Designing a Holistic Garden

Final Drawing of a holistic landscape design

Even if drawing isn’t one of your strong suits, doing a sketch of your property can be extremely useful in helping you to use your space efficiently (especially useful if it’s small) and to help to plan realistically what you can fit into that space. The primary purpose of a plan is to help identify the priorities for your outdoor space and choose the best places for those activities to occur. Then you can determine how many plants and features (chicken coop and pen, compost bin, annual veggie beds, greenhouse/hoop house, frog pond, etc.) you can comfortably fit into the space available. A plan will save wasted space, time, money and overcrowded plants. Don’t worry if you can only fulfill parts of the plan each year. Having the plan will help you to create something that will all work together in the end and save lots of mistake that might be made along the way.

Knowing, for instance, where we were going to put the main orchard allowed us to take advantage of neighbor’s leaves the fall before it was planted, and when a tree trimming crew showed up on our road, we talked them into dumping several loads of wood chips next on the edge of it. We spent the winter spreading them before we planted the fruit and nut trees.

Here are some questions you will want to ask yourself – and the rest of your family – before you stick a shovel in the dirt:

  • What wild plants, animals and their habitat, such as meadows, woods and wetlands, exist here already and how can I best preserve them?
  • What can we do to make this a better habitat for other life forms?
  • Do we need more shade for a part of our house or yard?
  • Do we need a windbreak for some area?
  • Do we have a great view to preserve?
  • Do we have a terrible view we would like to screen?
  • Do we need more privacy? For the whole yard or just a part of it? Which part?
  • Do we need to keep pets, small children, or wildlife in or out of our yard?
  • Do we need more room for parking? (Vehicles are a part of life even in a natural landscape!)
  • For bicycles, RV’s, boats, etc.?
  • Do we have a low wet spot on the property?

Things to Keep In Mind

  • Wildlife and existing native plants and their needs.
  • The sun’s movement through your property during the day and throughout the seasons. It’s helpful to know where the sun hits your house in the hottest months, so if you don’t have shade there, you can plan to create some.
  • The size that your plants will be 5 to 10 years from now. Will everything have enough room to grow without pruning?
  • Underground water/gas/electric/phone lines. There’s usually a number you can call to have them all marked for you before you start digging.
  • Pets — yours and your neighbors. How will they effect your plantings
  • Water usage and availability.

List of Possible Features

Water storage – barrels, tanks, cisterns, etc.

Chicken/Rabbit/Goat/? housing and pens

Annual Vegetable beds

Greenhouse/hoop house/cold frame

Potting shed/tool storage/Utility area

Sitting area/picnic area/patio/meditation area

Fruit trees and bushes

Children’s play area

Rain garden

Butterfly/Pollinator/Bee plants or garden

Woodland Garden/Native plant garden

Fish or Frog pond

Bog Garden

Compost bins

Recycling bins

Bird feeder/birdbath

Fire pit

Wildflower meadow/wild garden




Make a list of the important features you want to ultimately work into your landscape. Think about each feature and its most logical placement. Try to place things according to how often you will visit them. You will need to feed and water and deal with animals a couple times a day, so you don’t want to have to go too far to do this. On the other hand the potential for odiferousness on warm summer days exists even with the cleanest systems, so not placing them next to a patio or sitting area makes sense. A birdbath and bird feeder are things you want to be able to see – even from indoors, so plan to place them in a very visible spot – but one that birds will feel safe visiting. In Permaculture they call this Zones. Most of it just takes common sense, but you also need to work with the space you have and the needs of the different features. List your priorities first and see how many your place will accommodate.

Possible features


Think about the micro-climates of your property and use them to advantage. A hot un-shaded spot by a south facing wall or fence would not be the best spot for a sitting area in the summer but might be a great place to grow a Fig tree or tomatoes if you live in a cooler climate, because they need so much warmth. A low place where water collects when it rains might be a good place for a rain garden or a bog garden but not a great place for growing fruit trees or putting a play area for your kids.

A cool shady spot behind a garage or tool shed would work for compost and recycling bins, and or for woodland plants such as Evergreen Huckleberry, wild strawberries, mints and other plants that like moist shade.

A hot dry slope may be great for some plants, like thyme and lavender, but would be slow death for others. With a little online research you will be able to find plants that will thrive in each sort of micro-climate your property offers. Make good use of them.

Spend some time really paying attention to the sun and shade patterns on your property through the day, and realize that this pattern will change with the seasons. A spot that is sunny at 10 in the morning today might not be sunny 3 months from now because the sun will have shifted lower in the sky and perhaps be blocked by buildings or trees. Will that matter?

Deciduous trees – those that lose their leaves each fall – will create shade for the part of the year that they have leaves and let the sun through in the winter after they drop them. That’s a VERY useful feature for the south side of a house or greenhouse or chicken coop, for example. The cooling shade is welcome during the hot part of the year – and in the winter when the leaves are gone the warmth of the sunshine will be welcome. An evergreen tree on the south or west side of the house will create shade in the winter as well which may not be such a good thing. However, placed appropriately, an evergreen tree is a good windbreak in the winter and a privacy screen all year round.

