden Design does not sum up the high quality of readings, joys of journaling to put thought to word and creation of a sketch into 

Sample garden plans

Beth Ricciardi's garden plan

For her course project, Master Gardener volunteer Beth Ricciardi used overlays to sketch out plantings that straddle an asphalt driveway at the Science Museum of Long Island. She made this detailed sketch of perennial locations on one side of the driveway.

Sample garden plans

Brian Dabson's garden plan: Planting scheme details

Brian was very thorough with his site assessment activities and made very detailed maps of his North Carolina home garden.

Sample garden plans

Amy Funkhouser: Public park plan

Amy created a landscape design for a portion of a public park in her neighborhood.

Sample garden plans

Amy Funkhouser: Public park plan detail

Amy's plan included a detailed design for the teardrop-shaped area in the center of the park.

Sample garden plans

Kunghwa Kim: Digital landscape plan

Kim used digital techniques to create a landscape plan for her new home in South Korea.

Sample garden plans

Laura Cosgrove: Tropical garden design

Laura's plan was influenced by her travels in Indonesia and includes many tropical species.

Sample garden plans

Sharon Shutler: Low-maintenance landscape

Sharon produced a detailed landscape plan focused on low-maintenance plantings for her vacation home.

sketch of perennial location details
detail of dabson's final planting scheme
public park plan sketched on graph paper
detail of Amy's plan
digital garden plan
cosgrove's plan on graph paper
shutler's plan on graph paper