Pro Tips for Imagining and Designing Your Dream Garden in the Pacific Northwest

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two part GROW series on garden design. Part Two covers pro tips for planting your PNW garden for privacy, and on a budget.

A HOSPITAL GARDEN leaves space for people and plants. Laura Kleppe is a garden designer; a Washington State Nursery and Garden Association Certified Professional Horticulturist; and owner of Gardenworkz Outdoor Living, a design firm dedicated to creating custom gardens and outdoor spaces.

Before Kleppe sits down at the drawing board, he guides clients through a series of questions, a kind of landscape design workbook. Whether he’s planning to hire a designer or you’re excited to do it on his own, now is a great time to do your homework and lay the foundation for creating a garden that fits the bill.

Make a garden wish list
Every design starts with a conversation. Kleppe asks clients to name a favorite outdoor memory, visualize their ideal landscape, and think about how they will use the new landscape. This is the time to identify favorite plants and prioritize seasonal interest. Looking to grow edibles? Put it on the list.

“Most of us have fond memories that can help shape our personal landscape,” says Kleppe. “As a designer, I see myself as a translator of those garden dreams and desires.”

While not every cherished association translates to a garden that will work in our climate, Kleppe looks for options that will thrive in the Pacific Northwest. Recently, the designer specified New Zealand flax (Phormium), numerous sedums, torch lily (Kniphofia), and crepe myrtle (Lagestromia) for a client with a soft spot for the Southwest. The result was a colorful aquascape using plants that grow well in our region.

If nurturing wildlife is a priority, Kleppe suggests attracting birds and pollinators by selecting plants that foster habitat and provide multiple blooming and berry seasons. And if you’re looking to reduce maintenance and conserve resources, who isn’t? — The designer advises planting large tracts of ornamental grasses, drought-tolerant perennials, and hardy ground covers. Native plantings support wildlife while reducing garden inputs.

The role of the designer
“I help clients optimize their wants within their existing constraints and budget,” says Kleppe, who works to maximize every square foot of available space. Comfortable seating and an outdoor dining table encourage leisure time in the garden; a warm fire feature extends those hours into the evening and cooler times of the year. If you like to entertain friends and family, you’ll want to scale the space accordingly, perhaps even include an outdoor kitchen.

As you dream, don’t forget to identify recreational needs such as a playground and space for pets. Or maybe you’d like a bocce ball court, putting green, sports court, or dedicated cornhole space.

When faced with competing priorities among household members (it’s bound to happen), the designer suggests weighing how the space will be used and how often. Investing in frequently used spaces makes sense and helps clarify design and installation priorities.

inventory the property
Next, Kleppe performs a hands-on site assessment to determine sun/shade exposure and native soil conditions, including potential drainage issues. Trained professionals who are familiar with applicable jurisdictional restrictions and municipal codes regarding clearing and grading, right-of-way, and building permits and tree removal can save homeowners costly mistakes. Don’t forget to explore HOA considerations.

On the plus side, you may not have to start from scratch. Existing evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs are landscape assets that can be incorporated into the final design. Mature landscape elements are expensive. If you build on what already exists, you can direct your resources to other functions.

Once you’ve defined what you want and what you have to work with, your new garden will begin to take shape. “There is always an answer that connects your desires with the possibilities,” says Kleppe.

Next week, we will see the plants; Problem resolution; a realistic care and maintenance plan; and, most importantly, the budget: less dreamy topics than a garden wish list, but just as critical to the success of a finished landscape.

Lorene Edwards Forkner
is the author of the recently published “Color In and Out of the Garden,” Abrams Books, 2022. Follow us at