Think of your animals too, when you are placing their coops and pens, and plan for their sun and shade needs. Planting a mulberry tree on the south or west side of a chicken pen will give shade in the summer and fruit that the chickens will enjoy when they drop.


Designing for Low Maintenance

  1. Keep it simple!
  2. Use gentle flowing curves for areas that need mowing.
  3. Emulate nature with meadows, woodlands, hedgerows, ponds, bogs and wetland areas, etc. Become a Garden Caretaker: make a place for nature to grow and add a little here, subtract a little there; aid the less aggressive and subdue the more aggressive; and bring the greatest possible diversity to your landscape.
  4. Choose and place plants carefully.  In selecting plants for a sustainable landscape:
    1. Use native plants and naturally drought-tolerant, insect and disease-resistant plants, as they require the least attention.
    2. Place plants with care to their needs for sun and moisture. Attention to their ultimate size and shape will result in little special care and little, if any, pruning.
    3. Choose plants for multiple functions.
  1. Keep lawn areas to a minimum, using grass only where it is needed for play, etc. and then use the new dwarf, drought-tolerant grasses. Use gentle curves for easier mowing. Substitute groundcovers on slopes, under trees and in front yards.

Make a list of plants you would like to have.

Make notes by each of what their ultimate size will be and what conditions they need to thrive. (Sun or shade, moist or dry, rich soil or poor soil, evergreen or deciduous, slow growing or fast growing, low maintenance or not). Don’t include annual flowers and veggies as these can have their own spaces or be tucked in wherever there is room amongst the permanent plants.

A list of questions to ask of each plant you choose:

  1. Is it INSECT AND DISEASE-RESISTANT for our area? Local nursery people and Extension Services can often help with this question.
  2. Is it HARDY and suited to our climate? Unless you want to experiment, choose plants for their ecological fitness to your site.
  3. How TALL and WIDE will it get? Given enough room to grow, a plant will never need to be pruned because it is too big!
  4. Is it DROUGHT-RESISTANT? Even in areas not normally bothered by drought, the problem may arise from time to time. A landscape with drought-tolerant plants will suffer less and make fewer demands on their caretaker.
  5. What does it need to be HAPPY? Sun? Shade? Good drainage? Lots of moisture? A happy plant is healthy and thriving, needing little attention.
  6. Is it MESSY at some time of the year? Does it drop fruit, twigs, sap, seed pods, etc.? This may be good for wildlife, but bad for patios, walkways and parking areas.
  7. Is it DECIDUOUS or EVERGREEN? An evergreen tree casts shade in winter too. Does that work for you? An evergreen hedge gives you privacy all year long, not just in spring and summer, and provides shelter for overwintering creatures.
  8. What FUNCTIONS will it have? Each plant should have at least TWO.
    Here are some possibilities:

    Food for humans Medicine
    Food for critters Compost/fertilizer material
    Shade Windbreak
    Wildlife Shelter Pollution control
    Cover crop Noise barrier
    Fragrance Cut flowers
    Privacy Syrup
    Erosion control Firewood
    Beauty Nitrogen Fixer
    Species preservation Wattle material
    Butterfly host plant Butterfly Nectar plant
    Pollinator food Other
  9. Is it SELF-SEEDING, SUCKERING OR INVASIVE in any way? Self-seeding is an important attribute in a meadow plant, suckering is useful for a hedge tree or shrub, but in some situations both are simply a maintenance headache?
  10. Does it need PRUNING? Many fruit trees, bramble berries, groundcovers and vines need yearly (or even monthly during the growing season) pruning to look or do their best. Keep the number of these plants to a minimum.
  11. Does it need frequent STAKING, DIVIDING OR SPRAYING? Avoid these plants when possible.

Evaluate and Prioritize

Now, evaluate your answers on each of the plants you chose. Make sure that there will be a balance created in bringing each into your landscape. It may take some research and time spent questioning nursery people, growers and experienced gardeners in your area, but it will save an enormous amount of effort and time in the future.

List your absolute priorities of features and plants. Try not to get too carried away to begin with. After all, growing all your own food and holding down a full-time job might be unrealistic. Many “free” foods are available from wild plants, like blackberries and huckleberries, as well as excess apples, walnuts or zucchini from your friends and neighbors gardens. Use low-maintenance and native plants primarily, and install low-water usage watering systems as you go.

And most of all – enjoy the process and the doing of it all, and learn to let go of our cultures need for instant gratification. A truly amazing garden can take several years to reach it’s potential – but it’s worth waiting for!

Bird’s Eye View of a holistic garden — by Barb Allen


  1. This is it’s fourth summer. I have yet to get any cherries, persimmons, walnuts, filberts, or much in the way of apples yet. The asian pears have been bearing for most of that time… I just added pawpaws and rugosa and apple roses last summer. I will likely be pretty old by the time the pawpaws and walnuts bear… but hey.. SOMEONE will enjoy them! I can’t tell you how many places I planted fruit trees and vines and asparagus and never got to eat them. But I know that someone is…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s