Look at what you have.
Every garden has features that are there already. The newest home on the newest street already has sod, sun, shade, and water. Most homes will also already have trees, shrubs, bulbs, and maybe a flower here or there. Your job, first and foremost, is to get out there and find out what you have, why it is there, and what good it is. It is never the best idea to tear everything out and start totally new. Mature plants, if they are the right plants in the right place, add depth and beauty to the garden.
What do you use the yard for? Do you have kids? Do you want vegetables, or flowers, or both? What about propagation and a greenhouse? What do you like to do outside? If your son loves soccer you want to have a good expanse of green grass for him to practice on. If you are empty nesters and ready to grow your own food you may want to go grass free. You need to think about what you use the yard for. What you don’t want to have happen is the beds looking stunning until you have a soccer ball in and out of them breaking all the stems for the thousandth time. Be honest too. Maybe you wish for a full yard cottage garden but cost, water, and time only give you one bed. That does not mean in the future you cannot expand when you have a little more time on your hands.
Don’t make your yard something you are not. If you don’t like fancy yards with rows of clipped shrubs, don’t add them to your yard. Make your yard a reflection of you. If you are there to be founding the whispers of the yard, you will want to be out there more and chances are your family will too.
Draw It Out
Make several drawings, in fact, all to scale. Make them as varied and interesting to see and not boring and plain. Really get in there and think about all the choices you have before you just dig in and get started. Once you have a good idea what you are looking for, start making a clean new copy and map out what your dreams are. Then start planning the phases. Maybe you cannot afford the big tree of your dreams but you can plant the seeds today for the tree tomorrow. Look at the job and know, given time, you will get it all done.
Build It Out
Never build it all at once unless you have a full crew working for you! Start with one bed here, a tree there, and cutting those old shrubs out over there. Planting shrubs and trees in the shade of the plants they will replace is a sound practice too. Work a little each year and you will have the benefit of knowing the end goal and the current progress. The best thing about building it out slowly is you can adapt and change easily. You see that the walkway is not the width you need? You are still building a little here and there so just expand it some.
By following these simple steps you can plan your yard and gardens to be everything you dream and hope for in the years to come. All images are my own, from my own travels in building my garden.