5 Design Tips for Functional and Inviting Garden Spaces

August 30, 2021

Text by Kristin Amico

Whether your garden is a modest urban backyard or several acres along the North Shore, landscape designers recommend creating delineated spaces across the property. A well-planned landscape adds functionality while creating zones purposefully designed for leisure, outdoor dining, or strolling among the vegetation.

“Think of a garden or landscape plan similar to an indoor floor plan,” notes Hilarie Holdsworth, owner of Hilarie Holdsworth Design, a landscape design firm serving the North Shore and metro Boston. “Creating outdoor spaces makes your garden feel larger, and it offers a range of experiences as you journey through areas of the landscape that are built for different purposes or seasons.”

Holdsworth explains how to break up your garden into distinct zones using landscaping and design techniques.

Build a Stone Wall

Partial walls in an outdoor setting define an area and provide an enclosure without being claustrophobic. For those who are considering a garden wall, whether a practical retaining wall to link different elevations or a decorative stone wall, Holdsworth recommends being mindful of the materials.

“Look for stone, granite, brick, or other materials that feel like they belong in the environment. In addition, choose the right material for the wall’s intended purpose. Fieldstone looks great as a wall in rural areas, but it’s not stable enough to support seating,” adds Holdsworth.

Add Greenery for Structure

Gardens in New England go through a cyclical change of colors, materials, and blooms according to the season. Adding greenery such as hedges or evergreen trees can create organic dividers between garden zones while also ensuring a bit of color throughout all four seasons.

Shrubs such as English holly provide privacy barriers, and its red berries add a pop of color in winter. Alternatively, an evergreen shrub such as a boxwood can be manicured into precise geometric shapes in more formal gardens.

Delineate Garden Areas with Patio Stones

Lining a portion of the ground with stonework is like having an area rug in the garden. The decorative detail of the patio stone or tile adds architectural interest, and it provides a visual cue that you are in a distinct part of the garden. It also serves a practical use, leveling out the ground and creating a sturdy surface for furniture or decorative objects.

“Think about how you are going to use the garden area and pick the most appropriate stones for the way you want to live in your outdoor room,” explains Holdsworth.

For a floor surface beneath a dining table, look for smooth materials like brick, or bluestone. While Holdsworth often uses antique cobblestones in her landscape design, she reserves those for transition spaces or borders, not areas with high foot traffic.

She also recommends choosing materials that complement the color and texture of a space. Red bricks bring a warm hue, while bluestones add a cool, contrasting color.

Add Pergolas and Arbors

To add height, shade, or vertical interest in a garden, Holdsworth turns to pergolas and arbors. What’s the difference? Typically, an arbor is a small freestanding entranceway to a specific part of the garden, while a pergola is a larger freestanding structure with an open or lattice roof, often large enough to provide cover for a table or seating area.

An arbor usually signals a change from one garden space to the next, while a larger pergola offers a wide swath of shade, allowing homeowners to sit and relax even in the midday sun. Both provide support to willowy plants or twisting vines.

Holdsworth’s top tip for selecting the right structure: “Scale is important. Keep proportions in line with your home, your garden, and the furniture.”

Use Buildings as Focal Points 

On larger properties, structures such as sheds, screened-in pavilions, or guesthouses offer a focal point in the yard, while also providing protection from the sun, rain, and other elements.

When creating a landscape plan, Holdsworth adds or moves structures to strategic locations to lead the eye on a visual journey and create a natural flow as part of the overall design.

“Regardless of the size or state of your garden today, there are creative techniques and a range of materials that will make every garden feel more interesting and transform the space into a satisfying place to spend time,” says Holdsworth.

Hilarie Holdsworth Design, hilarieholdsworthdesign.com