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Introduction to Garden Design

A well-designed garden

About the course

View full syllabus.

This 6-week online course (7.5, including the introductory week and Spring Break week) provides an opportunity for you to design your own garden. You will be studying and experimenting with the basic design procedures, learning about proper plant selection, and you will write and reflect on the process as you learn. The instructor will take an active role in this creative endeavor by providing feedback on your assignments and journal entries. You will also have the opportunity to learn from one another through an open forum in which you can share your ideas with others.

The purpose of this course is to understand the steps necessary to create a healthy & attractive garden, and to engage in self-expression through this process. Upon completion of this course, you will be able to:

  • Understand garden site analysis and apply the concepts to your personal space.
  • Gain some proficiency in basic garden design principals.
  • Articulate a personal aesthetic -- what appeals to you, and what you enjoy.
  • Layout a rough site plan overview of your garden design.

This course is designed to encourage your discovery of basic garden design techniques. It is a garden design course for the beginner. We teach an approach to gardening that is based on the principle of right plant, right place. In other words, we will consider the needs of the plant in addition to the needs of the gardener.

Course schedule

  • Introduction Week: Welcome & Introductions
  • Week 1: Site Assessment Part 1
  • Week 2: Site Assessment Part 2 / Basic Design Principles: Personal Style, Garden Unity, and Maintenance
  • Week 3: Basic Design Principles: Scale & Proportion, Balance & Symmetry, Repetition, Movement
  • Spring break
  • Week 4: Basic Design Principles: Color, Form & Texture
  • Week 5: Designing Your Garden: Choosing & Buying Plants
  • Week 6: Designing Your Garden: Final Project and Buying Plants

Required Reading

We will be using Taylor's Master Guide to Landscaping by Rita Buchanan (Houghton-Mifflin Co. New York, NY) for our main text. There will be chapters assigned with lessons as we move through the course. This book should be very easy to find, most local libraries have it and if not it should be available for around $25 from a local bookstore or on If you end up mail-ordering it (used prices can be extremely inexpensive for this title) and would like to start the first week's reading before it arrives, the first chapter is available to read online from Google Books.

We will also be using the Site Assessment by Charles P. Mazza. This booklet can be purchased for about $20 online from PALS Publishing Cooperative Extension.

About the instructors

Grant Thompson

Grant Thompson
Grant Thompson

Originally from central Iowa, Grant is a PhD candidate in the Horticulture Section here at Cornell. Prior to returning to school, he worked for four years as a professional landscape architect in the Midwest on projects ranging from streetscapes, to city parks, and vision plans for regional natural resources. His passion for plants, soil health, green infrastructure, and urban design was sparked by an introductory class about public gardens while he was an undergraduate at Iowa State University.

At ISU, Grant studied both horticulture and landscape architecture. His degree program included internships at a local design nursery creating residential designs for installation and a one at the firm where he worked after graduation. During a summer abroad course, Grant studied ancient and modern city planning in Rome, Italy. Side trips and optional seminars included sketching and watercolor sessions in public gardens, villas, and estates from Florence to Paris.

As a Masters student, Grant researched the role of biodiversity in turfgrass landscapes for promoting grass health and retaining applied nutrients. Now in his PhD program, Grant compares how home age and prior land use impacts soil organic matter development in residential lawns at a National Science Foundation research area in Baltimore County, MD.

Fiona Doherty

Fiona Doherty
Fiona Doherty

Fiona is an Educator Enrichment Specialist for Cornell Garden-Based Learning. Her background is in both nutrition and garden-based education and she brings a passion for food gardening in particular to educator enrichment. For the past five years Fiona has facilitated horticulture classes in Ohio and New York. She has presented at several national conferences including the American Community Gardening Conference and the National Children and Youth Gardening Symposium. She also teaches Cornell’s online Organic Gardening course and leads professional development workshops for Cornell Cooperative Extension Educators.