Garden Designers Roundtable: Sparking inspiration

We read books, magazines, and blogs about gardening to find it, poring over the photos, bookmarking eye-catching images and interesting text. We attend classes and talk with other gardeners to hear it. We visit other gardens to feel it. Inspiration—that oh! moment, the flash of a burning idea that makes you want to run home and rip up your garden in preparation for your new vision. It’s the hit we garden junkies continually seek.

It’s also an essential part of the process of designing a garden for someone else. Inspiration is ephemeral. So how do you tap into it on a regular basis for a paycheck? Here’s what works for me. Perhaps if you’re struggling with getting inspired in your own garden it will work for you too.

Borrow or steal good ideas! Don’t be embarrassed about replicating a plant combination in your own garden or imitating a look that resonates with you. As you incorporate it into your own garden, it becomes yours because each space is unique and local conditions always create variables. For example, if you covet a plant combo that isn’t hardy in your zone, try substituting plants with similar form and color that are suited to your conditions.

Visit other people’s gardens. Gardeners’ gardens delight most of us because of the passion and personality that goes into them and because they often have an attainable quality. But even if you’re a do-it-yourselfer on a budget, don’t write off extravagant designer gardens as a source of inspiration. Enjoy but then look past dazzling hardscaping and million-dollar views to see whether the garden touches you in some way, and think whether you can replicate beautifully designed spaces with humbler materials.

Take a hike. Go for a walk in the woods, prairie, savannah, or other natural spaces near your hometown. Slow down and really look at the native plant communities to see which plants grow near each other. Study natural rock formations. Pay attention to the look of riverbeds or dry washes. Take notes or pictures! By putting plants in naturalistic groupings in your own garden and laying native stone the way Mother Nature does it, you’ll tie your garden to your wider landscape and give your garden a regional identity.

Get a new perspective. Go up on the roof or climb a ladder to look down on your space with fresh eyes. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut of looking at your garden from the same perspective. But seeing it from a new angle can jump-start the creative process.

Start drawing. Enlarge and make several copies of your survey plat. Again, this is a bird’s-eye view of your garden, rendered in two dimensions like a map. If your yard is entirely grass, try reducing the lawn to a broadly curving space (avoiding tight squiggles) in the center; the spaces that remain will be perimeter beds, and make sure they’re deep and not too skimpy along the fence. Or try sketching out new paths, enlarging your patio, adding an island bed. On paper you can design freely and just play around with different ideas to see what looks best. Don’t worry about the details of plant combinations at this point, although you’ll want to incorporate important trees or shrubs into your plan on paper.

Read about gardens. But you’re already doing that if you’re reading this garden blog. Thanks for seeking inspiration here!

Be sure to read the other participants of today’s Garden Designers Roundtable to be inspired by these designers’ takes on the topic of Inspiration:

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In the Garden : Los Altos, CA

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Carolyn Gail Choi : Sweet Home and Garden Chicago : Chicago, IL

All material © 2006-2011 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

19 Responses

  1. David C says:

    All good ways to get inspired, since I am too swamped for a long while to participate in this. And the images with the woodland and fountain / green water are awesome…thanks!

  2. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    This is the best time of year for me to do all this sketching and dreaming. We have 3″ of snow on the ground and not much else is going on. Great advice here Pam.

  3. Great tips that resonate with “thoughtful practicality.” Thanks, Pam!

  4. Pam, I especially appreciate your advise to gain a new perspective when seeking inspiration–I OFTEN get up on a ladder, walk from every angle of a yard or garden, stand at the top of stairs–it’s amazing how the same space looks so different from a variety of angles! Great advice, Pam!

  5. Real masterclass this in how to get the inspiration show on the road.
    Particularly liked the idea of replicating groupings of plants you see in nature.
    Thanks so much for this post

  6. I love your encouragement to steal…er…borrow others ideas! And I wholeheartedly agree – it’s rarely (if ever) replicated 100% and by tweaking the idea to fit within your own space, and giving it your own touch it becomes something new! Great post, Pam!

  7. Germi says:

    I just LOVE that you told us to steal! YEAH!!! I used to work with someone who would get really upset when she saw a plant combo that we used on a project in another designer’s work – as IF we were the only people who could possibly have thought of a cool combo! OR as if WE didn’t take it from flipping through a magazine and not remembering where we saw it! We can’t be precious with ideas, right? It is our JOB to always have more of them!

    GREAT post, as usual Wonder-Pam!

  8. Jenny says:

    and there is no more inspiring place than looking at what other gardeners are doing, what books they are reading and where they go for their ideas. Thanks for inviting me into blogland. I have learnt so much.

  9. Turn up the music and dance! Great advice all! Sometimes it’s just enough to go and do something else to clear your mind for a bit. I do the dishes or take a shower…

  10. Layanee says:

    All inspirational ideas and who hasn’t ‘borrowed’ a planting scheme, color scheme, or container combo? The lessons march on….

  11. Whatever we take from others is fodder for the hybrid collaborations of the universe. Collectively we move things on. I find the ideas I get from others are reinvented in the context of where I am at the time.

  12. They say that it is a high compliment to be inspired with landscape design ideas from others and I agree. Also, I think winter is the best time for planning a garden but it’s usually the time when our clients are not thinking about it at all…too bad. Thanks for the tips.

  13. All good ideas. My favorite is not to be put off my large expensive gardens – right on! I am the queen of taking a big, expensive idea and repackaging it for a more ordinary garden. It’s all about the essence of the idea, NOT necessarily the exact implementation.

  14. Kat says:

    Good ideas. I especially like the suggestion to get a new perspective. It’s something suggested in graphic design as well. When a drawing or poster isn’t working, flip the image and the problems always become clear.

  15. Donna says:

    love getting inspired this time of year when my garden is buried under feet of snow…I look out over it for hours and then suddenly an idea will strike…starting to journal so I can keep the ideas flowing…too bad I can’t get right out and take action…but this will sustain me…thx for the great ideas to help inspire me more!!

  16. Cat says:

    This is a great post to bookmark…I’ll be coming back to check out the other suggestions as time allows! Great variety of pictures Pam allowing for lots of different creative directions. Thank you!

  17. carolyngail says:

    Well you’ve just about given away all our secrets, Pam :-) All good ones that are certain to inspire your readers. Visiting other peoples gardens is one of my favorites but I would add ( and I forgot to mention it on my post ) that visiting garden centers is another great source that inspires me because they are always up on the latest and greatest trends.

  18. Pam, I always tell my students to look at thier gardens with a new eye – from across the street, by moving their favorite chair to a new location in the garden, anything to get a fresh look and a little inspiration. Your other suggestions for inspiration are all easy for anyone to enjoy. I’ll be ‘borrowing’ some of your sources the next time I teach a class.

  19. Not that you need another post at this late date, but… In the winter when I am imagining the containers that I will create for my clients in the upcoming season, I look to photos of gardens. It is there that I may get an inkling of an idea of what their container might look like. The expanse of a garden can be magical, as can a singular pot on the front step… thank you for your words.